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Holiday Cheer Spread at Gophers’ Annual RTB Turkey Drive

Smiles, warm hot chocolate and holiday cheer were spread at Tuesday night’s annual Row the Boat Turkey Drive at the University of Minnesota. 

The Gophers football team once again partnered with several local organizations to provide 300 Thanksgiving meals for families in need.

Each vehicle that arrived at the facility was greeted by a group of energetic players and head coach P.J. Fleck. They waved signs, sang carols and interacted with kids. All night, the true spirit of the holiday season was felt by everyone at the event. 

“It’s amazing to see people smiling. You can’t really even put it into words. Just to know that even something as small as waving around a towel can make a positive impact on someone’s day,” said linebacker Derik LeCaptain. “That’s what we’re all about. We’re all about having a positive impact on anybody that we encounter.”

As the Gophers prepare for Saturday’s rivalry game against Wisconsin, many players will be away from their family this Thanksgiving, including left tackle Aireontae Ersery. The Kansas City native said an event like this actually brings a small piece of home to him. 

“It means a lot to host an event like this because we talk about F.A.M.I.L.Y. in this culture – forget about me I love you – so it just means a lot giving back to the families and kids,” Ersery said. “Since I can’t go back home, I get to see smiles through other peoples’ faces and it just brings joy to my heart.”

Australian punter Mark Crawford views this event through a completely different lens, especially since Thanksgiving is a new tradition for him. Crawford said he never experienced anything like it in his homeland. 

“I think there are so many opportunties that present themselves here and you can connect with parts of the community that I don’t get to see very often,” Crawford said. “And especially coming from Australia, it’s a completely different part of the world. The weather is different, the people are different, the food is different, it’s awesome.”

Each year, Crawford enjoys giving back to all of the fans who support the team. He knows that the smallest acts of kindness can make a difference in the lives of others. 

“We’re here to play football, we’re here to get a degree, but I think one of the biggest parts is giving back,” Crawford said. “There are so many people that come to our games and follow us and to give them a little taste of what it might be like or to be able to give back in some ways makes it all worth it.”

Throughout the night, families were emotional, thankful and smiling as the group of players handed them their meal through the window. Children in the backseat couldn’t wait to hi as well. Kicker Dragan Kesich said all of those priceless smiles and interactions warm his heart this holiday season. 

“It’s amazing to see people smiling because I’m a guy who likes to make people smile,” Kesich said. “So something just as simple as giving somebody hot chocolate and making their day, it goes a long way. It makes me feel good inside.”

Each player shared a similar message regarding the power of Minnesota’s culture. LeCaptain, along with his teammates, said serving and giving opportunties are a big reason why they enjoy playing for the Gophers. 

“Serving and giving is everything we’re about in this program. Whether it’s serving and giving in the community, in the university, with each other, it’s everything we’re about,” LeCaptain said. “It’s what makes us who we are.”

What are Gophers players most thankful for this year? 

Punter Mark Crawford: “Thanksgiving is a good start! Through and through, the culture this year has been different than the last couple of years. I mean, obviously, things go different ways at times on the field, but off the field, we’ve never been closer. There’s a really good sense of this group and this team doing all of the right things. It’s a pleasure. I love playing football here.”

Kicker Dragan Kesich: “The time I’ve had with my brothers. In a couple of weeks, we are going to have a whole new team. So being able to grow old with these guys – some of these seniors I’ve been with for three years now – just the time I’ve had with them. I’m so thankful.”

Left tackle Aireontae Ersery: “We always talk about giving back to each other and having a joyful life. This is just one of the things that is a part of it and I’m grateful for it. I’m thankful to be around the team. I’m thankful just to play with the guys and continue to get better each and every day.”

Linebacker Derik LeCaptain: “I would say the program and the guys on the team. Just knowing that we’re always there for each other and that we’re going to be with each other through everything. Just grateful to be a part of this program. 

Linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin: “I’m most thankful for this team. This is my senior year. I’ve had such a great experience here. I’m coming up on my last regular season game as a Gopher and I’m just thankful for all of the moments and memories.”

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