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Jeff Kolpack, Published December 10 2010

Maturing into a leader: Carrying the load is nothing new for Bison football defensive lineman Gratzek

Before football entered his popularity picture, Matthew Gratzek was known around Argyle, Minn., as one of the kids who would sell pumpkins, corn and potatoes in the community. It was the farm kid version of a Kool-Aid stand.

They planted the seeds, nourished the growth and saw it through to the consumer. Maturity, it seems, has followed the North Dakota State defensive lineman his entire life.

“He and his brother from a very early age were expected to carry their share of the load,” said Mark Kroulik, Gratzek’s football coach at Stephen-Argyle.

Gratzek has carried his share of the load with the Bison football team. Arguably the best defensive lineman in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, he is a poster child for how the Bison went from a 3-8 season of a year ago to Saturday’s Division I Football Championship Subdivision quarterfinal game at Eastern Washington.

Last year was just unacceptable, like selling a bad pumpkin on an Argyle street.

“Stephen and Argyle are farming communities and that’s the way of life,” Gratzek said. “Stuff has to get done, so you do it.”

If NDSU is the main course in his football career, Stephen-Argyle was a pretty good appetizer. The Storm won six Minnesota 9-man football titles since 2003 and Gratzek was part of a state record 76 consecutive victories.

They weren’t successful by accident, either.

The well-told story of players beginning football practice at 5:45 every morning is true. Gratzek seized the free time in the afternoon to either watch film or lift weights.

“He’s a self-driven person,” Cindy Gratzek said of her son. “That also goes for his class, which was very competitive but in a healthy way. They pushed each other in a positive way.”

So nothing about Gratzek had to be fixed when he enrolled at NDSU in 2006. He was the Stephen-Argyle class salutatorian. He played varsity football as a high school freshman, and Kroulik said he played three quarters of a state semifinal playoff game with a broken arm.

In Kroulik’s 37 years of coaching, nobody was better than Gratzek.

“And he certainly never carried any arrogance about him,” Kroulik said. “There was a confidence, but never an arrogance.”

Every day at NDSU, he showed up for practice or a game and did his job. It was no coincidence this year that the Bison defense struggled when he was out of the lineup with a knee injury.

Take one play in the second round win at Montana State last week. He cut off a Bobcats reverse in the backfield, and then eventually got the tackle on a receiver about 10 yards later.

He looked at home all day in the freezing temperatures and snow piled up around the Bobcat Stadium. The forecast for Saturday’s game is mostly cloudy and a high of 33 degrees.

“I really enjoy playing outside and I think a lot of guys on this team being from where we’re from enjoy that, too,” Gratzek said. “I remember playing a couple playoff games on the Iron Range where we wore tennis shoes instead of spikes because the ground was so hard.”

He’s 6-foot-2, 289 pounds and certain to at least get a pro football look. The scouts won’t have to question his work ethic.

“The last couple of seasons weren’t up to par to what is expected around here,” Gratzek said. “We got after it to make sure things got back to the way they should be.”

Gratzek said he wouldn’t mind returning to the farm life down the road. He wouldn’t mind continuing the season into mid-December, either.

“I don’t ever want it to end,” Cindy Gratzek said. “That’s what’s hard. I’m sure glad they’re having the season that they’re having because this playoff memory will be once in a lifetime.”

Forum reporter Jeff Kolpack can be heard on the Saturday Morning Sports Show, 9-11 a.m. on WDAY-AM (970). He can be reached at (701) 241-5546.

Kolpack’s NDSU media blog can be found at www.areavoices.com/bisonmedia