Gene's Blog: It's all relative for this Tommie student

Who knew? If you look closely, there are multiple connections between prominent Michigan Wolverine quarterbacks and the University of St. Thomas.

It starts with UST's president, Dr. Julie Sullivan. She was hired in 2005 as executive VP and provost at the University of San Diego. That institution's head football coach at that time: Jim Harbaugh.

Sullivan came to St. Thomas in 2013 and became its first president not from the priesthood. Harbaugh went on to head coaching roles at Stanford and then to San Francisco in the NFL before returning to his alma mater in 2015 to resurrect Michigan football.

There are additional Harbaugh-St. Thomas connections back from Jim's childhood days in Iowa City, Iowa. His father Jack Harbaugh was an assistant and later a head coach in college football, meaning Jim and his older brother John (the current Baltimore Ravens coach) moved around a lot while growing up.

Dave Triplett was a University of Iowa graduate assistant coach in 1973, one season after his career as a Hawkeye wide receiver ended. On a couple of occasions, Triplett took on babysitting duties for Jim and John Harbaugh.

Well, what do you know? Dave's son, Tim Triplett, is in his second year coaching on Glenn Caruso's Tommie football staff.

There's another Iowa City story with a connection all the way to Summit and Cretin Avenues. One day when young Jim and John were coming home from a playground, Jim dashed into traffic and collided with the back side of a car driven by a mail carrier. He was fortunate to only suffer a broken leg.

That postal employee was a 20-year-old University of Iowa student: Dan McGivern. Yes, Dan is one of several first cousins of a 23-year St. Thomas employee, ahem, who's also this blog's author. (Our dads grew up on the same Iowa County farm, 40 miles west of the U of I campus).

Harbaugh and Dan McGivern recently reconnected in Iowa City, where the coach was in town recruiting four-star receiver Oliver Martin. Their photo and reunion story made a national splash, including ESPN's Sports Center. (This Detroit News account explains it in detail)

 

A Better Story of Cousins

This week, another Michigan football QB -- Tom Brady -- has again stolen even Harbaugh's thunder. Which brings us to the best Big Blue/Purple connection, yet, involving none other than the Super Bowl MVP.

Meet Benton Johnson, a St. Thomas junior. This Communication and Journalism major came to campus from Browerville, Minn., population 794, located two hours northwest of the Twin Cities.

He's also a second cousin of... Tom Brady. Yep, that Tom Brady.

Today's Brady Bunch from sunny California has a small Minnesota wing in the Johnson clan. Although the NFL quarterbacking legend grew up on the west coast, he made annual summer treks with his family to Bowerville to visit grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins.

"We're a super tight-knit family," Benton said. "We obviously take a lot of pride in Tommy's success. We probably see Tommy and his family three or four times a year. We were just with them last Thanksgiving. We've seen Tommy play around the country in many different stadiums, and try to head to a couple games each year. Gillette (Stadium) is by far the best because we feel at home with all the Patriots' fans."

Benton, dad, Paul Johnson, recalls Tom as an active boy when he came on summer visits.

"He was our little hyperactive kid," Paul said this week in an interview with KARE-11 TV, of his younger cousin. "I remember him throwing baseballs and busting grandpa's windows."

Paul added: "Tommy had a mile-wide competitive streak, whether fishing, golfing or playing cards."

These days, Benton said that Brady always comes off as a laid back, funny guy with no celebrity ego.

"Tommy is very down to earth. My dad and he exchange texts from time to time, and they just talk about life, not really much about football. We are family, and I like to always remind myself that he's family before he's an NFL star. His sisters are very athletic, too, and we love running together when visiting."

The Brady family returned to Browerville last summer for the funeral of Gordon Johnson -- Tom's grandpa and Benton's great-grandpa.

"Tommy came back and did one of the readings at his funeral," Benton said. "We had to keep his trip there super quiet, being it's a small town. We didn't want him to have to deal with a lot of people trying to get his autograph or a paparazzi-like scene."

The 21-year-old Benton said the 39-year-old Brady is more like an uncle to him and Kenley, his older sister. Kenley Johnson is a recent College of St. Ben's graduate who's now serving in the Army and stationed in South Carolina, preparing for a medical career.

"I wore my No. 12 Brady jersey to campus this Monday," Benton said. "I always wear it with such pride."

Benton said that it's never dull to have a celebrity in your extended family. "Some people here at St. Thomas know (about my family's connection)," he said. "It's special, and mostly a positive.

"Growing up, it did come with a little negative. I recall the year the Patriots were unbeaten and lost and finished 18-1. I walked into my sixth-grade classroom and someone had written '18-1' on the chalkboard. But the people who wrote that are the kind that would be the first ones to ask when he was coming to town."

Benton's grandfather Gary and Brady's mother Galynn are brother and sister. Galynn, a Homecoming queen in the 1960s at Browerville High, was a flight attendant with Northwest Airlines when she met Tom Brady, Sr., an insurance salesman from California.

The Bradys eventually married and raised Tom, Jr.., and his older sisters Nancy, Julie and Maureen in San Mateo, Calif. The girls were accomplished softball players, while Tom excelled in football and baseball.

 

Ann Arbor to Boston

Tom, Jr., took a scholarship to Michigan, and went from No. 7 on the depth charts as a freshman to a two-year run as starting QB. A sixth-round NFL draft pick and 199th overall selection, he's now won five Super Bowls and has moved to the top of lists when people debate who is the greatest quarterback in the history of the sport.

In 2009, Brady married world-renowned model and actress Gisele Bundchen.

"When I first met Gisele, I was pretty excited," Benton said. "It's not often you meet the No. 1 super model in the world. I remember sitting in the (luxury) box at Gillette (Stadium) and visiting with her. She's very nice, and made you feel right at home. I also like that she's very involved in environmental causes, so it's nice to connect on that level, too, as that's a cause that's important to me. She was involved as a correspondent in the documentary film 'Years of Living Dangerously,' about deforestation in her native Brazil. It was cool to watch that."

Tom and Gisele aren't the only prominent Bradys that Benton spends time with. Tom's sister Julie married former 10-year major-league baseball standout Kevin Youkilis. Kevin and Julie recently opened a brew pub in Los Gators, Calif.

And Tom's niece, Maya, just a 10th grader in California, is carrying on the family athletics prowess. She's already accepted a scholarship offer to play college softball at UCLA.

 

PHOTO: Minnesota siblings Benton and Kenley Johnson (center) hang out with their California cousins from the Brady family.

 

Game-Day Memories

Benton headed home to Browerville last weekend for a Super Bowl party at his dad's shed/man cave. Nearly 20 attendees shared food, drink and a passion for the New England Patriots.

After a scoreless first quarter, the Johnson party lost a lot of buzz when New England fell behind 21-0 before halftime.

"My sister called me from her military base at halftime, she was sobbing," Benton recalled. "She was saying, 'We're going to lose.' I told her that this was typical of Tommy, and to just wait until the end of the game. I told her he would do it, he'd find a way. And he did it."

One of the game's sidebars was the revelation that Brady's mother, Galynn, had been undergoing chemo treatments. "The family has known about (Galynn)'s breast cancer for a while, but it just became public at the Super Bowl. She just finished chemo. She really wanted to go to this game Sunday. It's been a tough year for her, losing her dad last summer and now battling this."

Benton called the comeback victory and Brady's performance "a magical moment."

He added, "This Super Bowl win was special. This game cements his legacy. Plus the fact that he really wanted to win this for his mom.

"We really hope the Patriots make it back next year since the Super Bowl will be played in Minnesota."

 

Reach for the Stars

Benton played football (running back) and ran track while in high school at Browerville. He works on campus at TommieMedia and is considering a career in television news or sports. Another of his cousins, Kim Johnson, is an on-air talent in the Twin Cities at WCCO-TV.

In journalism and in life, never underestimate those family connections.

"I have a photo taken with Tommy when I was a little kid. He's holding me, and I'm wearing a Patriots' hat that he signed with this note: 'Reach for the stars.'

"He's a guy from San Mateo, Calif., not a guy like (Peyton and Eli) Manning where their dad played in the NFL. He wasn't always a starter at Michigan, and a sixth-round (NFL) draft pick. He's proof that you can do anything if you set your mind to it."

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Gene's Blog is a sports column penned by UST sports information director Gene McGivern. Gene is working in his 23rd season at St. Thomas and 29th overall in the MIAC. He blogs periodically on various topics regarding the Tommies, the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) and Division III sports.

If you have comments or questions, e-mail Gene at ejmcgivern@stthomas.edu