Iron Range football team tries to change lives

The Mesabi Range College football team 2015. Courtesy of Mesabi Range College

Today’s must-read story comes from the Iron Range, where the Star Tribune this afternoon unveiled a wonderful story about the football team at Mesabi Range College.

Almost all of the players are from somewhere else and most have never set foot in Minnesota. And only four were white. Virginia is overwhelmingly white.

It’s a last chance for many of them to play football.

Since 2010, few players have returned for a second season, and of the 65 who did, only 21 eventually earned a degree.

Only one football player graduated last year.

A school official says the figures are misleading because several of the players transfer to other schools.

This appears to be the “Hoop Dreams” of football. And it’s not all pretty.

Mike Flaten was Mesabi’s football coach more than a decade ago, and now is Hibbing’s athletic director. Football is not coming back to Hibbing, he said, and explained that he left Mesabi in part because “I saw the way the league was going” in recruiting more minority, out-of-state players.

“We were bringing them into an environment that, quite frankly, isn’t all that welcoming,” he said. “They’d just show up. They hardly got any money.” One player, he said, told them he could not practice because he had not eaten in two days.

Flaten said the atmosphere was made worse by too many players who clung to irrational dreams that the Iron Range might be a steppingstone to the National Football League. “They don’t realize that they’re at a [junior college Division] III, nonscholarship, kind of the bottom-of-the-barrel” school, he said.

The current coach, however, is a believer. He talks to the kids about racism. He tries to get them to swear less. He hopes someday their priority becomes their education.

Some of the players still think they have a shot at the National Football League. It’s happened before. The NFL has a player from the school team that’s made the league.

It’s hard to tell, though, whether this is a story about false hope or about real change. Because there’s still something good about chasing dreams and taking chances and changing your life. Or at least trying to.

The football field is a daily reminder how far removed players are from big-time college sports — and how indifferent Iron Range residents can be to the team. When Mesabi opened its home season on Sept. 6 — it uses a high school field near the college — only 44 people were in the stands at kickoff.

On their mile-long walks from the school to Target and Kmart, the players regularly passed a parked pickup truck with a large Confederate flag in its window.

Despite their rough edges, the players frequently showed a softer side. After every practice, the team gathered on the practice field to say the Lord’s Prayer, and many players — especially those from the South — addressed adults with “yes sir” and “no sir.”

Thomas Dorsey, a defensive back from Chicago, said he arrived in Minnesota after getting clearance from his probation officer to leave Illinois. “I was locked up in the joint,” Dorsey explained, standing outside his campus apartment.

Dorsey said he was at a New Year’s Eve party, trying to fire his .380 pistol into the air in celebration when the gun jammed and the police arrived.

“It was just a mistake,” Dorsey said. “l wasn’t right with God. Now, I’m right with God.”

The players have brought hope to the campus, the Star Tribune says.

“If you ain’t got sports, there ain’t nothing you can do but be in the streets,” one players says. “Up here, I’m safe.”

Be sure to watch the video.