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Minnesota Football: The History of Leidner Island

What is #LeidnerIsland, how did it happen, and why does it matter?

Leidner Island was once a lonely place, now fans are flocking to it's shores.
Leidner Island was once a lonely place, now fans are flocking to it's shores.
Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

A few of us here at TDG were proudly taking up roots on Leidner Island before it was appropriately and wonderfully named.  Over the past year, Leidner Island has grown tremendously and has spawned a life of it's own.  Now it seems as though everyone is taking up residence and what was once a lonely place has become overcrowded. Which is why it felt like a good time to look back on the history of Leidner Island and how we got to where we are today.

The Fall of 2015, Mitch Leidner's junior season, saw the Lakeville product struggle to start the year.  This prompted the predictable calls for the backup quarterback to be given a shot. After all, it couldn't be any worse right?  At the time I recall writing stories urging Gopher fans to calm down because Mitch was fine (not great and not nearly as bad as perceived) and the option of inserting a true-freshman quarterback was not the answer. This was not a popular opinion and one of the lone local voices to echo these sentiments was KFAN producer and sideline reporter for the Gopher radio broadcasts, Justin Gaard.  It was sarcastically said on the KFAN airwaves as part of Dan Barriero's drive-time program that Gaard was all alone on Leidner Island.

Little did they know that this was the start of a movement, but to be fair the story goes back even further.

A year ago Jerry Kill lamented how his local QB was being unfairly criticized, largely because he was a MN native. His theory was that since Leidner hailed from Minnesota, there were extra expectations heaped upon him. There seemed to be truth to that statement. After all, Mitch Leidner wasn't the first Gopher quarterback to play his high school ball locally and then endure a lot of criticism from Gopher fans while at the U. From this author's perspective, it was often lonely on #WeberIsland (still is).  While Adam Weber was breaking Gopher passing records and moving up the list of Big Ten quarterback career marks, he was not exactly embraced by Gopher fans. But he (much like Mitch) handled it with class and continued to be a leader on his football team, fighting to win games in spite of many hurdles beyond the quarterback's control.

I was fortunate enough to ask the now Gopher coach, Adam Weber about being a local QB playing for the Gophers...

I think it's just the nature of being a quarterback.  You get too much credit for a lot of the success that your team's having and you do take a lot of the blame. But's true at any level. That's just what the quarterback has to deal with.

But I do know that being a local kid, what makes it tough is that when you go home, or you have a lot of family or friends that are by.  And sometimes you're not so much reading the newspaper or listening to the radio shows, but they are.  So you kind of have that always in the background.  So I think there is something to having a lot of people that you know or as part of your family that are close by that can remind you, a little bit, of what's going on.  SO I think there is probably a little bit more to it and I kind of do agree with Coach Kill in the sense that you can kind of be reminded of it even when you try to ignore it.

And also asked about any possible parallels between what he faced as a scrutinized Gopher quarterback and what Mitch faced...

Yeah, I do.  But what I hope peole are seeing is that he's a winner.  Eveyrone wants that 500 yard game with 4 touchdowns and they want that perfect game.  He's doing a great job of doing exactly what we ask of him. He's making a lot of plays that the average fan would never see.  He's really a tremendous competitor. So I do think that it's very similar because again, just with the nature of the position, the quarterback's gonna get a lot of the criticism.  But you know, Mitch wins games, that's what he does a good job of.  And that's something that during my time we didn't do enough of. There are some parallels but he's doing a heck of a job and I hope that by the time it's all said and done people realize how great of a quarterback that he is.

That was a few years and quarterbacks ago, so let's return to the recent past. A time when Mitch Leidner started a few games as a freshman before taking over as the unquestioned starter in 2014.  Mitch had an OK sophomore season, which raised expectations slightly and set the stage for his struggles as a junior to incite the masses. It was during the up and down 2015 season that  Justin Gaard who founded Leidner Island, so to help us understand how we got to where we are I contacted Gaard to get his perspective.

I don't remember specifically when it became a thing, but it was about half way through last season. The offense was really struggling as a whole, the running game could never get going and Mitch had no time to throw. He was obviously taking a lot of heat and I just didn't think it was all his fault. I've always said if Mitch is healthy and the line can protect for him he's a good quarterback. In a choppy sea of Leidner negativity I felt like I was on an island with very few others...

Like a lot of stuff, Leidner Island really took off because of our listeners. We have the best listeners when it comes to picking up something and running with it. As Mitch started to put up big passing numbers the last half of the year people kept tweeting about property on the Island, pictures of boats pulling up to the Island, etc. It took off because our rubes get it.

I recall hearing of this magical island where defenders of Leidner could find refuge. A place for those of us who recognized the surrounding issues that made things difficult for the offense and those of us who didn't blame every possible Gopher mistake on the Lakeville QB.  A place we could still recognize the imperfections but maintaining a clear head that this was the best option we had and it wasn't quite as it seemed.

As Gaard said, very quickly it began to take a life of it's own.  And as with many internet sensations, it gets started on Twitter. This was the first Tweet I was able to find with the appropriate #LeidnerIsland hashtag.

It was still a lonely place for a while.  Eventually Leidner had a pretty good second half of the season, the outlook for his senior season began to look rosier.  ESPN's Todd McShay even suggested Leidner might be not only an NFL draft pick, but possibly a 1st round pick. (so even the most optimistic among us realize this seems unlikely at best).

But still, that was just the beginning.

As word of the island spread, a group of wonderful Gophers fans created the @LeidnerIsland Twitter handle and took things to a whole new level.  These people are some passionate Gopher fans (possibly crazy, but all die-hard Gophers fans have to be to a little bit right?). The story of Leidner Island isn't complete without them, so I reached out to learn how @LeidnerIsland came to be and their journey as Gopher fans.

There are four of us who have been collaborating on this idea from the beginning; myself, my husband, my brother-in-law and a friend of ours. The boys are avid KFAN listeners, heard JG use the phrase "Leidner Island" and thought "let's join him, let's really support Mitch through his senior year and get some positivity and excitement going for his final season."

We had a pre-season planning get together and when our friend, Jake, showed up he had the Twitter handle set up. We all thought it was a fun idea so we rolled with it. We all have access to it so we can stay on top of it.

I actually worked with JG for a summer when I was in high school so we went to say hi while he was broadcasting at the fair. We told him our ideas, got a retweet from him and the rest is history.

The rest IS history.  Now they have hundreds of Twitter followers (growing by the day).  Justin Gaard may have founded Leidner Island, but these guys are responsible for fanning the flames and making it the sensation that it is today.  They have T-shirts, a logo, Island themed tailgates and even spent time tailgating with the Leidner family and got to meet the Gopher starting QB.

It has been a blast! We never imagined this would grow into such a big deal. We roped our friends and family in early with the t-shirts and luau themed tailgate for the opener but we didn't expect that it would grow like this. Hanging out with Mitch and his family brought it to the next level. The anticipation for the next game is at an all time high. I think I speak for all four of us when I say that out of all of our seasons as Gopher fans, this one has definitely been the most fun.

This crew is having a blast with this and the 2016 Gopher season. As I said, they are passionate Gopher fans.

Jake and I are both former U of M students while Jason and Travis have grown into super fans over the past decade. Speaking for myself, I started to bleed maroon and gold when I went to my first game which was the same day that I moved into the dorms my freshman year (2003). My dad has set up a tailgate before nearly every home game since and now my husband and I, and our friends, are taking on that tradition. We try to make it to as many home games as possible and at least one road game a year...the Island will be traveling to Lincoln on November 12th! It's more than school pride, more than football, it's a huge part of our family. Also worth noting, my husband (Jason) actually proposed on the 50 yard line at The Bank!

Appears to be a fun crew.  They are planning on taking the Island to Nebraska later this season so be on the lookout if you are in Lincoln.  Hats off to these great Gopher fans who came up with a fun idea to get some momentum behind the Mitch Leidner and the 2016 team.

Listen...Mitch Leidner is a quality quarterback for the Gophers and an outstanding individual who represents the program and the state quite well.  We should all be embracing him and supporting him.  He'll make mistakes and the Gophers will lose some games this year, but he represents our favorite football program proudly and is the essence of collegiate athletics. Gaard, who is around the around the program as much as anyone, had high praise of Leidner.

He's tough. He competes. He works hard and he's never going to embarrass the team or university. And he's won a lot of games. As far as a representative of a state and a fanbase, I don't know what else you want. Great Gopher fans who came up with a fun idea to get some momentum behind the Mitch Leidner and the 2016 team.

Coach Weber gushed about his toughness and how hard he works.

There's times when I have to tell him, "Hey, Mitch just go home and relax. you have to get away, you can't let it consume you." He's one of those elite competitors, I've only seen a few people in my life that are like that.  That are obsessed with winning or obsessed with doing his best.  That's a good thing and sometimes that can make your mind overthink. I think Mitch has done a great job of maturing and not allowing his frustration to become too high. He's done a great job of remaining calm. The biggest thing for Mitch is being a competitor and he's tough.  I think people saw that last year, maybe they didn't know but now they do how tough of a guy that he is.  So those are two things, as a quarterback, that are huge.  Guys around you, the 10 other guys on the field and all the other guys on the team see that and I think that helps your team become more tough and it helps them because they see how hard Mitch is working, they better pick up their game or they'll be passed up and I think that's been huge for us.

Will he be a high draft pick?  Who cares, he'll go on with an opportunity to compete and that's what he does.  But we get him for 9 more Big Ten games, plus likely one more.

Leidner Island is getting crowded.  What was once quite, peaceful and serene place has become noisy and overpopulated.  And that's just fantastic. If you haven't made the trip yet, don't wait. Get on board the nearest boat and enjoy the ride. Everyone is welcome on #LeidnerIsland!