Even though he doesn’t score touchdowns, pull down ballcarriers or pick off passes, Ben Klinger is probably one of the most valuable members of the University of Minnesota football team.
The Brainerd High School graduate is one of about a dozen student equipment managers for the Gophers. He assists with all of the players’ needs, from helmets to shoulder pads to jerseys, to helping coaches run practice as smoothly as possible, as well as doing laundry.
“A big part is laundry, actually. That’s always fun,” said Klinger, who leaves Tuesday for his second season at Minnesota. “We have two giant industrial washers, and four giant dryers. We can turn around a 100-person team’s laundry in a couple of hours. Usually, we have the younger guys doing most of that so I did a lot of laundry last year.”
This season, Klinger will get to travel to all road games, which he didn’t do in 2011, in addition to working home games at TCF Bank Stadium. He estimates he spends an average of 35 hours a week with the team and performing his responsibilities.
“My main job will be with the defensive backs, that’s where I will stick during practice, helping out our defensive backs coach with drills and things like that,” Klinger said. “I might have a few more duties on the sidelines during games.
“The biggest difference (in 2012) will be specializing in a position, and traveling. I’m just trying to learn whatever I can from all the coaches. I was able to job shadow the offensive coordinator (Matt Limegrover) last year. That was really a great experience.”
During his senior year at BHS, Klinger attended the Gophers’ spring game with his father, Randy, and met with Dan O’Brien, the Gophers’ director of football operations. O’Brien knows Brainerd coach Ron Stolski, for whom Klinger played high school ball.
“I just mentioned to (O’Brien) that I wanted to be part of the program, that I would help out any way I could,” Klinger said. “He knows coach Stolski. I talked to coach Stolski, and he was able to give me a nice reference. I went down for an interview with the assistant equipment director (Andy Harris) and got the job.”
During his interview, Klinger got to meet former Gophers Matt Spaeth (Chicago Bears) and Eric Decker (Denver Broncos).
He conceded that balancing academics and Division I football was “really tough.”
“Especially first semester, getting adjusted to college life, it was little bit harder,” Klinger said, “but once I got used to that it was fine. Spring semester went really well, when the load was obviously a little lighter.”
Klinger called it “really amazing” to be involved with a Division I program and to see how it works from the inside out.
“Just all the time and effort that goes into it,” he said. “The coaches are just relentless. They’re just giving everything they’ve got to turn the program around. Everyone involved with the program, it’s non-stop work.
“Coming from high school, and seeing Division I athletes, the size, the speed, speed’s the biggest thing. They have the combination of size and athletic ability, where being around a Division II and Division III you get maybe one of those. (In Division I) it’s the total package.”
Playing Division I athletics is almost a full-time job.
“It’s really hard for them, I’m sure, to keep up with school and to keep their grades up,” Klinger said of Gopher players. “Coach (Jerry) Kill, in his first year, had the team GPA the highest it’s ever been in 10 years I believe. They’re up at 6 in the morning. In the offseason, they’re working out. During the season they go to class, go to practice, go to meetings, watch film, do homework, and go to sleep.”
Klinger has been impressed with Kill and his staff. There’s no doubt in his mind that Kill will turn around what has been a woeful program for decades. He’s also impressed with how genuine Kill is.
“Everything he says he means,” Klinger said. “He doesn’t try to dodge any questions, he’s real. I think that’s a big change from the last coach we had.”
Kill’s first Big Ten win, 22-21 over Iowa, was the highlight of the Klinger’s first season.
“Beating Iowa, that was crazy,” he said. “That onside kick, we had been practicing all week, all year. They had no idea when that came.”
Klinger’s scariest moment occurred when Kill suffered a seizure during a home game.
“I don’t know how to describe it,” he said. “I guess surreal would be the best word for it. The whole stadium just went silent. You could hear a pin drop.
“I think everyone knew he would be OK when his wife came down on the sidelines. She was the calmest person in the world at that moment.
“He had told the media when he got hired, he had told (former athletic director) Joel Maturi, he had told the team so (a seizure) wasn’t unexpected. He makes a point of saying it doesn’t affect anything. He’s been cleared by all the doctors, he always has been. He says you’ve just got to deal with things in life.”
Fringe benefits of being associated with the program include developing relationships with players, getting to hear former Gopher and former NFL coach Tony Dungy speak to the team, receiving complimentary game tickets for family and friends and being provided with Gopher apparel (shirts, shorts, rain gear, travel gear, shoes, hats, winter coats, etc.)
Klinger’s tentative plan is to major in kinesiology and possibly minor in sports management and coaching. His dream is to coach college football.
“I’ve been helping out at (BHS) football camp this week, trying to learn from coach Stolski and his staff,” Klinger said. “(Stolski and Klinger have) talked a lot since I’ve graduated. I like to think I have a pretty close relationship with a lot of those coaches.”
Mike Bialka, sports editor, may be reached at 855-5861. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/bertsballpark.