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Brian Wierima / Forum Communications Co., Published April 28 2012

Former Detroit Lakers quarterback takes wild ride to UND

Detroit Lakes, Minn.

Detroit Lakes senior Joe Mollberg has experienced what no other Lakers football player has ever gone through, being recruited on the big stage of Division I colleges.

Mollberg, a quarterback, and his family took a journey the last three years like no other Lakers student-athlete, as some of the most celebrated college football programs wooed the DL quarterback to commit to their teams.

Joe’s father, Kent Mollberg, documented the family’s travels and experiences over the course of the last two and a half years. Excerpts from Kent’s “diary” will be used in the article and will be signified in italics.

It’s a three-year story in which Joe Mollberg and his family were able to say they experienced things the regular student-athlete doesn’t get to.

This one is Mollberg’s journey, from the start, when he was noticed as a potential Division I quarterback to the last minute of his final decision – which ended with a big announcement in a locker room up north.

The game starts

Recruiting is so very much like playing a game of poker. You think you know how good your cards are, and you think you know what your opponent is doing, but you are never quite sure.

That is how it is with Joe right now and it is wearing on him.

Those are the words of Joe’s father, Kent Mollberg, from one of his email accounts he shared with select people throughout the recruiting ordeal.

By then, Joe Mollberg was a veteran of the recruiting process, and it was coming to an end with his eventual big decision of picking the University of North Dakota.

But, the path to Grand Forks was as tangled and hilly as it could get.

As strange as it was, Mollberg’s recruiting journey started even before he played one varsity down for the Lakers.

It was a summer afternoon in 2009, when Mollberg and his Lakers teammates were partaking in a 7-on-7 competition at the University of Minnesota Gopher Camp.

Throw after throw, Mollberg impressed onlookers, including Gophers offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch.

Tim Brewster, who was the Gophers head coach at the time, also noticed Mollberg’s arm strength and pocket presence and told Lakers head coach Flint Motschenbacher as much.

Brewster picks up Flint on his golf cart and rides around with him saying, “We want your QB...”

“I started getting letters from the University of Minnesota, then they started coming in from Wisconsin, Iowa, Northwestern, Purdue and Michigan,” Joe Mollberg said.

His sophomore season, Mollberg was impressive – completing 75 of 173 passes for 1,439 yards with a 12-to-11 touchdown-to-interception ratio, while rushing for 259 yards.

In the fall of 2010, Mollberg and his family are invited to every Gophers home game at the new TCF Bank Stadium. They sit on the 50-yard line, Row 1, behind the U of M bench.

Mollberg is also receiving interest from Iowa, which is sending four to five letters a week. He makes the U of M Junior Day, in which his main competition was Mankato West’s Philip Nelson, who was reported as being offered a full ride prior.

All this comes at the heels of Jerry Kill replacing Brewster as the new head coach of the Gophers. Interest in Mollberg stalled from the Kill regime, but started to pick up as Junior Day neared.

The writing was on the wall for Mollberg after Nelson signed, and it was the first dip of emotion in what was an up-and-down process.

Mollberg’s junior year opens up a bunch of eyes with 1,032 yards rushing on 176 attempts (5.9 per carry) and a 53-for-103 passing completion rate for 1,015 yards.

That’s also when the Football Championship Subdivision colleges started to get in the mix, especially neighboring North Dakota State, South Dakota State and the University of North Dakota.

He also starts making his visits, as he prepares for his senior season.

The interest ramps up through his junior season and the summer entering his senior year.

U Northern Iowa - Just entered the picture. Invited to Junior day on April 16th.

Stanford - This one is weird. He gets a letter a day from them and has even been invited to junior day, but no contact with a coach of any kind.

Wisconsin - Gets a letter about three times a week. Coach has called a couple of times. Say they are coming up to watch him throw. They don’t seem overly active. They have offered 2-3 junior QBS already.

Toledo entered the picture big time today.

Coach contacted Flint and said they are ready to offer Joe, see him as a big time “sleeper” and want to get at him before others. Real close to pulling the trigger, but would love to see Joe throw first.

Michigan - Joe got a personal letter from them a week ago inviting him to camp.

Michigan State - Probably the most interesting school on the plate right now. They have notched up their interest quite a bit in the last week. Flint has been playing phone tag with coach and today Joe received faxed invite to Junior Day. Of course it is on April 16th (the same day as the Gopher’s Junior Day).

But as Mollberg enters his senior year, the decisions are being whittled down, but are only getting more difficult to make.

His visits get more spectacular, as Iowa, NDSU, NIU and the latecomer – UND – are the final ones standing.

Significant setback

It was a simple dropback during a meaningless play, but it had a big impact on Joe Mollberg’s senior season – and ultimately helped the highly recruited Detroit Lakes quarterback decide where to play college ball.

The play occurred on the very first snap of the Detroit Lakes scrimmage against Fergus Falls in late August, on the field named for his grandfather, Dell Mollberg.

Before every contest I always said a quick prayer asking that Joe not get hurt, and that no one got hurt.

On the day of the scrimmage I was sitting in the bleachers and said the traditional prayer.

Five seconds later the scrimmage began and on the first play Joe was tackled from behind by a player from Fergus Falls and badly sprained his ankle.

Needless to say, I was a little upset with the Big Man upstairs for a few minutes. This injury hampered Joe the entire season.

My prayers weren’t answered at that time, but in the big picture of things, it has all worked out the way it was supposed to.

For good or bad, the injury ultimately was an important factor in Mollberg’s college decision.

Leading up to that point, though, Mollberg was feeling the mounting pressure of modern college recruiting, especially on the homestretch of the biggest decision of his life.

Hawkeyes in pursuit

With almost a three-year flirtation with the University of Minnesota dissipating, Mollberg’s options were still strong, with Iowa, North Dakota State and the University of North Dakota.

Although the scholarship offers were not yet coming in, that time was nearing and when it came, it came as a sudden tidal wave.

“Iowa was interested in me coming as a walk-on,” Mollberg said. “I was interested because it was Iowa, a traditionally great Big Ten team. There were many advantages of going there and experiencing that whole ride.”

With Iowa being the big dog left in the recruiting race, the Mollbergs headed south for Joe’s college visit.

Friday, Joe got a call from the Iowa Hawkeye lead recruiter. He has been getting a letter a day from them for almost a year, but has never had personal contact with them.

He tells Joe, “We did our QB board and you are at the top. We have offered two other QBs but we list you ahead of them. I am driving all the way up to see you on May 11. I am not coming to see anyone else, just you.”

Mollberg still had to be at the top of his game, even in June, when he started making his passing camp visits.

With UND and NDSU in the thick of things, Iowa was still being patient with any type of offer to Mollberg, who was basically competing for a spot with another Minnesota QB – Lakeville South’s Mitch Leidner.

Mollberg still had a strong season at QB as a senior, despite playing at about 75 percent for much of the season. He threw for 1,453 yards by going 77-for-132 and a solid 15-to-6 TD-to-interception ratio for a lofty QB rating of 115.499.

But because Mollberg missed some early action of his senior season, as well as late in the schedule, it became a big factor in Iowa’s chase.

By the third week of the season, Iowa’s interest waned, thus leaving two colleges left in the Mollberg sweepstakes, and they happened to be bitter rivals in NDSU and UND.

Decisions, decisions

Earlier in the process, NDSU became a front-runner for Mollberg, but UND made a surprising move and jumped right in, attempting to steal the DL product away from the Bison and head coach Craig Bohl.

But as has been proven with his top-notch recruiting, which eventually led to a national championship, Bohl knows how to treat a potential future player, as Mollberg found out during his official visit to the Fargo campus.

Probably the most impressive facilities we have seen other than TCF Stadium (U of M).

But NDSU and Coach Bohl are heavy on other QB recruits’ tails and the interest from the Bison subsides a little during the summer. Mollberg loves the thought of playing just down Highway 10 from his family, but also sees an influx of QBs being signed in Fargo.

The road eventually was forked, one going south to NDSU, the other north to UND.

UND makes its pitch

Recruiting is about timing sometimes.

In the end, UND head coach Chris Mussman had perfect timing.

While Mollberg was under a blitzkrieg from coaches through mail, phone and social networking, Mussman and the UND coaching staff knelt in the weeds, after being relatively quiet for the first stages in the process.

UND came out of nowhere. Joe had heard nothing from them, and then all of a sudden he gets a call from an assistant.

A week later, the day after senior signing day, Joe is called into Flint Motschenbacher’s (DL head coach) office. Flint and Rob Nielsen (DL assistant coach) are in there on conference call with the UND head coach.

The UND coach tells Joe they never do this, but offers him a free ride over the phone. Junior day is in two weeks. Joe will go.

The interest picks up from UND, as they also set their sites on Mollberg’s teammate Brian Labat, who is having an excellent offseason and looking to be a big part of the Lakers’ plans at linebacker. (He commits to UND a little after Mollberg does). Labat also was pursued by the Bison.

Joe is very intrigued by the idea that he and Brian might play together on the same team. They have been teammates since second grade and great friends.

Both NDSU and UND made all the right moves with Mollberg and the distance from home is right for both.

But in the end, Mollberg took the advice from his DL coaches, friends and family and chose the school he was most comfortable with – UND.

Last night Joe made probably the most difficult and adult phone call he has ever made. He called NDSU to tell them that at this time they are No. 3 on his list of schools. It was tough to do, but he handled it well.

He truly likes NDSU and all they have done and offered but it just has not seemed the “right fit.”

Saturday: Joe traveled to UND where he attended the UND game honoring the 2001 National Championship team. After the game Joe went into the locker room with the team and informed the coaches that he was making a “soft verbal” commitment to UND.

The coaches were ecstatic and there were hugs and high fives all around the locker room. Three of the coaches then came out to find Patty and myself and “welcome us to the UND family.” It was an exciting time for Joe and you could just see the months of indecision and torment fall from his shoulders.

But Bohl still would make his final pitch that same evening, calling Mollberg and leaving a voice message, thus proving he is always the recruiter.

At 6 p.m. on Saturday night, the NDSU Bison played the Gophers at TCF. Coach Bohl left a voice message saying, “Joe, this is Coach Bohl... I am standing on the 50-yard line at TCF... etc... etc...”

But for Joe Mollberg, it was finally finished. Months and months of agonizing over where he was going to play college football were over.

“After my last two days visiting with the UND coaches and players, it just felt right,” Mollberg explained his decision. “After watching NDSU win the national championship, my dad asked me what I thought of that?

“I answered, ‘I feel I’ll have my chance for that at UND.’ ”

Wierima is the sports editor for the Detroit Lakes Tribune