Reusse: Winning football, winning people out in our western prairie

MORRIS, MINN. — This was Thursday. The wind was howling across Minnesota's west-central prairie. Dips and rises in the land, most of the grain harvested, potholes of water that a few decades ago housed many times more ducks than is now the case.

You don't think college town when entering Morris, with its population of 5,200 and not a Target or Walmart in sight, but there it is:

The University of Minnesota Morris was opened in 1960 with a then-inviting sales pitch: a first-class liberal arts education at public-college prices.

Private liberal arts colleges charging big dollars are slumping in enrollment, and so is UM-Morris. The enrollment was capped at 1,800, originally; now, it's down to 1,020, and with no graduate programs on this campus.

The lifeblood here is the same as at many smaller private colleges: athletics. There are 19 sports teams here with 330 participants — more than 30% of the students.

On Saturday, at Big Cat Stadium, the Cougars will be hosting Northwestern (St. Paul) in the final game of the regular season. They are two unbeatens — 4-0 — in the six-team Upper Midwest Athletic Conference.

They are playing to receive the UMAC's automatic bid to the NCAA Division III football tournament and then expected to travel to the site of the West's No. 1 seed.

UMAC teams have an 0-11 record since gaining automatic-bid status in 2011, and they haven't exactly lost in nailbiters.

Yeah, and so what? Give the Cougars an upset over Northwestern here Saturday, give them a UMAC trophy, and it will be a football dream come alive.

Quarterback Marcus Reeb comes from Toronto. Argonauts and CFL fan, Buffalo Bills fan, and a burning desire to play football.

"I went to three high schools — including St. Francis in Buffalo, and then a prep school in Vermont,'' Reeb said. "They always had their guy as a quarterback, not me. I went to Carleton University in Ottawa for two years. The coaches there weren't interested in me."

Coach Marty Hoffmann's program in Morris is always on the lookout for such sleepers in this internet age. They made contact with Reeb.

"I just wanted to get back to playing football," Reeb said. "And when I got here, I loved it. The small town, campus where everyone knows everybody. Almost froze to death a couple of times — it doesn't get this cold in Toronto — but I love it here."

Reeb has had to slow walk his way to a degree in communications in order to keep playing football in Year 6 of college.

"I'm hoping this isn't the end for me,'' Reeb said. "I have CFL contacts that are trying to get me a tryout."

Defensive tackle Mondo Calderon grew up in Fairfield, Calif., with his grandparents Katherine and Manuel. He is Native American, making him part of a connection with Morris that dates to 1887.

The original building on this campus housed the Morris Industrial School for American Indians, a boarding school founded by the Roman Catholic Sisters of Mercy.

There were changes through the years, and the campus was transferred to the State of Minnesota in 1909 under this covenant: Whatever educational institution came about, American Indians would be admitted free of tuition.

UM-Morris has followed that promise since it opened in 1960 — tuition free, although not the other costs that come with college. There are 17 Native Americans on Hoffmann's 73-player roster, and close to 20% of students enrolled at Morris are Native American.

Calderon played in the Indigenous Bowl in 2018 for native high schoolers and that became his connection with Morris.

You must have had an impressive high school career to be in that game.

"I played four years and we were 1-and-39,'' he said.

Pause. Half-hearted smile.

"I got here and had a very hard time adjusting to college the first semester," Calderon said. "I almost went home.

"The coaches and teammates kept encouraging me. The academic people were great. I straightened out in the classroom. I'm getting a degree in psychology."

Another bonus for Saturday's contest:

Katherine and Manuel flew in Thursday from California, and they will be watching him play in college for the first time.

"My grandmother went to all my high school games, and my grandfather when he could," Calderon said.

One win in four years.

What a gift if there would be another for them on Saturday, on that hillside where sits Big Cat Stadium, built in 1997, shared with neighboring Morris Area High School.

"We pulled out an amazing win at Martin Luther last Saturday,'' Hoffmann said. "They were inside the 10, ready to put the game away, and then our defense forced a fumble, and we had a 92-yard return for a touchdown."

Carter Maurice punched the ball loose, and Greg Ohman took off with it, for what became a 30-27 victory.

Cougars vs. Northwestern, Saturday, 1 p.m. at Big Cat Stadium, for all the UMAC marbles. Be there, Morris. Katherine and Manuel Calderon will be.

. . .

To read more on the amazing football history at Minnesota Morris, tap here.