A North Dakota high school football player’s Big Ten dream started with a leap of faith.
When Bismarck High School offensive lineman Greg Eslinger wasn’t hearing from many football programs, he took matters into his own hands. Eslinger and his father produced a highlight tape and scrounged up addresses for coaches across the Midwest. The young offensive lineman eventually shipped the VHS tapes out and waited.
“We had a connection through a Division II coach for places to send my highlight reel to. It was just a little VHS tape,” Eslinger said. “So we made a bunch of copies of my highlight reel and sent it to a bunch of the bigger schools around North Dakota. Montana, Minnesota, Wisconsin and a few others that we had at least a solid mailing address to send it to.”
As time passed, Eslinger didn’t know if anyone would respond, let alone watch his highlight film. That is until the mail arrived one day. Minnesota responded and invited Eslinger to a summer football camp at the Gibson-Nagurski complex.
“Minnesota got my tape and in return, they sent me a generic, ‘sign up for our football camp.’ So I don't know if they actually even looked at the tape, but I do know that they sent me back a little sign up for our football camp brochure,” Eslinger said. “Maybe it was just kind of like, well, this guy had enough gumption to send us his tape, we’ll send him a football camp brochure to come to and see what he looks like.”
The young offensive lineman took advantage of the invitation and made the six-hour drive from Bismarck to Minneapolis for head coach Glen Mason’s summer camp. Eslinger, who stayed at Sanford Hall on the University of Minnesota campus, vividly remembers the first day of camp. That morning, he saw rain falling outside. Greg didn’t think practice would be held outdoors, so he only brought turf shoes. It turns out, Eslinger miscalculated in a big way.
“The funny thing was the first day we were outside, it was wet. I wore turf shoes thinking that we were gonna be inside on turf,” Eslinger said. "I was slipping and falling all over my face the first day and I’m like, oh, crap, this is not gonna be a good week, but then it all turned around.”
Eslinger bounced back, showcasing his quickness, intelligence and work ethic in front of Minnesota’s coaching staff. Mason liked what he saw and offered the North Dakota offensive lineman, who weighed around 260 pounds at the time. After years of hard work, Eslinger’s dream of playing in the Big Ten was staring him right in the face.
“It would have been night and day difference in my career if I hadn’t attended that camp. Minnesota was the only school that was looking at me for offense too. Every other school wanted me to play defensive end or defensive tackle,” Eslinger said. “Minnesota was the only Division I school that offered me, so it was a no brainer. I get to go play with the big boys in what I consider the best conference in college football. And I decided I'll just test my luck there and see what happens.”
Eslinger took the leap of faith and it paid off in a big way. Years after attending Mason’s camp, the center from North Dakota became one of the best players in Gopher football history. Eslinger, a two-time First Team All-American (unanimous honors as a senior), started all 50 games for Minnesota during his four-year career.
As a senior in 2005, the Gophers’ star became the first player to win the Rimington Trophy (nation’s best center) and Outland Trophy (most outstanding interior lineman) in the same season. That specific accomplishment remained untouched until Michigan center Olusegun Oluwatimi took home both honors in 2022. Looking back, Eslinger, who was named to the 2024 College Football Hall of Fame ballot on Monday, has an even deeper appreciation for all of those special moments, memories and accomplishments.
“I didn't expect to get either the Rimington and Outland and those were huge milestones for me. I mean, from a ceremony perspective, it was just top notch. Getting to rub elbows with a lot of the old greats and just the experience of it all. And I think back then I really did try to kind of soak it in and realize what was happening, but at events like those, it’s really tough to fully appreciate what they were about and a lot of the different people that you got to meet and the heritage behind it,” Eslinger said. “You're not old enough or been around enough to really truly appreciate it. Looking back at those events, they were just incredible experiences and a lot of fun. Every year, I’m just a little bit more and more, appreciative of what I was able to go through there.”
Learning on the Fly
Eslinger’s success didn’t happen overnight though. As a true freshman starter in the Big Ten, Greg learned valuable lessons that guided his entire football career. Eslinger will never forget waking up for his first college football game vs. Southwest Texas State in 2002. He didn’t find out he was the Gophers’ starting center until he read an article in the Star Tribune.
“I knew I was taking a lot of the first-team reps, but I still didn't quite know if I was going to be starting or not until I saw it in the Star Tribune. I was like, wow, ok, here we go, let’s see how this works. We'll see if can pull through here or if I get hit a little bit too hard and call it good, we’ll see,” Eslinger said. "It certainly was kind of a surprise and a crowning moment of it’s time to get down to business now.”
Eslinger’s nerves ramped up when he sprinted onto the field for his first game. The Gophers center took a deep breath and snapped the ball to quarterback Benji Kamrath. During the first play of the 2002 season, Minnesota caught Southwest Texas State sleeping. Kamrath pitched the ball to Asad Abdul-Khaliq, who found tight end Ben Utecht down the sideline for a 75-yard touchdown.
“I was like, well, that was pretty easy,’ Eslinger joked. “It's just you get out there, one play and you're good to go.”
However, Eslinger knew everything would change when Big Ten play began. The former Gophers center said his first conference start vs. Purdue was a humbling experience.
“Flip the page about three or four weeks forward and it was my first Big Ten game vs. Purdue. That was an eye-opening experience, just how much the talent level shot up once we started playing the big conference schools,” Eslinger said. “A lot of lumps and bruises happened throughout that year playing the bigger schools.”
Eslinger conquered the adversity and developed a personal improvement plan. After playing one season in the Big Ten, he knew getting stronger and expanding his football knowledge was a necessity. Eslinger also learned many valuable life lessons that stuck with him forever.
“I would say one of the biggest things that I learned through the sport is just learning how to fail, learning how to get knocked down and get back up. Learn from it and figure out what you need to do next to make sure that doesn't happen again. And it's not just like one play,” Eslinger said. “My freshman year, I got beat on a lot of different things, so I went back and I realized, hey, I’ve gotta know defenses better. I need to learn to anticipate what's gonna happen better. I’ve gotta get bigger, I’ve gotta get stronger. And so it's like, you can learn from it, just from one play at a time.”
Years later, Eslinger uses many of those lessons while coaching his three sons or working as a medical sales consultant in the Twin Cities.
“It’s the same thing in anyone's work life or in personal development or personal growth. It's like, how are you getting better? How are you becoming a better person? How are you getting better at your job? How are you getting better with your family? How are you getting better as a father? Or whatever the case may be. It’s just about learning,” Eslinger said. “To me, my biggest lesson is just learning how to get knocked down, learning how to adapt and get back up.”
Mason’s Unwavering Belief and Innovation
Eslinger credits former Gophers head coach Glen Mason for teaching many of those life lessons. He knows his career would have looked much different without Mason’s unwavering belief in him.
"He had such a huge impact on me in a multitude of ways. Personally, the biggest thing that he did for me was he believed in me. And I didn't feel like a lot of people believed in me coming from a small city in North Dakota and not being highly recruited. He was the guy that was willing to stick his neck out for me. Not only when I got there and starting me as a true freshman, but he really believed in me,” Eslinger said. “And he didn't waver. He really believed that I was capable. And, I mean, I definitely looked at him as like a father figure. He taught me to believe in myself and to put myself out there and not be afraid of, uh, you know, not be afraid of losing.”
Reflecting back, Eslinger feels Mason was on the cutting edge of the zone blocking scheme in college football. At the time, many programs recruited massive offensive lineman who could run power schemes. Mason instead targeted athletic, agile offensive linemen who could get out in space. Now, decades later, zone blocking schemes are an extremely important component of the college and professional games.
“I think we were definitely ahead of the curve and when we play up against other teams and you look at other offensive lines in college football, everyone was huge. They were all 6-foot-7, 350 pounds and then you looked at our offensive line and we looked like a high school offensive line, like what they look like today,” Eslinger said. “Everything was quick movements and keeping defensive guys kind of on their toes. Glen Mason did a great job of recruiting and the same with Gordon Shaw, who was my coach, and Mitch Browning, of really recruiting system guys that excelled at that. We were all just quick offensive linemen that had a lot quicker first couple steps than I think what other offenses looked like.”
Not to mention, Laurence Maroney and Marion Barber IIII, two of the best running backs in program history, shined within Minnesota’s blocking scheme. Eslinger said their rushing styles and personalties made football even more enjoyable for him.
“The big part about [Barber and Maroney] is that they were fun. We enjoyed blocking for them. Not that you don't enjoy blocking for anyone, but those two in particular, man, they made things light and happy in the huddle. They were always super appreciative and thankful for us big guys and gave us all the credit and they were just great guys,” Eslinger said. “It was a spectacle to watch them move. There were more times than not that I could say that I might have messed up or failed on my block and they made me look a lot better than I probably was.”
Eslinger fondly remembers all of the rivalry games he played in during his Gophers career. For him, the Paul Bunyan’s Axe or Floyd of Rosedale battles always felt different. Eslinger often thinks about the Gophers’ last-second 37-34 win over the Badgers in 2003. Kicker Rhys Lloyd’s last-second 35-yard field goal triggered an epic celebration at the Metrodome.
“I remember that was one of the most thrilling games of my Gopher career. It was truly a ton of fun in those rivalry games. Those rivalry games are a real thing. I mean, you really circle those teams in your calendar because there is a special feeling to be holding some of those trophies, especially one like the Axe,” Eslinger said. “I know it seems like more and more of these trophy games pop up, but for old-school Minnesota guys, that Axe and that Pig really mean something because there is a long history and a long tradition of rivalry between those teams.”
Nobody knew the program’s win over Wisconsin in 2003 would mark the beginning of Minnesota’s long Paul Bunyan’s Axe drought. For 14 straight years, the television broadcast showed the same 2003 Axe celebration while talking about the Gophers last win over the Badgers. Eslinger watched those games, snapped a picture and sent a ‘remember when’ group chat to his former teammates. Fourteen years later, Eslinger’s annual tradition concluded when the Gophers defeated Wisconsin 37-15 in 2018.
“It was awesome to see that. I will say the funny part is though, now I don't get to send the picture that usually would come up every time for that game. There'd be the same picture that I always sent in a text message to some of my buddies that were in that picture of us winning the Axe,” Eslinger said. “We would just say, remember when. That annual tradition has stopped, which is a good thing.”
Connecting the Past and Future
Eslinger, who spent three seasons in the NFL with the Denver Broncos, Cleveland Browns and Houston Texans, now enjoys attending Gopher games and practices with his three sons.
“I really enjoy bringing my kids around the program so they can get a taste of the inner workings of an actual football team and how hard these guys are all working. It gives them a little perspective of what it takes,” Eslinger said. “And when we go to those things, it’s not just about football, it's really about life in general. It’s about trying to understand that none of these guys that are on the football field were given anything.”
Eslinger has enjoyed getting to know Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck as well. He said Fleck is doing a great job of connecting alumni with current players and coaches through various events. Eslinger, a current sales consultant for a medical device company, enjoys helping the next generation of student-athletes.
“P.J. has just been an awesome connector. I would say just from a personal level too, he’s great to be around and really holds true to what he says. I know a lot of coaches out there have a certain demeanor with the media and how they present themselves publicly and maybe have a different agenda - good, bad, or indifferent. But you really can take him at face value. What he says he believes in and how he portrays himself is, in my opinion, actually how he is,” Eslinger said. “The other thing that I really appreciate about him as an alumni is how he is getting alumni involved so kids can network a lot better. For instance, I'm going there for a career fair. It’s basically like, hey, let's connect a bunch of old athletes that are working out in society and tell the new athletes like, hey, there's life after football, you need to start thinking about that. And start thinking about what you want to do after your football career is over.”
Eslinger hopes his journey as a lightly-recruited North Dakota athlete inspires the next generation of football players to relentlessly pursue their dreams.
“I would say for the young kids, no different than what I tell my kids. Every kid wants to be in the NFL, whatever the case may be, but it takes time. There's ups and downs, but nothing good comes easy. It's not about where you're going to be at in three months, you need to think year over year and how you're going to get there. What steps you need to take and really kind of plot it out. It’s really about sacrifice. What are you going to do that’s above and beyond what the next guy is going to do?” Eslinger said. "It involves hard work and ultimately sacrificing different things. Whether that be going out with your buddies on a Friday night, or are you going to sleep in and get a good workout in the next day? It is really about the work ethic and the sacrifice to make a dream a reality.”
Note: This week, former Minnesota center Greg Eslinger was named to the 2024 College Football Hall of Fame ballot. Members of the National Football Foundation can cast a ballot for the 2024 College Football Hall of Fame. Membership details are included below. During the process, you can select Minnesota as your local chapter: https://caringcent.org/nff/chapter2023
Tag(s): 2017 Event