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John on their minds, in their hearts

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An unidentified St. John's player (shown from the back) stands with his helmet under his arm. The word JOHN is clearly visible, in red capital letters on a white helmet. (Photo by Wade Gardner, d3photography.com)
John Gagliardi's first name now adorns St. John's players helmets.
Photo by Wade Gardner, d3photography.com
 

By Frank Rajkowski
Special to D3sports.com

COLLEGEVILLE, Minnesota — The annual St. John’s-St. Thomas football matchup always serves as a sort of all-class reunion for former players and alumni on both sides of the long rivalry.

But on Saturday, it went deeper than that.

Especially at St. John’s, where for 60 seasons John Gagliardi paced the sideline as head coach.

Gagliardi died at age 91 early on Oct. 7 — seven days before the undefeated Johnnies were due to host the unbeaten Tommies at Clemens Stadium.

His funeral was held Monday on campus. But Saturday’s game provided an opportunity for many of his former players to gather and reminisce about the winningest coach in college football history.

“Being here today brings back so many memories,” said Cole Deibele, a starting defensive back on the 2003 Johnnies’ team which won the last of Gagliardi’s four national titles.

“It’s hard to see a legend like John go. He was such a big part of my life and the lives of so many others. But seeing my old teammates, and all the other guys who played for him, just reminds you of what his legacy was.

“As a coach now myself, I try to be like John. To be good to my players and make them feel like I’m invested in their lives.”

St. John's fan holds sign saying "Legends Never Die Do it For John." (Photo by Wade Gardner, d3photpgraphy.com)
The sign says it all.
Photo by Wade Gardner, d3photography.com
 

The current St. John’s players did their part to make Saturday even more memorable. Senior wide receiver Will Gillach and junior quarterback Jackson Erdmann each had record-setting days in a 40-20 Johnnies’ victory before a still-festive crowd of 16,922.

It marked the first St. John’s victory in the rivalry since 2014. A moment of silence in honor of Gagliardi was observed prior to kickoff.

“John had a huge impact on us today,” said Erdmann, who was 28 of 53 passing for a single-game school record 470 yards and three touchdowns.

“We knew it was a special week because of John and his legacy here. There were so many alumni back. It’s really brought the whole Johnnies’ community together.”

Erdmann and Gillach, who caught 14 passes for a single-game school record 256 yards and two touchdowns, were among the many St. John’s players pointing a finger skyward after big plays in tribute to Gagliardi.

“We wanted to go out and win this game today,” Gillach said. “Not just for us. But for John and all the guys who played for him over the years.”

The day also saw a reunion of the three Johnnies players to have won the Gagliardi Trophy — an award named in the legendary coach’s honor and handed out annually since 1993 by Jostens and the St. John’s J-Club to the most outstanding player in Division III football.

On and off the field.

Chris Palmer (1995), Blake Elliott (2003) and Carter Hanson (2016) were among a group of ex-St. John’s greats honored by the school at halftime.

“This event and this weekend is a perfect summation of who John was,” Elliott said. “Johnnies-Tommies doesn’t exist in anywhere near the scope that it’s become if it wasn’t for John Gagliardi.

“It’s hard to describe what John meant to so many people in words. But you look around at this crowd and it’s a pretty good summation of what he built and the impact he had on so many people.”

Chris Palmer, Blake Elliott and Carter Hanson pose on the sidelines at the 2018 Johnnie-Tommie game. (Photo by Frank Rajkowski)
Chris Palmer, Blake Elliott and Carter Hanson each won the Gagliardi Trophy, named after John Gagliardi, over a span of 21 years.
Photo by Frank Rajkowski
 

“It’s been interesting to hear from so many non-football players who know I played here, and to hear their own stories about John,” Palmer added. “They never were here and never played for him. But they know what he meant to college football.”

The victory capped an emotional week for the St. John’s coaching staff, many of whom both played and coached under Gagliardi, who retired following the 2012 season.

That includes his successor, current head coach Gary Fasching.

“I thought about him early this morning when I woke up and I couldn’t sleep,” Fasching said. “I thought about him on my way here. I thought about him during the moment of silence before kickoff.

“And I’m sure he’s looking down smiling.”

“On Monday, I asked all our coaches to get up and talk about what John meant to them,” he continued. “It’s been a very emotional time for everyone at St. John’s. And I can’t say enough about the way our players handled all that. They managed to stay focused all week and came out and played an amazing game.”

St. Thomas head coach Glenn Caruso too paid tribute to Gagliardi afterward.

“I told Coach Fasching before the game that regardless of who won and what happened, what you see with this rivalry and what it’s become is really a credit to John and all he meant to college football,” Caruso said.

“He played such a big role in making this game what it is today.”

Deibele said being on hand Saturday with so many other players who shared the experience of having Gagliardi as a head coach helped ease the sting of his passing.

“It’s been sad this week to know that he’s gone,” he said as he stood in a tailgate lot packed with thousands of people clad in red or wearing purple.

“But at the same time, being here with so many of these other guys brings back a flood of great memories. We all had such amazing experiences playing football here at St. John’s. And John was the biggest reason for that.”

Max Jackson takes off after picking up a fumble, while the St. John's sideline celebrates. He ran 99 yards for the game-clinching touchdown. (Photo by Wade Gardner, d3photography.com)
Max Jackson takes off after picking up a fumble, while the St. John's sideline celebrates. He ran 99 yards for the game-clinching touchdown.
Photo by Wade Gardner, d3photography.com
 

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