Eric Decker carries over success from the Gophers to the Broncos

He’s emerged as Denver’s No. 1 receiver this season.

Former Gophers wide receiver Eric Decker rushes a ball during a game against Minnesota Vikings on Sunday at Mall of America Field.

Anthony Kwan

Former Gophers wide receiver Eric Decker rushes a ball during a game against Minnesota Vikings on Sunday at Mall of America Field.

Dane Mizutani

Eric Decker wasnâÄôt on anybodyâÄôs radar six years ago when Glen Mason gave him a shot on the Gophers football squad.

Now, the No. 1 receiver for the Denver Broncos and the go-to target of Tim Tebow couldnâÄôt escape the spotlight if he tried.

Decker made his return to the Twin Cities this past weekend when the Broncos defeated the Minnesota Vikings 35-32 in a thriller at the Metrodome.

He recorded only two catches for 25 yards Sunday, but Denver (7-5) won its fifth-straight game behind another fourth-quarter comeback to move into a tie with the Oakland Raiders for first place in the AFC West.

âÄúThatâÄôs the one good thing about this team right now âÄî the mentality that if itâÄôs close in the fourth weâÄôre going to find a way to win,âÄù Decker said after the game Sunday. âÄúThat trust is really in this locker room âÄî coach [John] Fox has done a good job of making that nucleus up and making us believe.âÄù

Decker, a three-sport athlete at Rocori High School in Cold Spring, Minn., did not have an easy road to get where he is now.

He was not heavily recruited out of high school, as the Gophers were the only Division I program that showed any interest in him, according to Mason, MinnesotaâÄôs football coach at the time.

âÄúBasically we were the only school that was recruiting Eric,âÄù Mason said. âÄúI still remember the night I drove up there, and I had a home visit and offered him a scholarship, and he took it. I left and on the way home I called one of my coaches, I said, âÄòWell, Eric committed to us. I hope heâÄôs good.âÄôâÄù

Mason later received some reassurance.

âÄúJohn Gagliardi from St. JohnâÄôs called me and said, âÄòGosh dang, you got a great one there,âÄôâÄù Mason said. âÄúI said, âÄòWell I hope heâÄôs a great one for us.âÄô

Nothing against St. JohnâÄôs, but thereâÄôs a big difference between the level of competition with St. JohnâÄôs and the Big Ten. But you could see as soon as he stepped on campus he was going to be a great one.âÄù

Decker flourished at the collegiate level and said his lack of recruitment from big name programs fueled his fire.

âÄúBeing the underdog, it made me work harder,âÄù Decker said. âÄúI was either going to Minnesota or St. JohnâÄôs, and thank God Glen Mason gave me a scholarship to Minnesota, or who knows where I would be.âÄù

In his first year with the Gophers, Decker made an immediate impact. He ended his freshman campaign with 26 catches, 378 yards and three touchdowns âÄî and he was only getting started.

âÄúHe had good size, good speed, he had excellent hands and he was just a natural running routes,âÄù Mason said. âÄúIt was just a matter of learning the system and adapting to the different speed and level of competition.âÄù

Over the next two seasons, Decker emerged as the No. 1 receiver for the Gophers and imbued his name in the upper echelon of pass-catchers in the nation.

He nearly tripled his stats the following year when he caught 67 passes for 909 yards and nine touchdowns.

Decker followed up his monster sophomore season with an even more impressive junior year.

He posted a Minnesota-record 84 receptions in 2008. He also amassed 1,074 yards and scored eight touchdowns. For his efforts, Decker was named First-Team All-Big Ten and earned All-American honorable mention honors that season.

His spectacular numbers raised expectations for his senior year with the Gophers.

Decker was more than up to the challenge âÄî at least for eight games.

He had 50 receptions, 758 yards and five touchdowns through the first eight games, but then hit a roadblock in a game against Ohio State that derailed his senior season.

Decker suffered from a Lisfranc injury, which is a tear of the ligament that holds the first two toes in place. It prematurely ended his final season with the Gophers.

Decker finished his Minnesota career with 227 receptions, 3,119 yards, 25 career touchdowns and only dropped three passes in the 354 times he was targeted.

Decker also played baseball for the Gophers. The left-handed hitting outfielder was useful on the diamond, as well.

âÄúItâÄôs hard enough to be proficient, let alone star in one sport at the Big Ten level. But to be a star in both sports was truly amazing,âÄù Mason said.

Decker batted .329 with three home runs and 28 runs batted in during his sophomore baseball season.

He had nearly identical stats in his junior season, when he batted .319, blasted four home runs and drove in 25 runs.

Decker was selected in the 39th round by the Milwaukee Brewers in the 2008 MLB Draft and again in the 27th round by the Minnesota Twins in 2009, but the NFL was where he belonged.

DeckerâÄôs draft stock fell after his Lisfranc surgery, but the Broncos still picked him in the third round of the 2010 NFL Draft.

Thus, he had to make a decision between the two sports.

âÄúBoth sports were good to me,âÄù Decker said. âÄúI loved baseball very much, but I knew football had a better future.âÄù

The foot injury that ended his college career prematurely lingered to the beginning of his pro days.

âÄúIt ended my college career and kind of went all the way up to training camp,âÄù Decker said. âÄúI didnâÄôt get the offseason to prepare to run at all and when I got into training camp I wasnâÄôt sure how it was going to hold up. I was mentally weak where I didnâÄôt trust it. I didnâÄôt have confidence in myself.âÄù

He had a minimal impact in his rookie season in Denver and attributed some of that struggle to his foot injury.

Decker finished with just six receptions for 106 yards in limited action, though he did lead the team with 556 kickoff-return yards and tied for third on the Broncos with nine special-teams tackles.

âÄúPhysically I wasnâÄôt in the best shape, so I think that was part of it,âÄù Decker said. âÄúMentally, I didnâÄôt trust myself physically.

âÄúIt was a lot more mental, because this game is about confidence and mental toughness and I didnâÄôt have it last year.âÄù

Decker appears to have regained his confidence.

He worked out and caught passes with All-Pro wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald in the offseason. Because of that, Decker said he tries to mimic FitzgeraldâÄôs work ethic on and off the field.

âÄúI really look up to him, because to be the best he works like heâÄôs an underdog as well,âÄù Decker said. âÄúThatâÄôs the best thing about him âÄî his mentality to always get better, and thatâÄôs what I want to do.âÄù

He has done just that in his second year in the NFL and has materialized into a top-receiving threat for Tebow in Denver.

âÄúHeâÄôs a great kid, great player,âÄù Tebow said. âÄúHe steps up every game and makes huge plays.âÄù

Decker had two touchdown grabs against the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers, hauled in a 56-yard bomb for a touchdown that proved to be the difference against the Kansas City Chiefs and caught a 39-yard reception on DenverâÄôs game-tying drive against San Diego two weeks ago.

âÄúItâÄôs night and day from this year because [my injury] is fully recovered. I had a great offseason, and I know the playbook,âÄù Decker said. âÄúIâÄôm just able to go out and play football again and not think so much, which is what I was doing last year.âÄù

Decker has 39 receptions, 552 yards and a team-leading eight touchdowns after SundayâÄôs game to go along with a 90-yard, punt-return touchdown in the first game of the season.

Tebow said the way Decker was able to battle back from his injury is a testament to his character.

âÄúIâÄôm so happy for his success because of how he works, how he treats people, how he lives his life,âÄù Tebow said. âÄúIâÄôm so proud of him.âÄù

Decker has played a crucial role in the current five-game win streak that has the Broncos tied atop their division.

Decker has also established a close-knit friendship with fellow wideout Demaryius Thomas.

Both players were picked by the Broncos in the 2010 NFL Draft, hired the same agent and then worked out together in Arizona, Thomas said.

âÄúOnce we went to âÄî I think it was a rookie symposium or something âÄî we came up with our name âÄòSalt and Pepper,âÄôâÄù Thomas said. âÄúWe never could live up to our name.âÄù

Thomas said they might go back to that nickname now that Thomas is catching passes and Decker is a budding star.

Thomas had struggled this season, but had the best game of his career against the Vikings when he caught four passes for 144 yards and two touchdowns.

Now the key is consistency for the Broncos, who have four games left in the season and are right in the thick of the playoff hunt.

âÄúWeâÄôre back in the race,âÄù Decker said. âÄúItâÄôs a four-game race to the finish, and thatâÄôs all weâÄôre focused on âÄî Chicago at home next week.âÄù