MINNEAPOLIS - Iowa tight end Noah Fant and Michigan linebacker Chase Winovich mocked the "Row the Boat" mantra in celebrations after big plays against the Gophers last season, just two instances of opponents poking fun at the phrase Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck embraced after his infant son, Colt, died of a heart condition in 2011.
When Fleck's Western Michigan team struggled at the start of his four-year tenure in 2013 and '14, he said, critics said they wanted to throw him out of the boat, or hit him with an oar, while others suggested new catchphrases such as "Mow the lawn."
"When I kind of unveiled it, everybody made fun of it, and people still do," Fleck said. "But at the end of the day, that's always going to happen when you sit there and say, 'Here I am' as a person, and you share yourself with other people instead of closing yourself off."
Fleck trademarked the phrase and brought it with him to Minnesota in January 2017. The eye-rolling didn't abate when the Gophers struggled to a 5-7 record last fall in Fleck's first season as coach. But the marriage between the Gophers football program and "Row the Boat" has only become more intertwined as Fleck's second season began Thursday, Aug. 30, against New Mexico State at TCF Bank Stadium.
The Gophers have "ROW" written on their helmet nameplates, and if you look closely enough, oars and boats are set inside the numbers on their new jerseys. Each video the U posts on social media about the program ends with a "Row The Boat" logo flashing across the screen, and Fleck signs off every news conference with three phrases: "Ski-U-Mah," "Row the Boat" and "Go Gophers."
Behind the scenes, there's another U community that has embraced "Row The Boat" and the never-give-up credo it represents.
When the Gophers called for fans to donate personalized oars at the past two spring games, about 250 in different shapes, sizes and designs were donated to the program. Those oars hang along the message "RoWINg with us" in the tunnel from the team's locker room down to the field at TCF Bank Stadium.
Several families of fans have brought the phrase into their homes, from Andover to Detroit Lakes. It has helped them keep a positive attitude when life has dealt them challenges such as the pain losing a child, or battling serious health issues. Some of those stories have reached Fleck, and he has written letters back to the families.
"It's inspiring," Fleck said. "It's very real, for whatever anybody says about it. It's making a huge impact on our state, and the community and the nation in terms of people who are struggling with different things. We can always be that beacon and that guiding light and be a sense of hope for them."
Here are two of those stories.
Detroit Lakes native Jerod Conn has been a lifelong Gophers fan, and his daughter Chloe joined him during the U's 2016 football season. Mother Stacy said Chloe's new hobby fit her "defy-the-odds" personality.
"She felt like she needed to know everything about football because it wasn't natural for a 13-, 14-year-old girl to know everything about it," Stacy said.
When Fleck was hired in 2017, the Conns, including older son Christian, made an oar for the spring game. They painted it maroon and wrote "Conn" on it in gold, with an outline of the state of Minnesota and the Gophers' block "M" logo. They gave it to the football program.
It turned out to be one of the last things they did as a full family. About a month later, on a road trip to the Emerald Bay area of Lake Tahoe in California, Chloe slipped while on a hike and fell about 50 feet. She died at the hospital.
As the family grieved, the oar became symbolic.
Without knowledge of Chloe's passing, the Gophers placed the Conns' oar as one of the last ones the players see in the tunnel before taking the field. Coming out of a commercial break in the Gophers' home game against Maryland last year, a FS1 cameraman panned the wall of oars and paused on the Conns' for a few seconds.
"It feels like a piece of Chloe is there and will always be there in a way," Stacy said last weekend, her voice quivering.
The message behind "Row The Boat" has become therapeutic for the Conns.
"I get down a lot and I try to think that (Fleck is) still pushing forward," Jerod said. "He's a very positive person, and I think it's a good thing to be. Sometimes I wonder how he can be that way and stuff. It's just something that you use to motivate you."
For last year's spring game, the Conns made another oar as a tribute to Chloe. It has a picture of her holding the first family oar, with her middle name, Love, written on it. It also has a blue heart sticker, a token of her memory seen around Detroit Lakes.
"It's symbolic and special and beautiful how much Jerod loves the Gophers and how supportive they've been to him," Stacy said. "It's something that him and Chloe really bonded over. It's just special for us as a family."
Sam Grant was born three weeks premature on June 30, 2016. His mother, Jamie, fed him within minutes, and he started choking and coughing.
Instead of going home to Andover, Sam started a seven-month stretch in the hospital. He was diagnosed with Down Syndrome and two birth defects, long gap esophageal artresia and laryngeal cleft. Esophageal atresia is when a baby is born without the connective parts of the esophagus between the mouth to the stomach; the laryngeal cleft is the gap between the larynx and the top part of the esophagus.
Sam was immediately given a tracheostomy, and he's had more than 30 operations and procedures since. Doctors have fixed the esophageal artresia and have plans to correct the laryngeal cleft. He can't speak, and is learning sign language, but there is hope he will be able to speak as he grows up.
Sam left the hospital in early 2017, and Sean, Sam's father and Jamie's husband, sent Jamie the video of Fleck explaining all the elements to "Row the Boat."
"I was balling because I do think that your attitude (makes a difference). I could sit there and say, 'Woe is me,' and be negative and life is so hard," Jamie said. "My take on that is no! I got to take him home with me; I think of P.J. Fleck and he didn't get to do that" with his son Colt.
The Grants made an oar with the words "Sam Strong" on it and gave it to the U. They also sent the U a video of Sam's story, which was posted on Twitter and has been viewed more than 20,000 times.
Sam needs in-home nursing care for more than 100 hours a week. Brothers Ryan and Will, and his sister Abby, playfully fight over who gets to hold him.
"He's like the happiest kid ever," Jamie said. "He's a very easy kid as far as temperament and personality go."