Blake Elliott ’03 wants to join new pack – the College Football Hall of Fame
July 20, 2018
By Mike Killeen
On a football field or in business, Blake Elliott ’03 has never been one to do it alone.
“I’ve always been a pack animal. I’m not a lone wolf in any respect,” Elliott said, smiling.
Not throughout a playing career at Saint John’s University, where he became one of the most decorated wide receivers in collegiate history. The Johnnies played in four consecutive national semifinal games, was a two-time Stagg Bowl participant and helped SJU to a national championship in 2003 – the same year Elliott captured the Gagliardi Trophy as Division III’s most outstanding player.
Not throughout a business career that has seen him partner with friends – including many former teammates — to help care for the disabled.
Now, he’d like to be a member of a new pack — the College Football Hall of Fame (CFHOF).
Elliott is on the ballot for a sixth-straight year. He is one of 176 former student-athletes on the ballot, including 100 from NCAA divisional and NAIA ranks.
“I’m most excited for it because it’s just another spotlight on Saint John’s, and the special spot we have here,” Elliott said of the CFHOF. “I’m excited for it because it would be another opportunity to celebrate some of the teams that we’ve had, and the guys that we’ve had that were really successful (at SJU).”
In football and in life, he’s a winner.
“At Saint John’s he excelled on the gridiron and in the classroom as well,” said Joe Mucha ’66, who started at end on the first two SJU national championship teams and is a retired vice president of human resources for General Mills. “Today, he is a successful entrepreneur whose companies are value based and provide support services for the disadvantaged.”
“I have always loved competition,” Elliott said. “Whether that goes back to being a 10-year-old playing baseball with your buddies, you’re competing in everything and anything.”
The younger child vs. the older kids
Growing up in Melrose, Minnesota — just an 18-minute drive to the SJU campus in Collegeville — Elliott grew up playing against older children, including several (Ben Sieben, Tom Linnemann and Brian Zirbes) who went on to play football at SJU.
“I was thrown into a culture and environment that you just didn’t play with third-graders (as a third-grader). Melrose was so small, you had to play with the fifth-graders and the sixth-graders and the second-graders and the first-graders,” Elliott said.
“When you’re the little guy — and I was always the little guy playing against the big guys — you get your butt kicked a lot,” he continued. “But, you learn a lot of times from getting your butt kicked. You learn you have to be faster, you learn to be quick horizontally because you’re not going to be stronger than those guys.
“There was probably a lot of bike trips home in tears because you got tackled pretty hard by a kid twice as big as you were, but those lessons from a long-term standpoint are so significant,” Elliott said.
Elliott considered himself a better basketball player in high school. Given the chance to play both sports, he enrolled at Saint John’s in the fall of 1999 – and promptly suffered a herniated disk in his back in football practice.
He came back at full strength in the fall of 2000 and began his collegiate career (he was granted a medical redshirt year in 2003). Elliott ended his career second all-time in all NCAA divisions in catches (327) and second in NCAA Division III in touchdown receptions (56). Elliott posted 369 receptions for 4,826 yards and 63 touchdowns in his career, as well as 744 rushing yards and eight touchdowns on 109 carries.
Elliott was just as dangerous on special teams, totaling 3,065 yards and seven touchdowns on 195 returns, kickoff and punt combined.
He still owns three NCAA Division III playoff records, two Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) records and 29 SJU records. Elliott was a three-time All-American, a two-time MIAC Player of the Year and was a Gagliardi Trophy finalist in 2002.
The 2003 title game
In three of Elliott’s four seasons, the Johnnies’ final game was played against Mount Union. In 2003, Saint John’s beat Mount Union 24-6 to win its fourth national championship as Elliott was named the game’s outstanding player after he produced 161 yards of total offense (11 rushes for 110 yards and a touchdown, five receptions for 51 yards) while playing with an injured hamstring muscle.
Here’s how the opposing coaches in the ’03 title game – both members of the College Football Hall of Fame - viewed Elliott.
“Blake brought his transcendent athletic ability, coupled it with an incredible personality, team leadership and competitive nature, and took a very good team to greatness,” wrote former SJU Coach John Gagliardi in a letter to the CFHOF. “He not only was statistically our best player on two Stagg Bowl teams and four West Region title games, but he was the cog that made our teams realize greatness.”
“In watching film, we saw that he was a player that you had to prepare for as he was very skilled at his position and did so many things well,” said retired Mount Union coach Larry Kehres, who won 11 Division III titles and is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, Class of 2017. ”He had an ability to make catches at critical times during a game – whether on third down, inside the 20-yard-line or in the end zone.”
Following his senior season, he signed as a free agent with the Minnesota Vikings. But his stay was short when he suffered a spiral fracture in his tibia, a broken fibula, a dislocated ankle and a torn ligament between his tibia and fibula.
“Bones heal, but the ligament that tore is responsible for a lot things like explosion,” Elliott said. “That’s a tough enough league to make it at 100 percent, and I could never get back to 100 percent.”
On to the business world
So, what does the kid from Melrose do now? He hooks up with another big guy – Twin Cities real estate developer and 2018 U.S. Senate candidate Jerry Trooien.
“I called him up and just said, ‘Hey, I’d love to buy you lunch to get 30 minutes of your time,’” Elliott said. “We hit it off right away. He took me kind of on his hip there for a while, and saw some of the successes that he had, and then I saw some of the challenges that he had as well going through the (2008 economic) downturn.
“Jerry Trooien was a sixth-grader, and I was a third-grader. I asked him to play, and he said yeah, and he taught me a ton,” Elliott said.
That led to Elliott setting up three businesses that catered to disability services. That topic had hit home for Elliott, when his younger brother Adam was injured in a June 2003 auto accident and suffered brain injuries requiring 24-hour care.
He started his first company, Everyday Living, with his brother-in law in 2009. By 2015, the company had grown to 150 employees in 30 locations in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area.
“Work always is going to be a big part of my life,” Elliott said. “My thought has always been, if it is going to be a huge part of your life, why don’t you do it with people who are a big part of your life, that you care about, that you like working with? I think that makes it a lot more enjoyable, a lot more fulfilling.”
He started a second company, Bridges, with some of his former teammates. Bridges strives to bring “high-level, innovative services to people with disabilities to try and help them improve the quality of their life, and identify and achieve their goals,” Elliott said.
In 2016, Elliott and friends started a third company, Northstar Behavorial Health, which helps people deal with opioid addiction (Northstar and Bridges have since merged, although they keep their separate names).
“I knew when I was closing the door on my football career I needed to find something that fit that competitiveness. Business does that, to some degree,” Elliott said. “It’s cheesy, but you just want to compete hard and do your best. That was something that was great about football – you were pushed to your limits.
The Gagliardi impact
“With business, it’s the same thing. You want to play hard. You want to play at your best, and you want to execute at a high level,” Elliott said.
That character has resonated with others.
“Blake is a person of high character and standards. His leadership inspires those around him to work to their highest potential,” Mucha said.
Elliott would love to be inducted into the CFHOF and join his former coach.
“That would be amazing,” Elliott said of that possibility. “John has had such an impact on my life in so many ways. I’ll be honest, when I was 19, 20, 21, John was a good coach and I loved playing for him, but I didn’t understand how special this was.
“Guys that went to the University of St. Thomas, or the University of Minnesota or North Dakota State, they didn’t have the experience that I had. They don’t have the connections and the family atmosphere and the camaraderie. We’re working on 20 years and these (teammates) have been a huge part of our lives. That’s not going away anytime soon.”
“One of my great moments of pride is when Blake was awarded the Gagliardi Trophy,” Gagliardi wrote. “Humbled that an award this prestigious is named after myself, I am also honored that forever my name will be linked to this great man,” Gagliardi wrote.