Smiles and holiday cheer were plentiful during Tuesday night’s annual Row the Boat Turkey Drive at the University of Minnesota. The Gophers football program partnered with seven local organizations to provide 250 Thanksgiving meals for families in need.
Players, coaches and staff members greeted each family with joy, a warm smile, dancing and plenty of hot chocolate.
“This is what it is all about – joy,” Gophers cornerback Phillip Howard said at Tuesday’s event. “It’s all about serving and giving too. As long as we put put a smile on other people’s faces, I’m here to smile too.”
Families drove into the football complex and breezed past a group of players that waved balloons and sang carols. Holiday movies were playing on a projector and each car received a special sweet treat. All night, the true spirit of the holiday season was felt by everyone in attendance.
“It’s real fun seeing everybody’s smiles and just bringing a lot of love. Showing people that people care about them. It helps us be a lot more grateful for what we have,” wide receiver Mike Brown-Stephens said. “It is real cool and fun coming out here. And especially being away from home and not being able to go home for Thanksgiving with my family, this brings a family sense to my mindset and how I go about things, so this is really cool.”
The donated meals are benefiting numerous organizations across the Twin Cities, including Loaves and Fishes, People Serving People, Bolder Options, Hope Kids, the Ronald McDonald House, Tubman and Nokomis Montessori School. Gopher football players are thankful the meals will be supporting organizations that serve others in the community.
“We talk about serving and giving and that’s really the foundation of Row the Boat. Putting our oar in the water for people in the community, putting our oar in the water for our teammates,” linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin said. “Just to be able to be in the community means a whole lot. Football is one thing, but serving and giving is really what this whole thing is all about.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Gophers could not host the Turkey Drive last year. That made Tuesday’s event extra special for everyone on the team, including center John Michael Schmitz.
“This is great, especially with COVID and stuff, we weren’t allowed to get out and serve and give [last year]. We are starting to get more back to normal. Just getting out there serving and giving is what we love to do and it just brings joy to our life,” Michael Schmitz said. “You have to feel grateful for what you have and be grateful for all of the meals you are given. You don’t really realize how much you have until you see someone else that is less fortunate.”
Events like the Turkey Drive epitomize what the Gophers’ Row the Boat culture is all about – serving and giving. Each day, Minnesota’s players are searching for opportunities to give back and serve others in the Twin Cities community. Tuesday’s event is just one example.
“Serving and giving is everything we stand for. If you have the chance and opportunity to help somebody out and serve somebody else in the community who needs help or is underprivileged, that’s what we want to do,” defensive end Boye Mafe said. “Every day we preach it in our meetings and it’s at the top of everything we do. Just being able to help people out and do things for them like this, it means the world for us. Any time you can help somebody, why not help them?”
During a fast-paced season, taking time to find perspective is important to Minnesota’s players and coaches. It is something that transcends beyond the holiday season in the Gophers program.
“Perspective is what Coach Fleck preaches. If you don’t have perspective, it’s hard to kind of see things out. That’s why we do the Turkey Drive, we visit the Children’s Hospital and read to kids,” Howard said. “It is a thankful time of year and we’re thankful to give back. Those who are given to are also thankful as well. It’s all fun.”
Since P.J. Fleck and his staff arrived in 2017, they have used “Row the Boat” to make a difference in the lives of countless people in the Twin Cities. Fleck said Minnesota’s Row the Boat culture has always been built upon serving and giving, while preparing players for the future.
“They are football players on Saturdays for three hours in front of our fans, but they are young men becoming men, husbands and fathers. They are going to lead their families one day and they’re learning how to be able to do all of that,” Fleck said Tuesday night. “Some of them already have that in them. Some of them are learning how to do that. And it’s our responsibility as a program to continue to educate and teach how important philanthropy and serving and giving is.”
Spending Thanksgiving with the football family
As the Gophers prepare for Saturday’s huge rivalry game against Wisconsin, players who live in other states are unable to travel home for Thanksgiving dinner. Mike Brown-Stephens, an Ohio native, is just one example. Since he can’t travel home, the Gophers wide receiver will be spending Thanksgiving with a group of teammates.
“Words can’t express how good it feels to let it be known that you are welcome into somebody else’s house and how much this team shows that we actually care for each other,” Brown-Stephens said.
Brown-Stephens instead remains connected with family traditions by making his uncle, singer John Legend’s, macaroni and cheese. He pulls up the online cookbook, prepares the meal and instantly connects with his past.
“Growing up, we had my uncle’s famous mac and cheese. He has it in a cookbook and since I haven’t been able to go home, the cookbook is online, so I have been using his recipe,” Brown Stephens said. “I still get the taste of his famous mac and cheese, so I would definitely have to go with that as being my favorite dish.”
Brown-Stephens is not completely sure what makes Legend’s mac and cheese so special, but he has a hunch it is the extra sharp cheddar cheese.
“I know I like the garlic salt taste of it and it’s really cheesy. We use extra sharp cheddar and I guess that’s just what makes it good,” Brown-Stephens. “However he thought of it, he did a good job.”
What are Gophers players most thankful for this year?
Phillip Howard: “I’m thankful for everyone around me. You can’t never not be thankful for those around you – good and bad. They all have life lessons within. My grandma always told me and Coach Fleck also said this, you meet some people and they stay in your life for a lifetime and you meet some people for like a semester. And a semester means, you meet somebody and they’ll be around for about a year and they were there to teach you in that year, some life lessons that you never thought you would know.”
John Michael Schmitz: “I’m thankful for my team. We are a pretty tight-knit group, as you can see, especially the O-Line. I’m thankful for those guys. I mean, we’ve been around five, six years together and it’s been special learning from Sam and Conner. That whole offensive unit is just really connected. The running backs, wide receivers, quarterbacks and tight ends, we’re all a tight-knit group. I’m thankful for everyone.”
Boye Mafe: “I’m most thankful for the opportunity to come here. There are hundreds and hundreds of thousands of kids that play high school football and then to have the opportunity to come to college, play football here, get a degree and be able to better my life in every way. The opportunity, it just means the world to me.”
Mariano Sori-Marin: “I’m most thankful for my family and my teammates. It’s been an interesting last two years, especially with COVID and just football in general, but you look at the guys that are on this team, you look at my family. Everybody has stuck together through these weird times and sort of difficult times. We’ve really made the most of this season. Not everything has gone are way, but we can look back and be grateful and thankful that we have had the opportunity to play football together.”
Mike Brown-Stephens: “I’m thankful for a strong support system who always has my back no matter what is going on. They lead me in the right direction and want the best for me.”