St. Thomas Academy and the Spirit of Minnesota

I love the smell of free coconut shrimp at Outback Steakhouse in the morning after the Minnesota Golden Gophers beat Auburn in the Outback Bowl. It smells like…victory.

Like crazy Colonel Kilgore, zealotry infused this historic Minnesota football season. For me that stemmed from an unusually spiritual visit with clients at Saint Thomas Academy.

My travel to the Catholic, boys, military, college-prep school was timed for the final home football game of the season. The purpose was to gather material for future alumni magazine and website stories from, among others, Coach Dan O’Brien, whom I had interviewed by phone for an oral history of the football program.

That phone call with the former University of Minnesota assistant coach resonated. He’s old school, so we spoke of Vikings legend Dave Osborn and some of the Gophers we knew in common going back to my time at “the U” as sports editor of the Minnesota Daily. We also touched on the story of his son, Casey, who plays for the Gophers even as he fights cancer.

But before meeting O’Brien, there was other business and pleasure to pursue during this homecoming. First was a fantastic walleye dinner at Hazelwood with my friend Mary Hickey, who provided a primer in Catholicism during our childhood in a way that feeds my work with Saint Thomas Academy.

Life doesn’t get more Minnesota than a meal of the local lake delicacy and conversation spiced with Mary’s soulful, rooted values. That talk left me even more prepared for the next morning to finally set foot on the gorgeous grounds of the Academy.

Deborah Edwards — my direct client, and herself a former Gopher Sports marketer — had a full day of interviews and campus touring planned. Walking the halls of this institution, albeit in newer buildings on a different site than its 1885 founding, a sense of history and honor pervaded. You could see how kids would want to live out the Cadet Creed.

That also reflected in the “formation” ceremony, which the Cadets run with precision, formality and fun. They report their news, make announcements, present colors, pledge allegiance, accept competitive honors, receive the daily Senior Speech required of all graduating students, and exhibit the spirit expected on a Football Friday.

Interviews with Norma Gutierrez and Casey Erickson for a website feature article and with several young men for these Meet Our Students profiles led me to understand what distinguishes Saint Thomas Academy from so many other schools. The boys make their own beds and lie in them.

Even within the constraints of both the Catholic church and military hierarchy, many aspects of the Academy’s curriculum and social structure are very much of, by and for the students. Whatever else they learn, and that’s a lot, they learn how to make decisions and live with them.

Impressed by the History Room, with its century’s worth of medals and badges, the Innovation Center, with its student-built electric vehicles, the pool, the gym, the ceramics studio, the chapel, and most of all the people, I still welcomed the end of the school day. I wanted to roam the Academy’s acres in solitude and soak in more of its spirit, including a trail that contained the Stations of the Cross and led down to Rogers Lake.

Soon the sun set. The air chilled. The wind picked up. It started snowing sideways. It was a perfect night for football in Minnesota.

Mercifully, Deborah had arranged for a seat in the press box. That added yet another layer to my sense of homecoming and made the Cadets’ 40-3 defeat of Hill-Murray School even more enjoyable.

On my Lyft ride to campus Saturday morning to meet with Coach O’Brien, the driver’s chatter turned to football. Hearing of my years at the U, he asked if I knew Darrell Thompson, who still holds most of the major Gopher rushing records. Assured I’d interviewed Darrell several times back in the ’80s, the driver unspooled a string of his own memories about what a great guy Darrell was and still is and how they used to do non-profit work together to benefit youth in Minnesota.

That driver put me in the way-back machine, which may have been the best place for me, because the chat with Coach O’Brien (not to be revealed until the next article comes out), was even more old-school than the first. We concentrated on quality of character, covering every throwback value imaginable. Given that he was not quite two years removed from coaching for the Gophers, I came away confident that they would do what they did yesterday.

The rest of that day and night, I was walking on air, from hiking Minnehaha Falls to visiting David and Lori Fhima (a past partner in crime around the 1980s Gophers football scene) at their restaurant. It was October-in-Minnesota brisk outside, just as invigorating in the present as it was in the past.

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