From Iowa Cornfields to the Big City: Gophers Tight End Ko Kieft’s Toughness is Nothing New

Those who drive past the cornfields of Sioux Center, Iowa, are greeted with a distinct smell. The unmistakable aroma of pigs and cattle perfectly describe the character of a small farm town in northwest Iowa.

Within those cornfields and dairy farms, Gophers tight end Ko Kieft quickly learned the scent of farm animals was the “smell of money.” Kieft developed a strong work ethic by closely emulating people in the small community of 7,500.

Ko’s father, Jerry Kieft, taught him more life lessons by putting a football in his hands at a young age. Kieft, a former coach at Sioux Center High School, got his son a job as the team’s ball boy when he was just four years old. Ko set up practices drills, rotated footballs out of the game and occasionally put garbage cans over his head.

“We ran a 3-5 defense, so we always used trash cans to represent the d-line or the o-line and would run our fits through trash cans,” Ko’s father, Jerry said. “As a ball boy, Ko was responsible for putting the trash cans out or putting them away and he used to put the trash cans on his head and then walk around. I remember one time standing back by our coach, and I said, ‘I just don’t know if this kid will ever play football. I just don’t think he’s going to get it. He’s going to be in the band and that’s it, coach.’”

Eventually, after spending more time around the team, Ko found his deep passion for football. He watched film with his father and became immersed in all of the details. Then, when it was finally time for Friday night lights, everyone knew the redheaded ball boy would be roaming the sideline with his dad. It turns out, those nights under the lights at Sioux Center High School, were just the beginning of Kieft’s football life.

Next Man Up

Years before he became a physically dominant tight end in the Big Ten, Ko was a star quarterback and linebacker in high school. Kieft started at linebacker as a sophomore and helped lead the Sioux Center Warriors to a sub-state game. That year, the Warriors advanced through the playoffs and prepared for a major showdown against Kuemper at the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls. Sioux Center was playing well until adversity hit. The Warriors’ starting quarterback suffered an injury and was ruled out for the game.

Seconds later, everyone on the sideline was looking at the redheaded backup quarterback. Kieft, who received minimal reps during the season, was now tasked with leading the offense in the biggest game of the season.

“I can remember him coming off the field, with the classic ‘Ko look’, eyes wide open like, ‘Oh shit, what’s going on? This ain’t good.’ And he hadn’t thrown a ball for a long time,” Kieft said.

Ko entered the game, threw four interceptions and Sioux Center lost the game, 28-6. The entire program was devastated but Kieft used it as motivation. He was not going to let that performance define him. Less than a year later, Ko responded to the adversity by earning the starting quarterback job and leading his team to the state finals.

The Warriors reached the state finals but Kieft was battling a high ankle sprain and could not push off his back foot. However, Ko fought through the pain and played linebacker instead. He was not missing the game, no matter what.

“He just couldn’t plant off his back foot, but played really well. So he’s known how to play hurt most of his life,” Jerry said. “The kid always amazed me in wrestling and football, always. Even his sophomore year at quarterback, he amazed me. He screwed up, but his attitude and his willingness to get better and wanting to get better and not let that happen again were impressive. His resolve, all of that stuff.”

A Shared Love for Football

Kieft’s athletic success also extended to the wrestling mat. He qualified for state as a junior and senior. Kieft wrestled at 220 pounds and made the podium during his final season. Despite never having much of a wrestling background in his family, Ko fell in love with the sport’s physicality.

“Ko was never 220, he was probably 210 pounds, at best,” Jerry laughed. “He was not afraid of contact. He had the same thing in wrestling. He was more of a wrestling kid than basketball. I mean, obviously could of played either but just liked the physicality of wrestling.”

After being coached by his father in football over the years, Ko did not receive any wrestling pointers because of Jerry’s limited experience with the sport.

“I didn’t know much about wrestling so I couldn’t sit there and tell him what he was doing wrong, right? So he liked wrestling because of that,” Kieft joked. “[It was like], ‘You can’t tell me what to do, dad.’ But he loved the physicality of it and he just had friends around him.”

Things were certainly different during the football season, though. Ko and Jerry watched film together and corrected all of the small details that needed work. Kieft’s mom, Linda, remembers playing referee at home when it was needed.

“Ko’s sister and I have done a little bit of that over the years where we like play referee with the two of them, but they usually had a great way of having a moment, as I would call them, and then walking through it,” Linda Kieft said. “They’ll talk it out and have a conversation by sharing their opinions but still hugging and loving each other after.”

“Run it Again”

The combination of tough love and empathy helped Ko develop into a Big Ten football player. With the support of his family and everyone in the community, Ko chased his dream of playing football at the next level. Kieft traveled to camps with his father and did everything he could to make an impression. While doing so, the same thing always happened. Coaches kept asking Kieft to run the pro agility drill again.

“He would always run the pro agility so fast and nobody could believe it. They would always make him do it over again because his 40-time didn’t represent what he was doing in the agility drill,” Jerry said. “But his hips, and that to me is wrestling, his hips were what it was and that’s what helps him be a good blocker too.”

Kieft made a strong impression at camps, but never earned an offer from his home state school – the Iowa Hawkeyes. Not only that, but days before his scheduled visit to Iowa State, head coach Paul Rhoads was fired. Kieft may have earned an offer from the Cyclones, however, the coaching change altered everything.

While all of that was going on, Kieft’s high school head coach, Tim Vanregenmorter, was making calls to numerous FBS programs. He picked up the phone one day, called the University of Minnesota and former wide receivers coach Pat Poore answered.

“He took my call and I said, coach, I don’t know, he’s an incredibly gifted kid, but he’s not a quarterback at this level. He might be a tight end or defensive end guy,” Vanregenmorter said.

Poore told Vanregenmorter to send Kieft’s film and he would evaluate it. Shortly after, the high school head coach’s phone lit up with a text. The Gophers were interested.

“Within a couple hours or so, he sent me a text and said, ‘Just get him to camp, we like what we see.’ And the rest was history,” Vanregenmorter said.

Despite the Gophers showing interest, things once again came to a screeching halt after Jerry Kill retired in 2015. Position coach Rob Reeves called Ko and said he could not extend him an offer yet.

“[Since they could not offer] he literally said yes to NDSU because that was the only place he could go and then Tracy Claeys came back on him with Reeves again and said, ‘We’ll offer you’ and then he went to Minnesota,” Jerry said. “He didn’t want to lose a spot at NDSU, so kind of a wild recruiting story.”

Ko arrived in Minnesota and transformed from a 6-foot-3, 225-pound quarterback, into a 6-foot-5, 265-pound smash mouth Big Ten tight end. Kieft made this transition by living in the weight room and learning from teammates like Nate Wozniak and Brandon Lingen.

Kieft’s Hair Game

Years after walking on campus for the first time in 2016, Kieft’s long-flowing red hair and punishing run blocking skills have become a fixture of Minnesota’s football program.

Kieft recently shaved his head but left a small patch in the back to braid. Over the years, the Gophers tight end has never shied away from creative and fierce hair styles. In fact, it runs in the family.

“Ko kind of ebbs and flows with his father a little bit. Jerry had long-flowing hair like Ko had and the week before we got married, he shaved it all off bald,” Linda said. “And that’s kind of where Ko comes from. He’s not afraid to do something different.”

Ko’s long-flowing red hair became a fixture on the wrestling mats in Iowa too. Kieft and a friend grew out their hair and never planned on shaving it. Instead, the duo wore swim caps to comply with high school wrestling rules.

“You’re always supposed to have your hair a certain length when you wrestle,” Linda said. “And he and one of his other teammates both had long-flowing hair and they had to wear swim caps in order to wrestle in Iowa and they were like, we don’t care, we’re going to wear it, we’re not cutting our hair.”

“That’s Pretty Epic”

Kieft’s fearless mindset has guided him through every area of his life. Minnesota fans are accustomed to seeing it when Kieft takes the field each week. The ferocious tight end muscles through defensive ends, pancakes defenders in the second level and opens creases for Minnesota’s running backs.

Two weeks ago, Kieft strapped on his pads for the final time in his home state. It was a special day for everyone in the family, including Kieft, who grew up five hours northwest of Kinnick Stadium. He took the field for a 60-minute battle with the Floyd of Rosedale Trophy on his mind.

All day, Kieft mauled Iowa defenders and made a play that he will remember for a lifetime. The Gophers faced a fourth-and-2 situation and the coaching staff decided it was the Iowa boy’s time to shine. Kieft engaged with a defender, released deep and Cole Kramer hit him in stride. The Sioux Center native rumbled into the end zone and the entire family section went crazy.

“I think I cheered the loudest and went the most crazy in the stands when that happened,” Linda said. “As a kid growing up in Iowa and then having that happen playing for a different team against your home state team, that’s pretty epic.”

However, everyone panicked for a moment when the ball was knocked out of Kieft’s hands at the goal line. The dumbfounded look on Ko’s face after the ball came loose was nothing new though. Everyone in the family calls it the “Ko Face.”

“{The Ko Face] is when you see his mouth open just a little bit and his eyes are big and they call it the Jerry face now, but it’s like he’s just dumbfounded by what’s going on,” Jerry laughed. “Poor kid didn’t even get celebrate his touchdown, did he? I mean, it was just like, oh crap, did I screw up?”

The Toughest Football Player

Kieft has quickly become one of the most valuable players in the Gophers’ offense. His physicality and toughness are like having another offensive lineman on the field. That did not happen overnight though. When head coach P.J. Fleck was hired in 2017, he wondered what type of player Kieft would become in the system.

“When you go back and I first got here and you are looking at him, it’s what is he going to be able to do, right? He’s going to play tight end, but will he be big enough? Will he be strong enough? Will he be able to do what we do in the run game?” Fleck said. “And when you watch his evolution of being a player and not only just being a blocker, but being a football player. He is in the pass game an awful lot. He is so smart and so intelligent. He should be on an NFL football team at some point.”

Four years after he first met Fleck, Kieft is now one of the toughest players in the nation. The Gophers coach credits Ko for embracing Minnesota’s culture and developing in every area of his life.

“He was able to develop within the program and we talk about being a developmental program, he is a prime example of that,” Fleck said. “To be able to watch him grow and watch him really embrace the weight room, embrace all things in the program and turn out to be who he is, it’s really a feather in his cap and he deserves a lot of credit for that. He is one of the toughest football players we’ve ever coached — mentally, physically, emotionally.”

Offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr. has also coached many top tight ends in his career, including Zach Ertz, Levine Toilolo, Alizé Mack and others. While reflecting back, Sanford would place Kieft near the top of his toughest players list.

“Ko is the best, most physical blocking tight end that I’ve been around. Truly, he’s in a conversation with another tight end that that I had a chance to be with early on at Stanford named Jim Dray. Jimmy Dray played for the Cardinals for a good stretch of time and was kind of an under the radar guy. And was just an absolutely devastating blocker and Ko Kieft to me is in that same vein,” Sanford said.

A Player-Coach Bond

In recent years, Kieft’s run blocking skills took another step forward under tight ends coach Clay Patterson. Patterson developed Kieft’s technique and became an influential person in his life. When Jerry Kieft looks back on his son’s time with the Gophers, he is thankful that Ko crossed paths with Patterson.

“I love Coach Patterson. I think he’s great with young football guys. I think he’s a great football mind. He’s very relatable. He loves our kids to death and will do anything for them to help them get through life. I know that’s a lifelong friendship between those two,” Kieft said.

The relationship between the player and coach transcends football and extends into every area of Ko’s life. For example, Kieft’s family is not making the trip up for Thanksgiving dinner, but the Gophers tight end was welcomed in by Clay and his wife, Ashley.

“I asked Ko, ‘What happens if we don’t come up for Thanksgiving?’ And he said, ‘I’ll just go to Patterson’s house.’ And I’m like, ‘Really?’ And Ko said, ‘I’ll just call up Ashley and she’ll take me in.’ So even his wife is into it,” Jerry said.

Remembering his Small Town Roots

Kieft’s tough mentality on the field does not accurately reflect his personality. People who know Ko well describe him as a kindhearted, caring and loyal friend. He often mentors athletes back home, keeps in touch with former high school coaches and volunteers his time for others.

“He is a kindhearted loving kid, something he doesn’t demonstrate on the field, which is awesome. Whenever he is back in Sioux Center, he makes sure he looks up a few people and it’s really exciting that he comes to see me,” Sioux Center High School head coach Tim Vanregenmorter said.

Kieft has not forgotten about people like Vanregenmorter, who shaped him into the person he is today. It is why the Gophers’ tight end keeps in touch with his local community and high school football program.

“On the Gophers bye week, when a lot of kids are just going to take the weekend off and just recover and sit, Ko drove home for our Friday night game to make sure he was back for it. He was in our locker room,” Vanregenmorter said. “And literally by Saturday morning at 10 a.m., he was back on the road to go back to Minnesota. He literally just did that because he knew it would be important to me to come and show up and be there and support the guys. That was pretty cool to me.”

Kieft has never forgotten about the people who shaped him in his small Iowa hometown. He now takes those values he learned and passes them on to the next generation.

“Everybody calls him a mauler on the field but he is a very tender person,” Linda said. “One of my favorite things to say is – when you walk out the door, you work hard, treat people right and be kind to people. To hear those kind of things stick is pretty cool.”

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