The labor of love for Jerry and Linda Kieft has been going on for most of the past six years.
The Sioux Center, Iowa, couple load up a specialized trailer with food, beverages and equipment, travel about 240 miles to the northeast and arrive in the shadow of Huntington Bank Stadium for a Gophers football weekend.
They’ll watch their son, Ko, a sixth-year senior tight end, play for the Gophers, but before the game and after, they’ll also throw a tailgate party attended by parents of other players. The weekly event – the Kiefts also have taken this show on the road for every game available – has grown over the years and is the source of long-lasting friendships.
It’s where parents have gathered to hug quarterback Tanner Morgan’s mother, Pat, who lost her husband Ted to brain cancer earlier this year.
“For us, football is about gathering, football is about relationships, football is about bringing the common denominator together – kids,” said Jerry Kieft, the gregarious and welcoming ringleader.
Added Ko, “It’s food, family, fellowship. Win or lose, I have people there for me, which is nice.”
On Saturday, though, the Kiefts won’t be holding their usual tailgate. The Gophers rivalry matchup against Wisconsin will be Ko’s last regular-season game, along with Parents’ Day, and his folks will free themselves to soak in the whole experience, a victory lap of sorts.
It figures to be an emotional day, especially for the Kiefts and other parents of seniors, who’ve made this a ritual they aren’t quite sure what they’ll do without.
“We wanted to walk around other tailgates and say thanks to all those fans who supported us,” Jerry said. “We just thought that was a better way for us to end the career than us doing our own thing.”
Quickly making friends
When Ko enrolled at Minnesota in 2016, the Kiefts’ tailgate tradition didn’t start immediately. Jerry and Linda attended the home games, wandered around the pregame scene and befriended some Gophers fans from southwest Minnesota. “All farmers, crop farmers, hog farmers and cattle farmers, like us,” Jerry said. Soon, other Gophers parents joined in.
“We were blessed by having other people welcome us into the fold of Minnesota football,” Linda said. “We kind of outgrew their group, so we decided that we should do our own thing.” They bought the trailer and got the parties started.
Dan and Vicky Schlueter of Victoria, parents of sixth-year senior offensive tackle Sam Schlueter, became fast friends with the Kiefts and are among those who’ve regularly helped with tailgate duties.
“We try and spread out a little bit of the work because it is a lot of work to haul all this stuff,” Dan Schlueter said. “They’re coming from Iowa, and we live only 45 minutes away, so that helps.”
The Kiefts’ tailgates have grown along with the friendships their sons have developed. Ko is tight with Schlueter, guard Conner Olson and safety Calvin Swenson. But it’s not just the parents of tight ends and linemen who participate. Regulars have included the parents of safety Tyler Nubin, transfer kicker Matthew Trickett and running backs Mohamed Ibrahim and Trey Potts, among others.
“It’s all about these relationships you build and these people you meet,” said Mariano Sori-Marin Sr., father of the Gophers linebacker. “This comes and goes pretty fast, but these relationships will last forever.”
There in good times and bad
Pat Morgan recalled her husband Ted meeting Jerry Kieft and quickly becoming friends.
“Ted always made an effort to find the offensive line parents and make sure they knew how much we appreciated how much they helped Tanner,” she said.
In July, Ted Morgan died after battling his cancer for more than a year. Jerry Kieft became close to Ted and visited him in Kentucky a few weeks before he passed.
“Ted and Jerry developed a really close relationship and talked weekly if not twice weekly about football, connecting in life, just all different things,” Linda Kieft said. “Jerry had a brother who went through cancer and died, so helping his family process and go through all those choices was a big thing.”
The Kiefts and other players’ parents have supported Pat Morgan through the ordeal, and the tailgates have been a big part.
“It’s hard. We all have moments when we break down,” Linda Kieft said. “You miss Ted. All of a sudden you feel Ted and you miss him. He’s here with you. And it’ll be like, ‘OK, it’s my turn to cry this week. Now it’s your turn to cry.’ We all take turns, and we all support each other.
“Part of why we’re doing what we do and why it got so big this year is we wanted to just help in any way we can because it’s hard going through life alone,” Linda added. “You need love, you need people, you need friendships.”
Festive game days
Preparation for a game day tailgate begins during the week when menus are chosen. On Oct. 23 for the Maryland game, the theme was specialty pizzas, and Jerry had a couple of Twin Cities friends prepare the pies on portable propane ovens.
For the Illinois game, pancakes were the theme, a nod to Ko’s propensity for delivering pancake blocks that knock opponents to their backside. All the while, the big-screen TV in the trailer is tuned to college football, and the stereo system cranks out music.
“We always do a meal before the game and a meal after the game when the boys come out so they can have food with us,” Jerry said. “That way we can see them. It works out really great.”
He estimated that between 100 and 150 people visit the tailgate on a typical game day. The Maryland game started at 2:30 p.m., but Jerry was setting up at 7 a.m. Laughter, and spirits, flow before and after the games as the friendships build. While Dan Schlueter was answering questions, the elder Sori-Marin teased him, “Your kid was on TV again the other day.” Schlueter responded, laughing, “Hey, when you got the moneymaker …”
Passing the baton
With the Gophers playing their last home game Saturday, the reality of the season nearing its end hits especially hard for parents of sixth-year seniors.
“It’s been six years for us. What are we going to do?” Wendy Schlueter said. “We’ll definitely miss it.”
For the Kiefts, Ko’s time with the Gophers winding down means a transition to the future. They’re selling their trailer to Thomas and Tamara Beebe, whose son, Colton, played tight end for the Gophers from 2015-18 and who have another son, Cooper, who’s a guard at Kansas State.
Jill and Brian Geers, whose son, Jameson, is a true freshman tight end, are the heirs apparent to the Kiefts as main tailgate organizers. They took the reins last week at Indiana, with Brian debuting the trailer he built as a replica of the Kiefts’ set-up.
“Our goal is to follow in the footsteps of the Kiefts’ tailgate,” Jill Geers said. “We’re just looking for a strong team, like Jerry has.”
For Pat Morgan, Gophers football will continue to be important, whether Tanner uses an extra year of eligibility in 2022 or completes his college career this year.
“I’ll still be supporting Minnesota because we made connections here,” she said. “I feel like this is life-long friendships and will go on forever.”