The roads to Minnesota for football co-captains Derek Burns, Jack Brewer, Ron Johnson and Jimmy Henry couldn’t be any different.
From suburban Minneapolis to the plains of Texas to inner city Detroit, the four grew up worlds apart ñ much like their positions on the field.
Where they’ll end up in the future upon graduation from Minnesota will also differ.
But for one last day, with no bowl game berth or Big Ten championship on the line, the four shared in a common celebration: Minnesota’s 42-31 win over Wisconsin ñ the Gophers’ first victory over their arch rival since 1994.
“This game was really important to a bunch of seniors,” Minnesota coach Glen Mason said. “They came to Minnesota a number of years ago when Minnesota wasn’t winning and didn’t go to bowls, didn’t play on TV, didn’t do this, didn’t do that.”
And didn’t possess Paul Bunyan’s Axe.
Now, after four years in maroon and gold, Burns, Brewer, Johnson and Henry have lived through two winning seasons, went to a pair of bowl games and played on national television countless times.
Then finally, in their last game, they beat the Badgers and paraded around the Metrodome hoisting the Axe high like the Olympic Torch.
“It feels better than anything in the world,” said Burns, who was second in the mad dash to the Axe behind Johnson when time expired to make the win official. “I grew up in Minnesota, and I’ve been watching the Gophers all my life. The Axe? It doesn’t get any better than that.”
Burns, a center, is the only Minnesota native of the foursome. His Gophers story began at guard, where he played for three seasons before switching to center this year.
Mason said Burns would have been an All-Big Ten player at his former position this season. But he gave that up to help the Gophers become one of the top 15 teams in the nation in rushing yardage (over 200 yards per game) this season.
Like Burns, Brewer also gave everything he had to the team. He transferred to Minnesota after a year at Southern Methodist in his native Texas.
Brewer also jumped from safety to wide receiver then back to safety in his three years for the Gophers.
This season, Brewer led the Gophers with 147 tackles. Ten of those came against Wisconsin, despite a severely sore shoulder that kept Brewer out of the second half of the Iowa game last weekend.
Mason called Brewer the best leader he’s ever coached. The sports studies major has the words “future football coach” written all over him.
“It’s hard. I love college football,” Brewer said of his career ending. “I cried before the game; I’ll probably cry tomorrow. It’s been a good ride though, a real good ride.”
Johnson’s football ride will likely continue on Sunday afternoons next season.
Johnson, who caught his 31st career touchdown against the Badgers, is the school’s all-time leader in receptions, receiving yards and touchdown catches.
Johnson had a reception in 46-straight games ñ every one of his career ñ to tie an NCAA record. Johnson is third in Big Ten history with 198 career receptions.
He played against Wisconsin after dislocating two fingers in practice on Tuesday. To Johnson, it was just another game in his memorable career.
“The records will be good to look at when I come back,” Johnson said. “My name will always be in the record books.”
While Burns, Brewer and Johnson were in the spotlight this year, perhaps the sweetest story from Saturday’s game was Henry’s, an unheralded team leader.
A drop linebacker, Henry only made 34 tackles this season. But against Wisconsin, he made the biggest defensive play of the year.
With 1:56 left and the Badgers on Minnesota’s seven-yard line, Henry intercepted a Brooks Bollinger pass to ice the Gophers’ win.
Mason said Henry’s play was fitting for the hard worker who saw little action in Minnesota’s only other Big Ten win against Michigan State.
“After that game, when we were celebrating, Jimmy was down,” Mason said. “Maybe he was down or feeling sorry for himself. But he had a bad attitude because he was more worried about himself than he was the team.
“I stopped the celebration right then and there and said, ‘Jimmy, you better get your head up and get your attitude going, because you’ll make a play this year that will win us a game.'”
Henry delivered. And even an hour after the play, he held the lucky football like a baby in his arms.
“I’m going to go out and get a case for it,” Henry said.
While he’s at it, Henry can pick one up for the Axe too.
John R. Carter covers football and
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