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College football: Willman is UMD’s honored guest as part of Military Appreciation Weekend

Longtime buddy of Bulldogs offensive coordinator Chase Vogler has served more than eight years in the U.S. Army.

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Capt. Christian Willman poses for an undated photo on duty. Willman, an Army Ranger and childhood friend of Minnesota Duluth offensive coordinator Chase Vogler, is the honored guest for UMD football's annual Military Appreciation Weekend.
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DULUTH — Christian Willman was at home in Apple Valley, Minnesota, in early February and enjoying the good life, having dinner with his family, his wife and young children, then two days later, Capt. Willman was deployed to eastern Poland as part of America’s response to the Russian buildup and invasion of Ukraine.

Such is life for a military man, and his family.

“That was a stressful time. One, because it was unplanned,” Willman said. “There were a lot of unknowns. There was chaos. We had no idea. We thought we were going to be there for a handful of weeks; it ended up being many months.

“We were always unsure of what Russia was going to do so you also had that in the back of your mind. If they crossed the border onto the NATO side, all the way up to the commander-in-chief, we’re obligated to protect it. So there was uncertainty for that reason as well, trying to prepare for whatever happened and whatever didn’t happen.”

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Christian Willman is pictured during his collegiate athletic career, running track for Hamline University in St. Paul
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Willman, 31, a longtime buddy of Minnesota Duluth offensive coordinator Chase Vogler, is the Bulldogs’ honored guest as part of their annual Military Appreciation Weekend. Willman, who has spent more than eight years in the Army, including as a U.S. Army Ranger, will speak to the team Friday night.

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The Bulldogs host Upper Iowa at 6 p.m. Saturday at Malosky Stadium, and Willman, who played college football and ran track at Hamline University in St. Paul, said there are lots of parallels that can be drawn between the military and football.

“Football is the closest thing I’ve seen where at its face value, one human being is going to sacrifice his body, and be in physical pain, for another human being,” Willman said. “At its core, no, football is not life and death, but the biggest attitude and mentality that carries over is that every time I trained, whether it was a 12-mile ruck march or a 24-hour training mission, and I’m suffering, and I’m going through this pain, I was trying to lead others through adversity now. That way, when the real thing happens, if we were called to do something that was life and death, I would always be able to look back and know I had done everything possible to have a successful outcome.”

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Capt. Christian Willman joined the U.S. Army in 2014 and was admitted into the Army Rangers in 2017.
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A special weekend

Vogler has known Willman since fifth grade when Vogler moved from Inver Grove Heights to Rosemount, Minnesota. They played basketball, ran track and played football together.

UMD football coach Curt Wiese was looking for a speaker for Military Appreciation Weekend last spring, and Vogler suggested Willman, who was still overseas but would be returning soon and be in the process of transitioning out of the military. Willman was excited to take part.

“This has grown to become our biggest on-campus event,” Wiese said. “It’s exciting for our team and community. Just the energy around campus, the energy around the tailgate and the energy around the game has perpetually surpassed homecoming, which says a lot because our homecoming crowd and our homecoming energy have been tremendous.”

Game day has traditionally featured a giant American flag for the National Anthem, which has even included a flyover.

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Capt. Christian Willman served five deployments over his military career in the Middle East and Europe.
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UMD football players will wear special decals on their helmets honoring military members and first responders. Money will be raised for Operation One Voice, which supports the needs of families of wounded and fallen Special Operations Forces. Former UMD football player John Economos is heavily involved with Operation One Voice, which coincidentally, originated out of the other Duluth, that is, Duluth, Georgia.

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“Coach Wiese and our department work extremely hard on this weekend,” Vogler said. “It’s a special weekend for a lot of reasons, and it all leads up to a nice donation back to Operation One Voice. The work John Economos does is just so unique and cool and the football game, even though it’s kind of a focal point, is such a small part of the weekend. It’s something that is unique, and definitely unique to UMD.”

Vogler, a record-setting quarterback at UMD who graduated in 2013, never got to play in the Military Appreciation game, as it started in 2014.

“I played in a lot of cool, unique games, but this is one that I definitely wish I could have had a chance to play in,” said Vogler, who returned to campus as Bulldogs offensive coordinator in 2019. “Just being able to coach in it, especially last year’s game, was probably one of the more memorable games of my coaching career and something I’m super excited for our guys to get an opportunity to play in.”

A soldier is born

Willman and Vogler both graduated in 2009 from Rosemount High School.

Vogler went to UMD and was a four-year starter at quarterback, leading the Bulldogs to their second NCAA Division II national championship in 2010.

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Capt. Christian Willman.
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Willman went to Hamline. He was a cornerback for the Pipers football team, earning academic all-conference honors, and he earned all-conference honors in track. Willman graduated from Hamline in 2013 with an education degree. Teaching, however, in the schoolroom sense, wasn’t exactly for him.

Willman did a lot of soul searching as he approached graduation. This wasn’t a kid who dreamed of being a soldier from a young age. It came about in college.

Willman joined the Army in 2014 and was commissioned as an infantry officer. His initial assignment was as a platoon leader in 2015, and he was selected to serve as an Army Ranger with the 75th Ranger Regiment in 2017.

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“I felt a higher call to service,” Willman said. “I wanted to continue that service aspect and continue to challenge myself and that’s why I decided to join the military.

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Christian Willman played cornerback on the football team at Hamline University.
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“Just that call to service, to be able to serve, and especially as an officer, and the physical challenges of being in the military, jumping out of airplanes, going through Ranger School, being an Army Ranger, those are things that appealed to me.”

Vogler wasn’t surprised by Willman’s career path.

“Christian has always been cut from a different cloth,” Vogler said. “Super smart, super intelligent, he always took things on head first. Toward the end of his college years I think he kind of found focus in giving this a go. He’s super smart but he’s also as competitive and determined as it gets.”

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Capt. Christian Willman.
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Willman became a Bulldogs football fan by following Vogler’s career at UMD. Willman attended nearly 10 Bulldogs games even while he was playing college football himself. Fellow Rosemount buddies Trent Thompson and Garrett Glaus, all of whom stood in Vogler’s wedding, are coming up this weekend as well.

Willman was deployed five times across his career from the Middle East to Eastern Europe. There are times from his 2019 deployment in Afghanistan, working counter-terrorism operations for the Rangers, that he can’t talk about much.

Willman will officially be retired from the military in December. He recently enrolled at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management to pursue his MBA. Willman said he will miss the military, the camaraderie, the people, every single day. For years, the Army was No. 1 in his life, but then eventually, somewhere along the way, family took over the top spot, but the Army is still a close second. That is how much it means to him.

Willman has been married 2 1/2 years to Christina. They have three children: Elliana, 8, Sophia, 6, and a son, C.J., a month old, meaning Christina was pregnant during his last deployment.

Willman said as great as the sacrifices of a soldier might be, the sacrifices the family makes back home are even greater, just not having daddy around.

Yet those sacrifices still pale in comparison to the realities of war and combat.

“There’s no losing in the military,” Willman said. “It’s only wins because the alternative is catastrophic. It’s the ultimate sacrifice which is the toughest thing about being in the military, when people die or are killed. There’s a mindset that everything you’re doing now is preparation for the unknown, to just make sure there are no losses and you’re successful and you’re able to bring everyone back home.”

UPPER IOWA AT MINNESOTA DULUTH

What: NSIC football game; Military Appreciation Weekend
When: 6 p.m. Saturday
Where: Malosky Stadium
Records: Upper Iowa 0-2, UMD 1-1
Forecast: Scattered showers with a high of 70 and 7 mph wind
TV: My9
Internet: nsicnetwork.com/umdbulldogs
Radio: KTCO 98.9 FM

UPPER IOWA AT MINNESOTA DULUTH

National rankings: Neither team is ranked.
Series: UMD leads 6-1, including a 41-14 victory in last year’s season opener in Fayette, Iowa. The last time the Peacocks played in Duluth they pulled off a stunner, taking advantage of six turnovers to down the Bulldogs 23-13 on Oct. 26, 2019, at Malosky Stadium.
Coaches: Jason Hoskins is 1-12 in his second season at Upper Iowa; Curt Wiese is 81-19 in nine seasons at UMD.
“Upper Iowa generally has played us tough in the past,” Wiese said. “Defensively, they’re very strong up front, and their secondary returns three of four starters.”
Outlook: Upper Iowa jumped out to a 14-0 lead but couldn’t hold on last week as Minnesota State-Moorhead held on for a 24-21 NSIC victory in Fayette, Iowa. Quarterback Marcus Orr was 17-for-30 passing for 217 yards, two touchdowns and an interception to lead the Peacocks. … UMD is coming off a 17-10 loss at Minnesota State-Mankato, now ranked No. 24 in NCAA Division II. The Mavericks got an early punt return for touchdown and converted a fumble into another TD to get the Bulldogs reeling early. Freshman Kyle Walljasper led the Bulldogs with 12 carries for 87 yards and a touchdown but starter Logan Graetz found the passing tough against Minnesota State, going 6-for-22 passing for just 61 yards and no TDs.
“Coming off a tough loss at Mankato, and having a chance to come home and play on Military Appreciation Weekend, it will be important to refocus and have some energy in the stadium,” Wiese said. “We have to come out and make sure we play sound football.”
You don’t need a whole lot more motivation than all those factors combined.
“I think Saturday will be testament to our team, if we take a step forward and play a full game,” Wiese said. “I think Saturday will tell the tale of what we’re going to be about this season.”
Injury update: Starting quarterback Garrett Olson was expected to be a full practice participant Thursday after having modified practices earlier in the week due to a lower-body injury. If he can’t go, Graetz would once-again get the start while the Bulldogs continue to work in Walljasper in wildcat formations.
“We’ll see if Garrett is comfortable throwing in the pocket and moving in the pocket and then kind of go from there,” Wiese said. “I thought Kyle played well last week. He was given the opportunity and has continued to develop as a different threat offensively for us.”
Senior Armani Carmickle, who broke UMD’s single-season record with 1,315 receiving yards last season, reaggravated a lower-body injury in the second quarter and didn’t play the rest of the game.
“I don’t think we’ll see Armani this week,” Wiese said. “It’s a long season. He probably could have made it through the game at Mankato but was in a position where he was probably hurting us more than he was helping us. He just wasn’t full speed. So we decided to sit him and give other guys opportunities to stretch the field. That was a big part of our game plan, and taking him out of it certainly hurt us.”
Senior linebacker and captain Brad Dati, the NSIC North Division’s preseason defensive player of the year, hobbled off the field last week but practiced Wednesday and is expected to go Saturday. While the trainers were there to help, Dati, UMD’s leading tackler, insisted on walking off the field on his own power.
“Brad has that true linebacker mentality,” Wiese said. “He’s tough mentally, he’s tough physically. When you play that position you’re going to take some physical hits throughout your career.”
— Jon Nowacki, Duluth News Tribune

Jon Nowacki joined the News Tribune in August 1998 as a sports reporter. He grew up in Stephen, Minnesota, in the northwest corner of the state, where he was actively involved in school and sports and was a proud member of the Tigers’ 1992 state championship nine-man football team.

After graduating in 1993, Nowacki majored in print journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, serving as editor of the college paper, “The Aquin,” and graduating with honors in December 1997. He worked with the Associated Press during the “tobacco trial” of 1998, leading to the industry’s historic $206 billion settlement, before moving to Duluth.

Nowacki started as a prep reporter for the News Tribune before moving onto the college ranks, with an emphasis on Minnesota Duluth football, including coverage of the Bulldogs’ NCAA Division II championships in 2008 and 2010.

Nowacki continues to focus on college sports while filling in as a backup on preps, especially at tournament time. He covers the Duluth Huskies baseball team and auto racing in the summer. When time allows, he also writes an offbeat and lighthearted food column entitled “The Taco Stand,” a reference to the “Taco Jon” nickname given to him by his older brother when he was a teenager that stuck with him through college. He has a teenage daughter, Emma.

Nowacki can be reached at jnowacki@duluthnews.com or (218) 380-7027. Follow him on Twitter @TacoJon1.
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