Nov. 3—BEMIDJI — Some college football players stay in college for five years after high school.
In rarer cases, often due to injury — or lately, a global pandemic — a player will remain for six. But seven, or eight? They're scarce, yet the Bemidji State football team has three of them.
"I feel like we're almost a grad school program more than anything," quipped head coach Brent Bolte. "We've got half of our team graduating with master's degrees."
Defensive lineman Stephen Hoffman graduated from Park High School in Cottage Grove in the spring of 2016. He committed to play football at St. Cloud State and spent one year with the Huskies before temporarily leaving school and the sport.
For some time afterward, he worked for his parents' remodeling business. But when the itch to play college football returned, his winding path led him up to Bemidji State.
"I was in the Cities, and I started training for football again, started getting ready," Hoffman said. "I realized I didn't want to be done. I wanted to keep playing. A buddy I was training with played here at the time and told Bolte about me. Bolte recruited me back in '16 when I was coming out of high school, so I hit him up, and it just kind of worked that way where it got rolling again."
He's remained on a roll for the past several years, earning First Team All-NSIC recognition in 2022. After seven years out of high school, the decision to come back for an eighth wasn't too difficult.
"It's definitely different," he admitted. "It's weird being the oldest guy out here, obviously. All the guys look at me like I'm a grandpa, basically. But I feel like I've also earned the respect of the guys here, and I've earned the respect to be a leader here. I think that's what they truly see me as.
"I really enjoy it. It's a little harder on the body when you're older, obviously, but I love being here. I love playing football. What else would you want to be doing?"
Wide receiver Mike Wandmaker graduated from Andover High School in 2017. He spent three seasons at Division I South Dakota State, then transferred to BSU ahead of the COVID-canceled 2020 season.
Three years later, he's still suiting up for the Beavers after suffering a season-ending injury in 2022. Like Hoffman, he's traveled a circuitous path to his current location, but he hasn't let it stop him along the way.
"It's been a lot of ups and downs for me personally, between transferring and coming here right into COVID," Wandmaker said. ... "It's crazy, because I remember my freshman year of college, we had a sixth-year senior, and I remember looking at him like, 'Dude, why are you still here? You're 25. Get out of here.' So it's cool. I'm glad I'm not doing it by myself. I'm glad I got (Brandon Alt) and Hoffman to do it with me, so I'm not just getting called grandpa by myself."
Alt graduated from Park one year after Hoffman, and now, the two remain linked one season apart at Bemidji State. For Bolte, Alt's return for his seventh year was a commitment essential to establishing the camaraderie that keeps this grizzled group bound together.
"I think it says a lot about the program," Bolte said. "And I'm not taking credit for it. I don't think the coaches can at all. The blood of the program is always the players and the alumni, truly, because they're the ones that go through the process of putting us on the map (through) all the hard work and dedication. We just kind of point it in the right way. The kids really run this program, I truly mean that."
So why does Wandmaker still do it? The answer lies with the people involved.
"I love football," he said. "I love Bemidji. I love the coaches, all of the guys here. And I believed that we could do everything we've done in the last few years again this year at an even better (level), be better than we have the last two years. That was the biggest thing for me coming back this year."
The Beavers came in at seventh in the first edition of the Super Region Four rankings, making it quite plausible that Saturday against Minnesota State Moorhead will be the final home game for BSU's illustrious senior group.
Bolte has known players like Alt, Hoffman and Wandmaker and their families for nearly a decade since they went through the recruiting process in high school. It's a relationship that should stand the test of time, even after all three have finally moved on from their football careers and started new ones in the working world.
"The families have become our families," Bolte said. "So (it's) a pretty unique group of guys, that senior class and the guys that we got in the program."