Touchdown John

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Story by: Justine Buerkle

Right now John Rabe's name may not hold the same recognition as past Minnesota tight ends like Matt Spaeth and Ben Utecht. But at the end of the season it might.

Because Rabe played two seasons at junior college, his Golden Gopher career will only be half as long as those past Gopher greats. Additionally, he does not say much to try to draw attention to himself on or off the field. According to his quarterback, MarQueis Gray, Rabe is just a "cool, chill, mellow guy."

However, that "cool, chill, mellow guy," has shown a knack for making important catches, evidenced by the fact that five of his nine career catches have gone for touchdowns. Rabe's work ethic and dependability have also earned the respect of his coaches and teammates. In his own quiet way, Rabe will do as much as he can to help the Gophers win.

Before he could score touchdowns at Minnesota, Rabe had to start smaller. He spent two years at Ellsworth Community College gaining experience to work his way toward playing at a higher level.

"You're not given a whole lot," Rabe said of his junior college days. "You've just got to work your way up. You're bused 10 hours to a game, and then you play in front of maybe 200 people."

Rabe's hard work led to a spot on the Junior College All-America roster after his sophomore season. He graduated from Ellsworth that semester, and was ready to move on.

Rabe had planned on playing for Jerry Kill at Northern Illinois, and he followed Kill to Minneapolis when he took the Gophers' head coaching job. Rabe said that Kill has a similar style to his junior college coach, Mike Virden--both coaches know when to give "tough love" and when to be a little softer. But Rabe's new environment required more of an adjustment.

"It's Big Ten, so everyone's talking about it," he said. "There's so much attention towards it. And being in Minneapolis, it's a big city compared to where I came from. So there's just a lot more people that know, and they always are watching you. You're kind of in a microscope."

All eyes were certainly on Rabe after his performance during crunch time of the Gophers' 2012 season opener at UNLV. The game was tied at 13 at the end of regulation.

In the first overtime, the Rebels opened the scoring with a rushing touchdown. The Gophers had to answer to keep the game alive. On a second down, Rabe ran a route up the middle of the field. Gray looked from side to side and saw Rabe's big frame in traffic. The Gopher quarterback delivered a pass that Rabe caught few yards from the end zone. He leaned toward the goal line as a pair of Rebels tackled him.

"I thought it maybe was a yard short," Rabe said. "But I looked over at the ref when I put my head up and he had his hands up. I was excited and I knew that we had to go back down on offense and play again and score another touchdown right after that."

They did just that. Again, it was Rabe on the receiving end of a Gray pass. This time, there was no doubt he would score. Gray's first look on the first play of the second overtime was to Rabe, who scampered down the wide open right side and into the end zone.

Those two plays--one 10 yards, the other 25--were Rabe's only two receptions of the night. When the game ended in a Minnesota victory one overtime period later, his career reception total stood at six, including four touchdowns.

Rabe added three receptions--one of them a touchdown--against New Hampshire last week. He may not always appear in the box scores, but when he does, it is wise to check the scoring summary. Going back to last season, Rabe has scored touchdowns in three straight games.

 "It is kind of funny that's the way it's worked out," he said. "It's nice scoring touchdowns. It's a big deal and helps the team win."

Even when Gray does not target him many times during a given game, he knows that he count on Rabe when needed.

"He's got good speed for his size, and he's been making plays for us ever since he's been here," Gray said.

Tight ends coach Rob Reeves credits Gray for getting the ball into Rabe's hands, but also acknowledges the work done on the receiving end.

"He does a good job of executing his routes and getting open when he needs to and makes the most of his opportunities, and that's all you can ask of him," Reeves said. "He can run and he can pose a little bit of a mismatch on linebackers and things."

Reeves said that Rabe's junior college season helped him get ready for Division I football, but that he is still learning just like any other second-year Big Ten player. Collin McGarry's graduation last year opened up a spot for Rabe to do more learning on the job this year.

"Mentally he's smart," Reeves said. "He can play both Y and H. He understands the offense better now. Now he just needs the actual physical experience of playing 50, 60 plays a game."

During the rest of his senior year, Rabe wants to do whatever the team needs in order to win. He hopes his part will include a bigger number of receptions--including, of course, some touchdowns. Based on what has happened already this season, the prospects look good.

"We'll continue to try to push the ball that way because he's been successful, and that will help open up the outside receivers, as well," Kill said.

Reeves said that one of Rabe's main contributions is leadership by example. Rabe gives a full effort in all aspects of the team's activities, from the weight room to the field to the film room.

As a senior, Rabe is hoping to fulfill the role of a leader and a playmaker more than ever. Every game brings him closer to the upcoming end of his college career. And he has his eye on one game in particular: the Gophers' conference opener.

As a youngster, Rabe dreamed of playing in the Big Ten. But he ended up a little more North than he originally thought. The Iowa Falls native grew up a Hawkeye fan, but turned in the black and yellow for the maroon and gold when he arrived at Minnesota in January 2011. Rabe no longer even names any favorite former Hawkeyes.

"I've moved on from that stage of my life," he said.

The Gophers will travel to Iowa later this month to kick off Big Ten play. Rabe got a taste last year of beating his home state's team to retain the Floyd of Rosedale rivalry trophy. He looks forward to battling to bring the bronze pig back to Minnesota once more.

"That's going to be a really exciting game going into Iowa City," Rabe said. "I'll probably have a lot of friends there that are rooting against me in that game. I'll be amped up. They won't have to tell me much for that game. I'll be ready to go."

Unlike most of his teammates, Rabe will only experience the Minnesota-Iowa duel twice instead of four times. That is the career of a junior college transfer. At times, it still seems to Rabe that he just arrived in Minneapolis.

"It's definitely gone fast," he said. "This season will probably go fast because it's my senior year. You've got to make every little bit of it count and remember it."

It's hard to think of many things more memorable for a senior than a trophy game against his former rooting interest--on the opponent's home turf, no less. And the last few matchups between the Gophers and Hawkeyes have been close ones. Who knows? Maybe John Rabe has a few more timely touchdowns up his sleeve.

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