I spent my Thanksgiving break eating gas station pizza, waiting for a delayed flight and advancing to the Elite Eight.
By Kaden Lamb
Wednesday, November 23:
It was the first day of Thanksgiving break, and Bethel’s campus felt like a ghost town. Since there were no classes during the day, we changed our normal afternoon practice time to the morning in “shells.” That means shoulder pads and helmets, just like we always do for Wednesday practices. The out-of-season warmth brought out more bare arms and calves than I’ve seen since mid-October. I still wore black sweatpants and a gray Carhart hoodie under my shoulder pads because quarterbacks don’t do much running at practice. For the first time in weeks, it actually was bright enough to see the ball in the air at the end of practice.
After practice we picked up our game uniforms from the managers in Central Issue. Fresh, white jerseys and vegas gold pants again, same as last week. I don’t think we’re a very superstitious team, but somebody in the locker room said we haven’t lost a game wearing that combination in two years (knock on wood). After grabbing our uniforms and before hitting the showers, Head Coach Steve Johnson called us into a meeting to go over the travel itinerary for the weekend. He covered what we can and cannot pack in our carry-on bags and what we would have to eat, since that tends to be the most important piece of information to football players. We expected to leave campus the following day on buses at 3:30 p.m., depart from Minneapolis at 6:00 p.m. Central Standard Time and arrive in Portland, Oregon after a three-hour flight around 7:00 p.m. Pacific Time. Johnson explained that we would lose two hours from the time zone difference.
“Where do the two hours go?” sophomore offensive lineman Josh Helling asked.
He’s a math major, so I thought he should know better than anybody where those hours go.
The quarterbacks met for a short film study in offensive coordinator A.J. Parnell’s office. His wife brings baked goods for us to snack on every Wednesday, and today we had fresh raspberry-oat bars waiting for us. We went through some film from our own practice, then watched our opponent, Linfield College. Parnell always says he wants us to feel so comfortable in games that reading defenses and making throws feels like breathing.
After a shower and a change of clothes, I hopped in my silver Prius that gets 40 miles per gallon and headed home to Plainview. I arrived at my parents’ white, split-level house and proceeded to talk my mom’s ear off about everything I could think of. I had only been home once since August and I guess I missed her. When my dad got back from hunting, my grandparents and two younger brothers joined us for a lasagna dinner and a game of Ticket to Ride. They would have a large family gathering on Friday, but I would be 1,800 miles away by then.
After my mini Thanksgiving celebration, I drove back up to the deserted campus and set my alarm for practice tomorrow.
Thursday November 24:
Today’s practice was a little colder than yesterday’s. Coach Johnson had tears in his eyes as he prayed at the beginning of practice, grateful to be with his football family on Thanksgiving.
No shoulder pads are worn on Thursdays, just helmets and practice jerseys. Sometimes players swap jerseys with one another on Thursdays. Junior defensive end Hunter Tanem wore an old jersey from the 1980s; the royal blue and mustard yellow stood out against the navy and white jerseys around him. Junior quarterback George Bolt and senior halfback Fisher Marberg also wore retro jerseys that they had found in storage bins at the beginning of the season. I swapped my green #4 practice jersey with freshman defensive lineman Will Jessup’s navy #4 jersey.
When practice was over we had the rest of Thanksgiving to ourselves. Most of the players who lived too far away from campus joined the local players’ family gatherings. We only had a few hours until we needed to be back on campus for the bus ride to the airport.
I popped in a frozen pizza while packing my bag and watching Thanksgiving NFL football games alone in my apartment in North Village.
I walked to the locker room to secure my seat on the bus early and I overheard murmurs of a delay. Some players had already started loading bags of gear onto the buses when Coach Johnson announced that our pilot had gotten sick and we wouldn’t have a replacement until later that night. He said to come back to the locker room at 8:00 p.m. The guys who lived close to campus could go back home and spend more time with their families. I just went to Heritage Hall with wide receiver Jackson Kirchoff and long snapper Luke Brandt. We lounged around their room and played Fortnite until we decided to seek food. Everywhere we went was closed for Thanksgiving. At least we would get to see the beginning of the Vikings game.
We finally found a Holiday gas station near campus where we saw four other cars full of Bethel football players. Kirchoff, Brandt and I bought frozen pizzas and a two liter bottle of root beer. We were talking to teammates in another car when our phones all buzzed with a notification. Our flight had been delayed again. The Vikings were playing against the New England Patriots in Minneapolis, and the Patriots had priority for flying out. The airport was low on staff due to Thanksgiving and they only had enough employees to check bags and IDs for one team at a time. We would have to wait until the game was over and the Patriots had boarded their plane before we could start getting on ours.
The Vikings won, although for a while, we were scared the game might go into overtime and we would be delayed even longer. We returned to the locker room and loaded the rest of our bags onto the buses. I sat next to senior offensive lineman Evan Ginter on the ride to the airport. We took turns playing Piano Tiles on my phone, trying to beat the other’s fastest time to hit 25 keys.
Friday November 25
The Patriots must have taken their sweet time getting to the airport after the game, because we sat on the bus for an hour at the airport. I had never boarded a plane this way before, but we just walked around the plane on the tarmac and security checked us and our bags right there. I walked up the shiny metal stairs and unwrapped a piece of gum before sitting down between Brandt and Kirchoff. Our diehard fans and parents were able to buy tickets on the same flight as us, so we had to wait for all of them to board before the flight attendants could start giving the safety presentation.
1:00 a.m. (Central Standard Time)
Takeoff. Finally. Seven hours after our original departure time, we watched the familiar lights of the Twin Cities fade into blackness. I rolled a hoodie into a makeshift travel pillow and managed to fall asleep.
2:30 a.m. (Pacific Time)
The plane touched down three and a half hours later in misty Portland, Oregon. Groggy coaches and players filed zombie-like off the plane and into buses.
“Isn’t it crazy that the buses beat us to Oregon?” asked senior running back Matt Teigland. “The bus drivers must have been booking it.”
We pulled into the Crowne Plaza hotel in Oswego Lake. I lugged my bags into the hotel lobby, found my room key and piled into the elevator. After 20 hours without laying down, the hotel bed could’ve been a slab of cement and I would’ve slept like a baby. I plugged in my phone and set an alarm for breakfast, then sank into the soft, clean, white sheets and was asleep before my head hit the pillow.
My travel roommate, freshman kicker David Erickson and I woke up feeling refreshed from our hotel slumber. We trekked downstairs and joined the team brunch in a conference room that the hotel had reserved for us. Eggs, sausage, bacon, breakfast potatoes, bananas, apples, yogurt. I don’t drink coffee, but the coaches looked like they needed some.
We practiced in “shells” again. There was a steady drizzle throughout most of the day, which could be expected from the Pacific Northwest climate.
“It’s actually warmer in Minnesota than it is here right now,” graduate assistant coach Chace Gadapee said.
Of course, as soon as we get a game away from the midwest, it gets a heat wave.
In our Friday team chapel, senior defensive back Jordan Diaz shared his own testimony and a short devotional about the ways his life has been affected by God through the football team and the people around him. Then we pulled into a close, smelly huddle and swayed back and forth as Diaz led us in prayer.
“Don’t take a nap,” Coach Johnson instructed when we got back on the bus to head back to the hotel. “We’d rather have you get good sleep tonight than take a nap today and not be able to fall asleep later.”
After putting my feet up — without sleeping — I met Kirchoff and Brandt and a handful of other players at the hotel pool. We had been told not to be stupid, but we also were told not to take a nap and swimming definitely would keep us awake. The pool was part indoor and part outdoor, with a half-wall hanging down over the middle of it. We hung from the wall and did pull-ups assisted by our buoyancy in the water. An hour of splash contests, chicken fights and Marco Polo ended with us slipping into the hot tub for 10 minutes before dinner.
After a pasta dinner in the hotel’s conference room, I took a walk with a group of teammates across the street to a Shell gas station to grab some snacks. The rain had stopped, but the trail we walked was slippery with mud. Junior linebacker Thomas Wurdemann lost his footing and slid down the hill on his rear end, covering his gray sweatpants with dark mud.
When we got back to the hotel, I joined Kirchoff and Brandt for a movie before going to bed. We caught the end of “Home Alone 2,” and then watched all of “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.” The perfect pregame movies, if you ask me.
Bedtime. Hopefully no nightmares about forgetting my cleats in Arden Hills.
Saturday November 26
After another hotel breakfast, Coach Johnson held our attention at the front of the conference room.
“This is the day the Lord has made,” he quoted. “Don’t treat as ordinary what’s been consecrated to you.”
He starts every pregame meeting with those phrases.
We watched our highlight video from last week’s snow globe win at Wheaton College in Illinois. Players cheered at the screen as if the game was happening in real time, even though we knew what would happen in every play. The always teary-eyed Johnson rumbled through a rousing speech and we left for the game.
“‘P-T’ RIGHT NOW!” senior defensive lineman Michael Judd shouted in the Linfield College locker room.
We paused the music on the speaker and stopped getting dressed for “Prayer Time.” Every week a different class leads the pregame prayer. Today the sophomores took turns praying, ending with a booming “AMEN.”
The biggest video board in Division III football played the national anthem over Maxwell Field in McMinnville, Oregon. The scoreboard behind the other end zone scrolled through the scores of the other games around the country. The games on the east coast were already in the fourth quarter. A murmur rose on our sideline when we saw our conference rival St. John’s University was losing to Wartburg College at halftime.
Coin toss. Kickoff. All of the week’s commotion had led to this moment. 60 minutes of play for a chance to do it all again next week.
Erickson kicked off to the Linfield Wildcats, who wore black jerseys and white helmets. Our opponent’s offense drove into Bethel territory before three consecutive tackles from sophomore defensive back Nate Farm forced the field goal unit onto the field. Linfield’s kicker nailed the 34-yarder and we were losing for the first time in this year’s playoffs, 0-3.
Unshaken, our offense took its time responding with the longest drive of the season. The 16-play drive was capped off by a five-yard pass from senior quarterback Jaran Roste to the back left corner of the end zone. Yellow flags flew as sophomore wide receiver Joey Kidder fought off the physical Wildcat defender and hauled in the touchdown pass with his left hand, sure to keep at least one foot in bounds. Coach Johnson declined the defensive pass interference penalty and we were on the board, 7-3, with about two minutes left in the first quarter.
After a third-down sack from sophomore linebacker Jacob Holmen, Linfield settled for another field goal, this time from 49 yards to make the score 7-6, still in our favor.
Senior wide receiver Nic Jones had the season’s longest kickoff return on the ensuing play, bringing it 54 yards before being pushed out of bounds. Freshman running back David Geebli followed it up with the longest rush of the day for 34 yards. Roste finished the drive with a 2-yard sneak up the middle for the 45th rushing touchdown of his career. After just a 54 second, three-play drive, our lead was extended to 14-6.
The Wildcats found the end zone for the first time on their next drive, scoring a touchdown on an 11-yard reverse pass from one of their wide receivers to another wide receiver. The scoreboard glowed Bethel-14, Linfield-13 with 7:45 left on the first half clock.
Both defenses stiffened up at the end of the half. Linfield forced a turnover on downs. Bethel senior defensive back Judson Williams sacked their quarterback and forced a fumble recovered by Wurdemann. Sophomore kicker Hugo Cifuentes drilled a 24-yard field goal to bring the score to 17-13. Another strip-sack, this time from senior linebacker David Brandt took us to halftime, winning by a four point margin.
The managers scrambled to find an extra pair of game pants for junior defensive lineman Ethan Herron, who had somehow ripped his pair across the rear. Coaches adjusted schemes and players snacked on Snickers while the halftime clock wound down.
Our sideline was buzzing when we returned to the field. We were dancing and slapping each other’s helmets, energized by the break.
Our defense kept up the pressure, and a Wurdemann sack forced the first punt of the game. On the following drive, Roste found Kidder for his second jump-ball touchdown of the day, this time from 11 yards out. It was Roste’s 66th career passing touchdown, breaking a program record that had been set in 2003. Bethel led 24-13, but the pair wasn’t done scoring just yet.
The Wildcats drove down to our 5-yard-line, but our defense rose to the occasion. Three consecutive tackles from freshman defensive back Devin Williams and an interception in the endzone by senior defensive back Anthony Hockett gave the ball back to Bethel’s offense.
Roste dropped back to pass on third down from Royal territory. He looked toward our sideline and found Kidder once again with only one defender in coverage. Kidder caught the pass, made one tackler miss and was off to the races. Players, coaches and fans alike jumped to their feet and ran alongside him with a finger in the air. Roste and Kidder’s third touchdown connection of the day went for 65 yards and was the longest play of the game. We were in the lead, 30-13 with about 10 minutes left to play and would hold that lead for the rest of the game.
Our defense continued in dominant fashion with back-to-back sacks from Holmen and sophomore defensive end Hunter Pratt to force another Linfield punt. Hockett came up with another clutch interception in the endzone, this time off a tipped pass. Linfield’s high-power offense was completely shut out in the second half.
“When you stay in school for seven years, you learn a thing or two,” Williams said of his much older defensive back partner’s two interceptions.
The final whistle blew and we punched our ticket to the quarterfinals of the NCAA Division III National Tournament. Royal fans waved a navy BU flag from the top of the stands, then swarmed the players with hugs of congratulations.
“I love you boys! Let’s go to Texas!” Judd yelled over the shining gold helmets in the final huddle.
Freshly celebrated and showered players shared pizzas on the bus ride to the airport in Portland. I sat next to junior offensive lineman Stephen Powell and we recounted our favorite parts of the game.
7:30 p.m. (Pacific Time)
We boarded our plane from the tarmac again. The flight attendants handed out Gatorades and sandwiches as we walked into the aisle. I popped in a piece of gum and sat between Kirchoff and Brandt again. Senior defensive back Matthew Feldick and offensive lineman Travis Sinclair took off their shirts and started chants for others to do the same. The energy started to slowly die down as we prepared for takeoff.
Sunday November 27
12:30 a.m. (Central Standard Time)
On the flight back to Minneapolis, we found those two hours that Helling was so concerned about losing. We arrived back to campus and played Lil’ Jon’s “Turbulence” through the locker room speakers. I guess the flight back had been a little bumpy, but I think we were all just glad to be home safe and still playing football.
I made it back to my apartment in North Village, excited to sleep in my own bed and not wake up until noon tomorrow. I jiggled the doorknob… locked. And I had left my keys inside. Great. Welcome home, Kaden.