Opportunity of a lifetime: DSU CB Jay Liggins hoping for shot at the NFL

Jay Liggins was 11 years old when he left Memphis, Tenn. He remembers it was a Thursday.

Just four days earlier, his mother had made an abrupt decision to move he and his 10 siblings across the country to escape inner-city violence and find a hometown more suitable for raising a large family.

Of all places, they ended up in Bismarck, N.D., a city one-tenth the size of Memphis in a state none of them had ever been to and knew little about.

“It was such a random decision,” Liggins said.

Yet it was one that became incredibly fateful to Liggins’ future, despite numerous challenges he would end up facing along the way.

Later this month, the former Dickinson State University standout cornerback will likely get an opportunity to be the first Blue Hawk signed by a National Football League team.

“It’s an opportunity of a lifetime,” Liggins said. “It’s something I wanted to do, and the fact that it’s in front of me, I had to grab it.”

Continue reading “Opportunity of a lifetime: DSU CB Jay Liggins hoping for shot at the NFL”

Coaches: It’s cool to be like Carson

Dickinson Trinity football coach John Odermann watches Carson Wentz and sees a professional football player he has no problem with his players emulating.

Odermann is one of many North Dakota high school coaches who appreciate the former North Dakota State quarterback’s humility, and the way he carries himself publically and wears his religious views on his sleeve. Most of all, he hopes his players and others throughout the state are paying close attention to Wentz’s character as he begins his NFL career with the Philadelphia Eagles.

In an age where professional athletes are under a microscope with character flaws exposed and amplified through both social and traditional media, Wentz has shown the ability to rise above and stand apart from all that.

The Eagles selected Wentz second overall in the NFL Draft Thursday night in Chicago — the highest pick ever for both an FCS-level player and a North Dakotan.

Even if he doesn’t turn out to be an NFL star, Odermann and others are hopeful Wentz can become someone the youngest generation of football fans — particularly those in North Dakota — want to emulate.

Why? Because it’s cool to be like Carson.

“Carson Wentz stands for a lot of things that I really encourage a lot of my kids to stand for,” Odermann said. “He’s a good man, first and foremost. Being a good man is more important than being a good football player. From all accounts, Carson Wentz is a good football player and a good man.”

It’s likely that if Wentz indeed does become a star, many of the North Dakota’s youngest generation will grow up as Eagles fans in Vikings, Packers and Broncos households. At the very least, a lot of people across the state now have a second-favorite team.

Though he’s not an Eagles fan, that sits just fine with Mandan High School football coach Todd Sheldon, a Regent native who coached against Wentz’s Century High School teams. Sheldon said he already uses Wentz as an example of how players should carry themselves on and off the field.

“When you see guys in the NFL making mistakes and doing things they shouldn’t do, trying to bring attention to themselves … he’s been an athlete that’s about the team, being a part of the team, what it means to be a part of a team, how you carry yourself as part of a team — all of things are qualities that are hard to instill in kids without being a positive role model,” Sheldon said.

NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock went even further than that a week ago during a conference call, saying Wentz has “folk hero” potential should he find success in the league. He’s not worried about Wentz going to the play in front of notoriously harsh Eagles fans and media, either.

“If you’re talking about having a passion and being the face of a franchise, this is the kid,” Mayock said. “I do believe he’ll handle Philadelphia, because he’ll work so hard and be so humble. I think the blue-collar Philly fans are going to love him.”

Wentz’s story — going from being a once-undersized and then overlooked high school player to a college backup before finally growing into the national star — will likely be used by coaches throughout North Dakota as inspirational fodder for years to come.

“There’s just so many great, phenomenal layers you can take and apply as a coach to the Carson Wentz story,” Odermann said. “It’s just great that we have that ability to do that here in North Dakota. And I think it adds a couple dimensions to it, the fact that is he from North Dakota.”

Then there are those who believe the spotlight placed on Wentz throughout the leadup to the draft may also eventually lead to college coaches from across the nation paying closer attention to North Dakota’s often overlooked top high school football players, who like Wentz, typically end up at NDSU or the University of North Dakota. A rare few leave the state for bigger opportunities.

“He’ll help raise the level of play of football and caliber of football in North Dakota,” Odermann said. “I think that’s one of the reasons people are so excited about Carson Wentz. It does so many things for us as a state, in terms of being taken seriously on an athletic level, on a sports level. When you have a guy like that come from a small state that hasn’t had any real stars … I hope it all pans out. Even if it doesn’t, the fact that this happens shines a good light on the things going on in North Dakota.”

Nate Moody, a Dickinson native who was one of Wentz’s receivers for the Bison the past five years, said he thinks there’s a chance — however slim — that something like this can happen again. Someday.

“I don’t know how far into the future,” Moody said with a laugh. “Probably a long ways. Just to be a high school kid playing in North Dakota, first of all, is really tough to get any kind of exposure. Carson is a prime example of that. … Fargo was his best solid offer.”

Now that the draft hype is over, North Dakotans will start following his NFL journey.

One of them is state Rep. Mike Schatz, who coached New England-Regent to four 9-man state football championships before retiring. Schatz said he foresees households across the state following Wentz throughout his NFL career. His included, he said. Every week. Regardless of if Wentz is starting for the Eagles or not.

“It’s going to be huge for the entire state, because every time he puts on the helmet and plays, we’re going to be watching,” Schatz said.

Getting a fan’s perspective on Super Bowl XLIX

Seattle Seahawks fan Wendy Wilson, left, and New England Patriots fan Jace Schillinger — both employees at Dickinson State University — spoke with me about why they like the teams they do and about the hate each team receives heading into Super Bowl XLIX

Do we really have to watch the Super Bowl today? Does anyone actually like the Seattle Seahawks? Or did they just get fans about three years ago.

How could anyone — especially in western North Dakota — really be a fan of the New England Patriots? I’m from New England, N.D., and I don’t know anyone there who likes the Patriots.

Around here, we’ve got cheeseheads, people who know the lyrics to “Skol Vikings” and a few who are praying that Peyton Manning starts aging like Benjamin Button. Then there are those staunch supporters of more traditional powerhouses who still wax poetic about the days of Steel Curtains, Super Bowl Shuffles or “America’s Team.” And, of course, there are people like me, who support a team that no longer knows how to beat the Seahawks.

So, with all the hubbub over the Patriots’ Deflategate, Marshawn Lynch’s interview skills, and the general dislike levied upon the two Super Bowl teams by opposing fans — including myself — I decided to seek out both a Seahawks fan and a Patriots fan to see what they had to say about today’s game, and chat about what made them fans of their teams.

Continue reading “Getting a fan’s perspective on Super Bowl XLIX”

Changing the Redskins nickname a difficult task

Did you know the Washington Redskins were originally the Boston Braves and, for a time in the 1930s, played their home games at Fenway Park?

That was when the team’s nickname was changed to the Redskins by their owners. It made sense in those much simpler times. For the sake of symmetry, it was the Boston Red Sox for baseball and Boston Redskins for football. In 1937, the team relocated to Washington and has since been known by their current moniker.

Today, a political and ideological push to get the NFL team’s latest owner, Dan Snyder, to change the nickname is in full force. Many groups, including the Mandan Hidatsa & Arikara Nation in North Dakota, find the nickname offensive, demeaning or racist.

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Bud Grant Greets Fans

Nick Guse hasn’t been a Minnesota Vikings fan his entire life. He said it’s been about seven years.

But the 41-year-old Fargo man said he wasn’t going to pass up a chance at meeting legendary former Vikings coach Bud Grant and have him autograph a miniature Vikings helmet.

“That’ll finish the helmet,” said Guse after Grant signed the replica that was already sealed with the names of several former Vikings players who played during the 18 seasons Grant coached the team.

“It’s always fun to finish something up,” Guse said.

The 78-year-old retired coach, who led the Vikings to four trips to the Super Bowl in the 1960s and 1970s, signed autographs and met several fans at the Link Recreational boat liquidation sale Saturday at the Fargo Civic Center Centennial Hall.

Always willing to stay in touch with fans, Grant has been working hard advocating the construction of a new Vikings stadium in Blaine, Minn.

“Our fans are putting up with an inferior stadium,” Grant said. “If we are going to compete in this generation, it’s a necessity.”

When asked what the latest stadium news was, Grant responded candidly.

“I don’t know, I haven’t listened to the radio in the last hour,” he said.

The Vikings keep an office for Grant at their Winter Park Training Facility in Eden Prairie, Minn.

Although he believes the team has taken the right steps lately, Grant is still very neutral when asked about new head coach Brad Childress. But he’s quick to offer owner Zygi Wilf some words of advice.

“He’s working hard on the stadium and he’s working hard to sign free agents,” Grant said of Wilf. “But you’re limited. You’ve got to work within certain parameters that don’t apply to business. They can’t run a football team like they run a business.”

Two fans, Ruse Crume and his daughter Lily, received an autograph from Grant and came back later and spoke face-to-face with the former coach for about five minutes.

“It was fun to see him and get a chance to chat with him,” said Crume, who bought his daughter a football to have Grant sign.

Aside from signing autographs, Grant also sold prints of nature paintings he had originally sketched.

He joked that he isn’t much of a painter and collaborates with friends who bring out color in his sketches through shadows and perspective.

“Otherwise, it’d look like a hatchet job,” Grant said.

Rock Gullickson Fulfills Dream With Packers

Rock Gullickson knew he needed to look for a new job.

He didn’t know he’d be fulfilling a boyhood dream when he found it.

The Green Bay Packers have named the Moorhead native and life-long Packers fan to be the team’s new strength and conditioning coach.

Gullickson, who graduated from Moorhead High School and Moorhead State University, spent the past six years in the same position with the New Orleans Saints.

But, a call from Green Bay’s new head coach, Mike McCarthy, and a visit to the team’s facilities was all Gullickson needed to make his decision.

“As I was walking through the hall of their facility, I saw all my boyhood heroes on the walls,” said the 50-year-old Gullickson. “I broke down. I was so emotional.”

Gullickson said McCarthy was instrumental in tapping him to replace Barry Rubin as the team’s strength coach.

McCarthy was the Saints’ offensive coordinator from 2000-2004 and coached with Gullickson for five years before taking the offensive coordinator position with the San Francisco 49ers prior to this season.

Gullickson said he and McCarthy developed a strong work relationship in their time with the Saints.

“He’s the best person for this job, and I consider this position as important as any on my staff,” McCarthy said in a Packers press release.

“I’ve seen first hand what he can do with professional athletes. Our players will be impressed.”

Gullickson said he plans to implement a new conditioning program in an attempt to avoid another season filled with injuries.

The Packers placed several starters – Javon Walker, Ahman Green, Bubba Franks and Robert Ferguson – on the injuredreserved list this season.

“They had a number of injuries very early in the season that got them down,” Gullickson said. “One of the things we’re trying to improve upon is the offseason program. A lot of those injuries are fatigue related.”

Although Gullickson was an undersized offensive guard (6-foot, 240 pounds his senior season) when he played for Moorhead State, he made up for his size with strength and work ethic.

“He was one of our integral parts of our team,” said former Moorhead State offensive line coach Ron Masanz. “He was a pretty gung-ho kid.”

As a senior in 1977, Gullickson earned Associated Press Little All-America first-team honors. The Little All-America team is comprised of the best players from NCAA Division II, Division III and NAIA.

Gullickson went to New Orleans after stops at the University of Texas and the University of Louisville.

Things were going well for Gullickson in New Orleans until this season.

When Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in late August, it forced the Saints to relocate to San Antonio.

“We had to put up a temporary weight room in a tent,” Gullickson said.

The tent, in a parking lot adjacent to the high school baseball field where the Saints practiced, was far from ideal for a professional football team.

The team’s workout troubles were complicated by an often changing schedule.

“These guys would thrive off knowing the schedule, knowing what to expect,” Gullickson said. “That threw a wrench into everything.”

Despite the Saints’ hopes that they’ll be able to play their home games in the Superdome next season, Gullickson was guarded as to whether he wanted to return, even though they offered him a two-year contract extension.

“There’s a lot of sadness in the city,” said Gullickson, as he and his wife, Terry, packed up their home in Destrahan, La., a suburb southwest of the New Orleans metro area. “There’s a lot of work being done. You can’t comprehend what work is being done.”

The house escaped extensive harm from Hurricane Katrina, suffering only easily repairable wind damage and no water damage. On Friday, the Gullickson’s received an offer on the house.

“There’s a lot of people who are looking for homes,” Gullickson said. “A lot of people are just coming back to the city.”

Gullickson believes he’s found his new home in Green Bay.

“It’s taken a while to sink in,” Gullickson said. “It still doesn’t seem real. They (the Packers) assured me it is.”