Gopher Football Keeps The Trettin Family Rowing

Seven-year-old Jace Trettin’s journey has led him through stormy waters, but he keeps on rowing. 

Each month, when Jace arrives for treatment at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital, he remembers the words of his Gopher football friends.

“Never give up and Row the Boat.” Jace said with a big smile.

Minnesota football’s “Row the Boat” mantra has carried the Trettin family through difficult times. Jace was recently diagnosed with Tumor necrosis factor receptor-associated periodic syndrome, also known as TRAPS. The rare genetic disease causes the immune system to attack itself. After years of research and surgeries, the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital discovered a breakthrough for Jace’s condition.

Now, every 28 days, Jace makes the four-hour drive to Minneapolis for plasma treatments. The trip is often stressful for him, especially since he knows the injection could make him sick. However, Jace always has one thing to look forward to — seeing one of his favorite Gopher football players from a distance.

Beginning in 2015, the Trettin family developed lifelong relationships with former Minnesota football players like Justin Junnemann, Emmit Carpenter and Garrison Wright. The tradition has continued among current Minnesota football players and coaches. Jace and his brother, Jaxon, frequently text, FaceTime and virtually chat with players on the team. Also, when the Trettin family is in town for treatment, at least one player usually meets them to wave and say goodbye from a distance. 

“Typically, we like to just hang out. Maybe it’s meeting at the park. Oftentimes, they’ll come and say goodbye to us. Right now, [we do it in] the Ronald McDonald House parking lot because we can’t really have too much contact with people,” Jace’s mother, Brooke, said. “They’ll at least say goodbye, tell us to have a safe trip home and wave to us. We always take our little picture every time we see them.”

The treatment Jace receives occasionally makes him sick and tired. However, when he’s feeling under the weather, one thing always cheers him up — the Gopher football team. Last week, Jace received his November treatment and wasn’t feeling well. He was laying in bed with his Gophers monkey and blanket when a surprise arrived at the door. The Child Family Life Specialist was there to deliver a special package.

“You know what, Jace, I have something that’s really going to brighten your day,” she said.

Jace’s eyes lit up when a “Row the Boat” themed box was placed on his bed. He smiled from ear to ear while opening a package filled with gifts, including a compass coin, oar, hat, blanket and other items. The box also included a Row the Boat message from Heather and P.J. Fleck.

“He was really happy [when he opened the box]. We know what Row the Boat means because we’ve followed that mantra and it’s really lifted our family and brought positivity to our lives,” Brooke, said. “When he opened the box, he knew what the oar was for and the Row the Boat coin compass was for. So it was really neat that we knew the reason why they were giving it to the children in the hospital.”

After receiving the box, Brooke instantly reached out to Heather Fleck and thanked her for the surprise. She wanted the Fleck family to know how much the box brightened Jace’s treatment day.

“[When I heard from her] I had lots of happy tears. I’m a very emotional person as it is,” Heather Fleck said. “This was something she didn’t know about. This was just one of their normal visits to Masonic, so to get the box, she was incredibly surprised. To know that it’s doing what it was meant to do, is amazing. It’s so heartwarming, especially when you can’t be there because we get to see Jace on a regular basis when he’s in there or he’s in the Ronald McDonald House. So to know that Jace knew that we were still thinking of him even though we couldn’t be there was amazing.”

The COVID-19 pandemic is changing the way Minnesota’s football program interacts with patients. Players, coaches and staff are now virtually connecting with families and staying in contact. Traditionally, when the team visited in person, they also brought gift bags. With help of staff members at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital, Row the Boat boxes were designed to carry on this tradition. 

“It had to be something that was small enough to fit in the boxes. We wanted it to be fun and cheery,” Heather said. “There’s a hat in the box, there’s a blanket, there’s a little mini oar, there’s the card that explains what Row the Boat is. I think we’ve got some compass coins in there.”

Heather and P.J. Fleck launched the Row the Boat Fleck Family Fund to provide patients and their families with the resources they need during their time at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital. Initiatives like the boxes are fueled by donations to the fund. Additionally, every dollar that is raised through “Row the Boat” sales is donated back to these programs. Gopher football fans can directly contribute to the fund by following this link.

Fleck hopes fans will create awareness and understand the profound impact Row the Boat is having on the lives of others. 

“When I first started going to Masonic, it was very hard because every time I would leave and walk out those doors, I would cry my eyes out…It’s so much perspective every time you go there. [If] you think you’re having a bad day, go walk the halls of that place because I promise you every problem that you have thrown on the table, you will take back to not have that problem,” Heather said. “It’s a double-edged sword because it makes you happy to see that you’re making them happy, but it’s also that we take for granted those little things that make people so happy and what an impact that can have. When we know we’re doing our jobs and Row the Boat is doing what it’s supposed to, that’s the ultimate reward of Row the Boat.”

Best Friends and Brothers 

These type of small gestures have made a difference in the lives of many families. For example, Minnesota players, coaches and staff have developed lifelong relationships with two of their biggest fans.

Each week, Jace and Jaxon send game day video messages to players and head coach P.J. Fleck. The two brothers have grown close with several current players, including defensive tackle Keonte Schad. Two summers ago, holder Casey O’Brien introduced the Trettin family to Schad and they have been friends ever since. The Gophers’ defensive tackle frequently speaks with the boys and even shares a special celebration with them.

“When they watch them on TV, they are like, ‘Oh my gosh, he’s doing my move,’” Brooke said. “Keonte has been a really big part of our life and our journey more recently. Keonte and Jace have a move – the John Cena “You Can’t See Me.” When Keonte makes a good move, that’s what he does for him.”

These close-knit relationships leave a lasting mark on the two Trettin boys. When treatment days are difficult, they always turn to their friends on the football team. It is something that means so much to Trettin’s parents.

“They are kind of like their best friends and brothers. It’s just amazing how well they treat our boys and our family,” Brooke said. “Sometimes it’s interesting because I don’t think that they understand what a big deal it is to have these football players kind of being like a big brother figure in their life.”

The Gopher Football F.A.M.I.L.Y.

One of the core values of the Row the Boat culture is F.A.M.I.L.Y. — Forget About Me, I Love You. Brian Trettin, Jace’s father, said he feels like they are all part of the program’s family. It stems from personal interactions the Trettins have with people on the football team, including Heather and P.J. Fleck. He always remembers the personal interaction he had with Heather and P.J. during their first visit.

“We were staying at the Ronald McDonald House and we were outside on the playground and P.J. and Heather pulled up. I’d never met the guy in my life, and he walks up and says, ‘Hi, Brian,’ and he shakes my hand. He also goes, ’Hi, Brooke,” and shakes her hand,” Brian said. “I think making it personal, that’s a big deal. Spending time with you and caring about you.”

This tight-knit environment even extends to the Gopher football parents. Brian and Brooke have talked with quarterback Tanner Morgan’s father, Ted. When Ted battled a brain tumor this summer, the Trettin family reached out to offer support and prayers.

“It is like being that lighthouse while you’re rowing the boat for each other. Mr. Morgan is always in our prayers. Any way that we can help him and he always tell us the same,” Brian said. “It’s really nice to have those connections outside of football with those same individuals.”

“Just Keep Giving”

As Thanksgiving approaches, the Trettin family is taking time to appreciate the little things in their life. Jace and his brother, Jaxon, have both battled health conditions in recent years. Despite that, the Trettins are finding opportunities to give back to others. One way they have done this is through Jace’s Jars of Hope, which collects pop tabs for the Ronald McDonald House. On Thanksgiving, Brooke and Brian are gaining perspective and hope others will find a way to give back this holiday season.

“Just keep giving when you feel like you don’t have a whole lot left to give. It just makes the world a better place. And when we’re heading into Thanksgiving, it allows you to pause and be thankful for all of those things,” Brian said. “Yeah, Jace is going through a lot, but my kid was up at 6:30 a.m. wanting to make sure Christmas lights were up on my day off. I’m thankful that he’s excited about those things and it gives everybody perspective about what matters in life. My sleep, or my cup of coffee doesn’t matter, but that excitement of a child, or a person, is what really matters.”

While growing close with the Gophers’ program, the Trettin family saw players continue to serve and give. Brooke said small acts of kindness are leaving a lasting mark on families across the state. The Trettins want Gopher fans to know how much of a difference Heather, P.J. Fleck and the football program are making in the Twin Cities community.

“P.J. and Heather are just so true and they’re very, very genuine. Behind the cameras, they’re doing all of these things that other people don’t see. When it comes to the end of the day, they are still human beings,” Brooke said. “They’re genuine people and they do make a very, very huge impact, not only to the community, but on the football players. You see that in how the football players treat other people. They’re making better men as a family unit and that’s what we really, really appreciate from them.”

Constant encouragement from players, coaches and family members push Jace through his most difficult days. No matter how tough his journey might get, the Trettin family knows the entire Minnesota football program is rowing with them.

“As a parent, it’s very difficult to watch your child be sick and ill, but at the same time, where Row the Boat really comes into play is that, as a family, we are a unit, and we do not give up,” Brooke said. “We keep our oar in the water, we allow that compass to guide our journey and we try to stay so positive.”

Gopher fans, if you are interested in funding these initiatives, donate to the Row the Boat Fleck Family Fund by following this link!

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