MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- Pushed to be the very best or pushed way too far?
Former Gopher athletes have come forward with allegations of tough football practices that ended their careers, and they're not alone.
WCCO investigates what happened when a professor blew the whistle.
For nearly 20 years, Jason Stahl considered the University of Minnesota his second home. First, as a Ph.D. graduate, then as a college professor.
"I was teaching history classes," Stahl said. "This is not what I wanted to do."
Student athletes were regulars in his classes. Dozens from the football program alone.
"Lots of guys coming in casts, braces, out of nowhere," Stahl said.
Athletes who in 2017 Stahl started to watch closely.
"Guys who had been under previous coaches, they would say, 'Yeah, things were hard under previous coaches, but not like this,'" he said.
It was PJ Fleck's first year at the U. The promising young coach known for his boundless energy and charisma on the field. But it was what Stahl says he noticed in class that worried him.
"Physical and mental health degradation. I saw it in the classroom," Stahl said.
It was that physical toll Stahl says he began to track. Specifically, in Fleck's first recruiting class from 2018.
"There are five individuals from that class who will never play football again. They are medically retired from the game," Stahl said.
"All from practice-related injuries. If that happened to your favorite NFL team would you think that was acceptable? Of course not, is the answer. So why do we consider it acceptable for these young men?" Stahl questioned.
With scholarship offers from 15 different colleges, Dayton, Ohio's Alex Reigelsperger told us he heard from Fleck almost daily before landing at the U.
A shoulder injury at practice first sidelined the defensive end six months into his time as a Gopher.
A year later, the redshirt freshman participated in the first full-contact practice of the spring.
"It was terrifying, it was absolutely terrifying," Riegelsberger recalled.
"I was just going to spin down and my neck happened to be like right at the correct angle and I got hit and fractured my C4 and C3 vertebrae," he said.
Reigelsperger spent four days in the hospital. Fortunate, doctors told him, to not be paralyzed.
"I did always think it was weird that we would run and do full on scrimmage style games in the middle of spring when there was no reason to because you're not playing anybody," he said.
"Injuries that are severe like entire ACLs, labrum injuries, neck injuries, concussions. They are things as if you're playing full on games," he added.
Two weeks later, it was finalized that Reigelsberger would never play football again. Medically retiring from the game with his college education still covered.
He said he never heard from Coach Fleck since the day he left on medical retirement.
Months earlier, it was a different injury that Georgia-native Nolan Edmonds says sent him on a downward spiral.
"When I was at practice it was supposed to be more of a walk through," Edmonds said.
"I had gotten the ball and I wasn't expecting contact, because we're not supposed to hit. But right when I got the ball I had somebody just come and just hit me from the side and tackle me and my head cocked back and hit the ground," he recalled.
Edmonds got right back up before he says he collapsed on the field.
"I blacked out and I couldn't remember anything from that time period," he said.
Edmonds says he felt pressure to get back to practice sooner than he should have.
"Someone could literally just say something and I can walk away, then two, three seconds I'd forget what they said," he said.
Edmonds says memory issues and an inability to control his emotions lead him to leave the program as a freshman. Again, he says with no real support from the football program once he left.
"They didn't even talk to me. When I got my injury I just feel that I got cut off at that point when I was getting cut off that's when I needed support the most," he said.
But, it is what they witnessed with another 2018 recruit, Grant Norton, that they say also raised red flags.
The 6'8" 260-pound tackle from Missouri lasted just weeks at the University of Minnesota after his throat took a hit in practice.
"When he started throwing up blood and losing a lot of weight I knew something was wrong," Edmonds said.
"He started losing weight because he was so anxiety ridden about the practice culture that he was scared to go to practice in the morning and would wake up and start throwing up out of fear," Stahl said.
"He was here five, six weeks and he lost 50 pounds," he added.
Grant Norton's story is the first Stahl shared online. The college professor made it his mission to find him after he says his former student "disappeared" from campus.
"It was horrific, horrific what he went through," Stahl said.
Norton told Stahl instead of being kept out of practice he was pushed harder. Punished with planks for not keeping on weight. Norton said he didn't want to be alive at times, so fearful to drop out of football and disappoint his dad. In the end, he said Fleck told him it was time for him to go, and he shouldn't speak poorly about the program after he left.
As a professor, Stahl reported his concerns to Athletic Director Mark Coyle. Coyle declined our request to be interviewed. So did Coach Fleck. But, in a statement a U spokesperson says Stahl's complaints were thoroughly reviewed and that no finding of any rule violation or other misconduct was found. The statement went on to say that the university would not allow an abusive situation to exist.
Months after his report to Coyle, Stahl was demoted from the position he held at the school. The university denies taking any inappropriate action towards him but says it can't be more specific due to privacy laws. WCCO reviewed emails that say his position was being eliminated.
Stahl resigned, turning to Substack to publish a regular newsletter. Publicly rocking the boat, refusing to row it any longer.
"If you want the Gophers to win you should be interested in taking care of these individuals," Stahl mentioned.
The U acknowledges nearly half of the players recruited for Fleck's first class are gone. Half either transferred, suffered injuries or quit football altogether. The school says attrition happens.
WCCO also found Fleck's coaching staff has been a bit of a carousel. Half of his position coaches have been with him for the last four years. The others have left. The U says turnover is common in college football. But, one coach who didn't want to be identified told WCCO he couldn't back Fleck as a head coach and quit over "too much manipulation of the players."
"As soon as he came in all of us, including the staff members, would stand up and clap repeatedly," Reigelsberger said.
Some of his former players share those concerns. Along with the use of one particular word. If you're asked how you're doing, they say it's the only way you can answer.
"Elite was always the word. I can't even say it," Edmonds said.
"It's OK to not feel elite all the time and it's OK to come forward if there's something wrong with you that you know is not right," Edmonds said.
These players hope sharing their stories will help to protect others moving forward. All three say they struggled to find mental health help. The U says that's available to them.
"This university absolutely has a responsibility to take care of its student athletes especially if you're going to give them the millions and millions of dollars and put millions and millions of dollars forward on a program you should absolutely be taking care of all student athletes," Reigelsberger said.
The players you just heard from did publicly thank Coach Fleck on social media when they left the Gophers. Reigelsperger said that's so they could still get their education paid for. We reached out to several other college football programs about medical retirements. We heard back from one whose numbers match what we've seen at the U. Their injuries were linked to not just practices but games. The NCAA told us it does not track football players who quit the sport.
Stahl hopes some of his research will lead to the first college football player's association to better track what players face.
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