Nov. 13, 2013
Karen Engel noticed that her 9-month-old son was not putting on much weight, so she wanted to have him examined. It turned out that young Derrick was probably burning off more calories than the typical baby. Already, he was constantly climbing and moving around. Already, his natural athletic ability was showing.
As Derrick grew older and progressed from climbing on furniture, he began playing various sports – basketball, baseball, football and track. Watching him play baseball, his father, Joel, got the feeling that his son had special talent. Derrick could stretch a single into a triple with his speed on the base paths.
“He was always really fast,” Joel said. People would tell Karen that Derrick “runs like a gazelle.”
Considering his bloodlines, it’s not shocking that Derrick became a standout athlete, now a senior wide receiver for the Golden Gopher football team. His mother was a track and field All-American in the hurdle events at Augsburg College in Minneapolis. His father was an All-MIAC guard and captain of the Augsburg basketball team. Both have been inducted into the school’s hall of fame.
“My dad always said that I got my speed from him,” Derrick said. “He kind of jokes about that. But we kind of know it was from my mom because she was an All-American hurdler. I got some traits from both. My dad played a lot of sports growing up and was my coach in every sport. I think I had a good gene pool.”
Engel has seen some of his parents’ trophies, and knows about their accomplishments. He attended Augsburg basketball games with his dad while growing up, including when former NBA player Devean George was on the team. Engel’s dad coached him, especially in basketball, and his mom helped him work on his starts when he joined the track team for a year in high school. Sports were part of the family, but not forced.
“I didn’t really feel pressure,” he said. “They just had me do what makes me happy and supported me in whatever I did.”
Of course, sharing similar interests made it even easier to bond as a family and support what he did. Derrick and Joel’s shared love for basketball led to numerous games of 1-on-1 basketball.
“We used to have a little bet going that if I beat him, he’d pay me $100,” Derrick said. One day, he finally won. “I got lucky and hit a couple threes on him. It was a pretty intense game. It was definitely satisfying.”
This year, Engel earned an even sweeter victory. Having walked on to the team as a transfer before the 2011 season, he received a scholarship prior to this season.
"I think it's a culmination of all the hard work I put in,” Engel said. “I thank Coach (Jerry) Kill for rewarding me for that. Now I've just to prove I'm worth it. It has definitely helped me out financially. I'm looking forward to finishing the season out strong. It means a lot as the end point of all the hard work I've put in."
Even with all of his natural athletic ability, it took Engel a lot of time and effort to get to this point. He wanted to come to the University of Minnesota right out of Chaska High School, but was originally on the waitlist to get in, so he decided to go to Winona State.
Engel excelled in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference in his two seasons with the Warriors. In 2009 and 2010 combined, he caught 64 passes for 1,270 yards and nine touchdowns. He was all-conference honorable mention as a freshman, and all-conference as a sophomore.
Watching his son as a freshman, Joel felt that he could play at a higher level. But Derrick stayed one more year before deciding to try Division I football. He made the choice without knowing for sure if the Gophers had a place for him, and knowing that he was leaving his Winona State scholarship money behind.
“He pretty much took all the risk for himself,” Joel said.
Engel values his experience at Winona State, saying that it was a good “stepping stone” between high school and Division I. For one thing, as when he was a baby, Engel has not always been able to keep on weight.
“I came into college as a freshman at about 164 pounds, so I was pretty small,” he said. “I knew I had to put on a lot of weight, especially if I wanted to come here. I just worked hard in the weight room and got faster and stronger. It came with maturity, too.”
The time he spent in Winona allowed him to build up his strength and get more playing experience to improve as a receiver. With continued training, Engel now weighs around 185 pounds.
When he first arrived on campus in Minneapolis, Engel sat out the 2011 season due to transfer rules. He then played in 12 of 13 games in 2012, catching 18 passes for 375 yards and a touchdown.
This season, Engel has become a go-to target for quarterbacks Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner. He leads the team with 25 receptions for 401 yards and five touchdowns. Four of his touchdowns have come during the Gophers’ four-game Big Ten winning streak.
One of those four was a momentum changer in the Gophers’ win against Nebraska. On 4th and 10, trailing 10-7, Minnesota went for it. From 33 yards out, Nelson threw a pass in front of Engel, who was running toward the end zone with a defender just off his right shoulder.
“I took off and just looked up and saw the ball there,” Engel said. “I thought it might have sailed over my head at first, but it just kept hanging there and I reached my arms out at the end and rolled into the end zone. I saw that I scored and the crowd was going crazy. It was a big moment for the team and kind of got us going.”
That play gave the Gophers their first lead against the Cornhuskers since 1969, and they never looked back from that point in the game. File that play under “proving he’s worth it.”
“I think it showed a lot of people that I’m an important part of the team,” he said. “The type of team we are, we like to ground and pound the ball. When we do take shots like that, I’ve got to make the most of those opportunities.”
The following week at Indiana, Engel gained 40 yards on a flea flicker on the very first play of the game. He went on to gain 97 total yards and score two touchdowns in the 42-39 win. Engel seems to be playing his best as he approaches his last handful of collegiate games.
“I’ve still got room to grow,” he said. “I wish I had a few more years to play.”
The Engel family has made sure to savor Derrick’s college career while it lasts. His sister, Kaylee, is a freshman at the “U” and his brother, Sean, is still in high school at Chaska, so everyone is within range to easily attend games at TCF Bank Stadium. Joel and Karen also travel to road games to watch their son play.
“It’s definitely huge to have the support,” Derrick said. “They haven’t missed a game since I’ve been in college, including Winona State and here. It’s big for me and I know they enjoy it.”
The parents who had their own distinguished athletic careers are now happy to witness firsthand as their son forges his own path. They saw his potential before anyone else, when he was a 9-month old flying around the house. They have seen his hard work and the risk he took in giving up his Winona State scholarship. They are probably the least surprised, but the proudest, of anyone that Derrick Engel is proving he belongs as a Golden Gopher.
Story by athletic communications assistant Justine Buerkle
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