During football season, an old red Dodge Ram truck would arrive at a daycare in Door County, Wis., to pick up 3-year-old Derik LeCaptain.
Pat McCarty had Derik, his own son and Derik’s brother Nick pile in for a quick trip to McDonald’s and then off to varsity practice at Sturgeon Bay High School. McCarty was head coach, and the LeCaptains’ father, Mark, the team’s defensive coordinator, would meet them there.
Derik and Nick weren’t allowed to roll around on the tackling dummies or toss a ball during practice. They flanked their dad behind the action and were instructed to call out “run” or “pass” as plays developed.
“He never really let us screw around on the side or anything,” Derik said. “We always had to watch.”
Derik LeCaptain fell in love with the game and left Southern Door High School with the most yards from scrimmage in Wisconsin history, including 5,119 rushing yards. With one Division I offer (South Dakota), LeCaptain took a preferred walk-on spot at Minnesota. The third-year player contributes on four special teams units and earned a scholarship during preseason camp.
LeCaptain is also the current holder of the Gophers’ Steak Trophy, a huge T-bone-like cut of wood which goes to the U’s complete scout team player of the week. It’s a tradition head coach P.J. Fleck started when he was a receivers coach more than a decade ago.
“It’s a massive steak” that would, joked offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr., be the envy of “Manny’s or (J.D.) Hoyt’s.”
When the Gophers prepare for an upcoming opponent, they need freshmen and backups to run the other team’s plays. It’s an unsung but vital role, especially needed when facing a new opponent such Colorado. Minnesota (1-1) plays the Buffaloes (1-1) at noon Saturday at Folsom Field in Boulder.
Success on the scout team can be a precursor to success on Saturdays. LeCaptain, a linebacker, was a scout team player of the year in 2019. Reigning Big Ten running back of the year, Mo Ibrahim, was a scout team player of the year in 2017.
LeCaptain and running back Preston Jelen are the 18th and 19th Minnesota walk-on players under Fleck to earn scholarships since 2017. The most-successful example is Blake Cashman, a fifth-round NFL draft pick now in his third year with the Jets.
“He has earned everything he’s gotten,” said Gophers defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Joe Rossi. “I’ve got two young (sons), so if they can end up like Derik, I’ll be a proud daddy.”
Mark LeCaptain played at Wisconsin-Whitewater and has coached high school and youth football for more than 30 years. He has had 24 players earn Division I and II scholarships, and four have gone on to the NFL.
“People ask me and say you’ve got to be proud,” Mark LeCaptain said. “I wouldn’t say proud because the expectations are laid down at a very young age. The word that comes to mind is ‘justified.’ I put both the boys through a lot.”
Mark grew up on a 240-acre, 60-cow dairy farm overlooking Lake Michigan’s Green Bay, where Derik’s grandfather had two reasons his children could leave the farm: play sports or go deer hunting.
“I had nobody to really groom me, and yet I still played at one of the top programs in the nation in Division III,” Mark said. “I always said I would not let that happen to other players.”
Mark learned NFL legends Jerry Rice and Walter Payton would run hills to get an edge on their competition, so he had Derik and Nick run a steep 30-yard hill on the backside of the family farm. Derik embraced it so much he would run it 10 times in a session, and sometimes there would be three sessions in a day, his father said.
LeCaptain was four-year standout in football, basketball and baseball for the middle-tier Division 3-class school, which has an enrollment just over 300 students. Despite the success, LeCaptain’s recruiting was tepid. Badgers head coach Paul Chryst visited Southern Door, but only offered a preferred walk-on spot.
“It was extremely disappointing,” Mark said.
When at Western Michigan, Fleck and assistant coach Matt Simon recruited Luxemburg (Wis.) offensive lineman Spencer Kanz when Mark LeCaptain was on staff there.
For Derik, Bryce Paup was the first U assistant to recruit him, but then Paup left the staff. “There was a void there, but Matt, to his credit, stayed in contact with me,” Mark said.
Derik LeCaptain was sold on the U after multiple visits to Dinkytown. He was at the U when they beat Purdue in the cold in 2018 and told Mark afterward, “I’m coming here.”
LeCaptain was sold on the program’s culture and energy. He played four games on special teams in 2019, all seven in 2020 and both games so far this season. But it’s what the academic all-Big Ten honoree does off the field that has been most impressive. A copious note-taker in film sessions, he ran the special teams during summer captains’ practices and is often doing extra work before and after practice and in the weight room.
“He is a tremendous example,” Rossi said. “I love coaching him. A joy to coach, great person, great family. We are just really proud of him, and I can always go to him as an example of, ‘Look at Derik.’ ”
Asked why he prepared so much knowing he almost assuredly wasn’t going to see the field as a linebacker, LeCaptain said: “You are doing it for yourself, and you are doing it for your teammates at the same time.”
When LeCaptain left the outdoor patio at the Athletes Village after a 10-minute interview last week, he walked across the courtyard to the Larson Football Performance Center. He was going to watch more film.