By Matt Kane
MINNEAPOLIS Anybody who knows Nate Triplett also knows that Triplett loves country music. Early this summer, Triplett, the 6-foot-3, 247-pound senior linebacker with the Minnesota Gophers, was often heard singing the Zac Brown Band song “Toes,” months before it became a regularly turned track on the country charts.
“Toes” begins with Zac Brown singing, “I got my toes in the water, a-- in the sand; Not a worry in the world, cold beer in my hand; Life is good today. Life is good today.”
Triplett is three games into his senior season, and, judging by his early-season statistics, life has been very good for the 2005 Delano graduate.
In his first game this season, Triplett made a then-career-high 12 tackles and a game-saving interception in the end zone late in the game during the Gophers’ 23-20 overtime win at Syracuse Sept. 5. Then, a week later, Triplett made 17 tackles and returned a fumble recovery 52 yards for a touchdown that put the Gophers on top for good in the Gophers’ 20-13 win over Air Force.
Triplett spoke about the fumble return.
“Sometimes, you get a little lucky. Brandon Kirksey made a great play in getting the ball out, it hit the receiver in the back of the foot, and it hopped up into my lap. I saw a lot of green in front of me and I ran with it. And celebrated like a champ,” Triplett said Tuesday evening, after a long practice. “It went fast. I felt like I was running pretty slow. After 70-some plays, you run a little slower. I was looking over my back to see if anybody was going to catch me, but it was definitely a good feeling.
Nate Triplett has become a popular player with the Minnesota GoldenGophers football team this fall. In his first season as a startinglinebacker with the Gophers, the 2005 Delano graduate earned national honors for his play in Minnesota's 20-13 win over Air Force Sept. 12.
“That touchdown is something I will remember the rest of my life, because it was the first game, and it was something I was lucky enough to do.”
As for TCF Stadium, Triplett approves.
“The stadium is ridiculous. It was amazing playing there,” Triplett said. “The fans were definitely up to it, and they’d been waiting for a long time. Anytime we are inside that stadium, we are looking to put on a good show.”
The fumble return for a touchdown will forever live on film in the TCF Bank Stadium opening-night highlight reel.
“I hadn’t thought about that, but I guess that’s a good feeling,” Triplett said.
Knowing Triplett, he’s not playing for notoriety or to make highlight reels, but, for his play in the first two games, he got it. Following the win over Air Force, Triplett was named Big Ten Co-Defensive Player of the Week, Walter Camp Foundation National Defensive Player of the Week, Bronko Nagurski National Defensive Player of the Week, and was nominated for the AT&T All-American Player of the Week.
“We are happy and excited for him. He has put a ton of time in here, and to see things clicking for him and to see him have not only success, but huge success with two individual plays that might have won the game, the interception, and the fumble recovery that changed the momentum, we are happy for him,” Minnesota linebackers and special teams coach John Butler said.
One conference and two national defensive awards hasn’t changed Triplett at all. And he doesn’t plan on changing his game at all.
“I’m just going to keep doing what I was doing. It seems to be working, so there’s no point in changing anything,” he said. “Keep working hard, keep studying film, and keep playing hard.”
From Tiger to Gopher
Entering his senior year, Triplett had just one start against Iowa last season and compiled 40 total tackles in his three active seasons with the Gophers. In the first two weeks of the fifth-year senior’s final season with the maroon and gold, Triplett was a national highlight reel regular.
One guy watching those highlights was Triplett’s high school coach at Delano, Merrill Pavlovich.
“Nate is looking at his senior year as his last hurrah. He’s giving everything he’s got, and he’s getting the recognition,” said Pavlovich, who has led the Tigers since 1975. “Nate is probably one of the nicest kids you will meet. His success in warranted, because he works so hard.”
Being on SportsCenter is what many athletes strive for, but Pavlovich knows Triplett doesn’t seek out the bright lights.
“He’s very humble,” said Pavlovich. “He’s a kid who will be the last one in the buffet line because he’s not thinking about himself.”
Much of Pavlovich’s praise for Triplett is aimed at Triplett as a man as much as it is at Triplett as a football player. That praise is about as high as it can get.
“He’s a guy you want knocking on your door to date your daughter,” Pavlovich said. “He’s a good kid and a good football player.
“I wrote a note to his parents, and said ‘Nate has been a great ambassador to the Delano community, whether he played or not,’” Pavlovich added. “I’m happy for Nate. He’s waited for this for awhile. He’s committed five years to football at that level and now he’s getting rewarded.”
Triplett first made a local name for himself as a running back and linebacker a Delano High School. In his prep career, Triplett was named to the KARE 11 and Star Tribune All-Metro teams, was a second-team all-state choice by the Associated Press in 2004, and was a two-time All-Wright County Conference player. In that 2004 season, Triplett totaled 127 tackles, 22 tackles-for-losses, four sacks, and an interception. And he was an honor roll student.
As a junior, Triplett helped the Tigers to a second-place finish at the 2003 Prep Bowl. They lost to Wright County Conference foe Glencoe-Silver Lake, which had a freshman waterboy on the sideline named Jon Hoese.
“I remember him in high school, when I was a freshman and GSL played Delano in the state championship, he was a junior and I was a waterboy, watching Triplett the stud from Delano,” Hoese said. “Since then, I’ve heard about him, and during my sophomore year, I got to play against Triplett in the Wright County Conference.”
In 2004, when Triplett was a senior with Delano, Hoese was a starting running back as a sophomore with Glencoe-Silver Lake. He and Triplett ran into each other during the schools’ annual game that season on more than a few occasions, and now the two are teammates with the Gophers.
“He was a good athlete then, and now he is a great athlete,” said Hoese. “I remember playing him through high school, and now he is here with me. It’s cool that you are rivals in high school and now you are on the same team.”
Hoese is a junior fullback with the Gophers, which means he still occasionally butts heads with Triplett, the linebacker, during practice.
“It’s always a pretty good collision,” Hoese said.
Conversations about the two representing the Wright County Conference also arise regularly between Triplett and Hoese.
“We always laugh about the Wright County Conference clashing again, and stuff like that,” said Hoese, who also remembers running track against Triplett. “I think I ran against him in the 200 in 2005. I remember he beat me at the conference meet, but I got him at the subsection meet. He’s still a pretty fast kid.”
Having conversations with Hoese about the good-old-days in the Wright County Conference should surprise nobody who knows Triplett. Despite his success in Division 1 college football, Triplett always enjoys revisiting his roots.
“I still go back and play a little baseball here and there, and I like to hit the bonfire with the marshmallows and the graham crackers too. I still love living the small-town life, too,” Triplett said. “It’s definitely nice to get away and go somewhere other than the city. It’s nice to go back home and see the family, and hang out in the country.”
Triplett’s dad, Keith, can vouch for that.
“He likes to look out for his brothers. He’ll go throw the ball around in the yard, and he’ll take them down to the U and just hang out,” Keith Triplett explained of his oldest son. “He likes to come home, go to the Peppermint Twist to get his malt, and he’s still buddies with his old high school friends. And he can still make a mess at home.”
Triplett said he had been hearing from his friends and family a lot lately.
“I’ve gotten a lot of calls and text messages, with family and friends saying ‘congratulations,’ but they all know my work isn’t done, and there is more yet to come,” Triplett said of his sudden stardom.
For Triplett’s parents, Keith and Sara, watching their son run 52 yards for a touchdown Sept. 12 was a surreal event.
“It just doesn’t seem like it’s really him,” Keith Triplett said of watching his son play for the Gophers. “It seems like it should be someone else, just because he hasn’t had the opportunity to play before. It’s taken awhile to sink in, but now it’s sinking in fast.”
Sinking in so fast, Keith is worried about this season flying by before they know it. However fast the season flies, Keith Triplett, his wife, Sara, and their two youngest boys, Eric, a junior at Delano and Christian, an eighth grader both football players will be along for the ride.
Recently, the family has had to wait a little longer after games to speak to Triplett. Those pesky press conferences and interviews. But it’s well worth the wait.
“It’s been a real pleasant surprise in our lives to do this, and, if anybody else has the chance, it is a real joy,” Keith Triplett said.
He said he and Sara are bracing themselves for what might come in the near future.
“My wife and I have been talking about it. It’s one of those things where you ask, ‘Is this too good to be true?’” Keith Triplett said. “Now, we are wondering when agents are going to call, and what do we do then. If he makes it to the next level, we are looking for good advice. I don’t want to put pressure on him, though, because we want him to enjoy his senior year.”
Triplett’s work with the Gophers started in the fall of 2005, after he was recruited by then-head coach Glenn Mason and his staff.
Pavlovich remembers talking to Mason, not long after the Gophers had blown a 21-point lead to Michigan by giving up 31 points in the fourth quarter in a 38-35 loss to the Wolverines in 2003. In that loss, Michigan running back Chris Perry had a field day as a pass catcher out of the backfield, accumulating 122 yards on 11 catches. Mason saw Triplett as the type of linebacker who could prevent a Chris Perry-like attack.
“They saw Nate and they thought he was athletic and he was 6-3. They thought he could cover the backs out of the backfield,” Pavlovich remembers. “John Shevlin was one of the Gophers’ linebackers then, and I asked Mason to compare Triplett to Shevlin. Mason said Trip was faster and stronger.”
Triplett’s speed and power drew eyes during Delano’s back-to-back runs to the high school state tournament, and it landed him a spot with the Gophers. But after red-shirting his freshman year, Triplett was limited mostly to special teams play, where he has excelled.
“First thing, he’s a great kid. He is a very, very good teammate. Two years ago, he came to me and said, ‘I just want to help the team.’ A lot of guys do that and don’t produce. Right away, I put him on all four phases of special teams, and he became a great player from the start,” Butler said. “He’s an outstanding special-teams player, and he’s not just out there, he’s been our special teams player of the year in 2007 and 2008.”
Hoese loves watching Triplett on kickoffs.
“Watching him on kickoffs, it’s amazing the plays he will make. He is one of the bigger guys out there, but he’s beating everybody down the field. It’s crazy to see that,” Hoese said. “I’ve been on the other side of that, and, when you see somebody his size running that fast at you, it’s hard to stop him.”
Triplett was the team’s best special teams player, but the linebacker in him wanted to do more.
“I definitely wanted to be more of an asset to my team,” Triplett said. “I wanted to make more plays and be there when my team needs me.”
Triplett is getting his chance as a starting outside linebacker this year, and he is definitely an asset. It’s clear to see by his body language that Triplett is relieved that he is finally getting his chance.
“It’s definitely good to get that off your shoulders. It’s just nice to know you are a guy who can play, and that you are not just a fill-in out there,” he said. “It’s good knowing you can make plays and be a consistent play-maker.
“It’s been a fun trip. It’s been long and hard, but it’s definitely been worth it,” Triplett said. “I’ve waited my turn, and now it’s time to get going.”
What has changed since last season that has made Triplett an award-winning linebacker? Maybe nothing.
“People ask, ‘Where was he last year?’ He was the victim of a lot of coaching changes there. And he was such a good special teams player,” Pavlovich said of Triplett. “He’s always been a good player. He’s strong, fast and intelligent.”
Hoese said Triplett is the same player he has always been.
“A lot of people are talking about how Trip is stepping it up this year, but really he’s always been there,” Hoese said. “I don’t know why people see it as stepping up. He’s always been a good player. I feel like he’s been a good player the whole time, but now he is getting his shot.”
Butler answered the same question.
“For whatever reason, it took to this point for him to really play well on defense. And probably we should have played him a little bit in the past, just to let him go out and get game experience,” Butler said. “The joke around the staff used to be that I coach him very well on special teams, but not very well on defense.”
Butler applauds Triplett for the effort that finally earned him a starting spot on the Minnesota defense.
“He works very hard, and he is a kid who will graduate on time,” the coach said. “Perseverance has a lot to do with it, too. I don’t know a lot of kids who would persevere this long without getting immediate rewards. He’s a lesson that, if you persevere and stick with the task, good things can happen.”
So far this season, good things have happened, and life is definitely good for Nate Triplett.