According to the NCAA, just over one million high school students play football for their respective schools each fall. But the number of those players that actually move on to a higher level of competition is incredibly miniscule.
Some 73,660 athletes competed in all levels of NCAA football in the 2015 season — the most recent year’s data that is publicly available. Of all those players, only 1.5 percent will go on to play at a major professional level. This is a hard enough statistic to overcome when you are coming from a major Division I program that is constantly in the spotlight, but it becomes astronomically difficult when you play your college football for a Division III school like Concordia.
When you play for a Division III team, there are two levels of NCAA football above you — Division I and II. Division III schools cannot offer athletic scholarships like Division I and Division II, so, naturally, they do not always get the best talent available. But some players can slip through the cracks.
Last season, seven Division III alums made NFL opening day rosters. Those that have been following Cobber football over the past few years are hoping Brandon Zylstra (‘15) can make that number eight next year.
Zylstra, 24, led the Canadian Football League in receiving yards this season in his first full year with the Edmonton Eskimos. Edmonton was knocked out of this year’s CFL playoffs by the Calgary Stampeders in the West Division Final on November 19.
The Spicer, Minnesota native appeared in six games at the end of last season after being promoted from the Eskimos’ practice squad.
Cobber football coach Terry Horan told the Star Tribune in July that he believes Zylstra will make the next step, to the NFL, at some point.
“I don’t know when, but Brandon’s going to play down here,” Horan said. “He’s such an athlete and such a workhorse, he’s going to be in the NFL … and, I mean, catching passes on Sunday.”
If Zylstra were to make the NFL, he would be the sixth Cobber alum to play on Sunday and the first to do so in nearly 30 years.
The seven Concordia players who have played in the League form a who’s who of Cobber football history, starting from the very first to make the professional cut: Jim Christopherson.
Christopherson played under legendary football coach Jake Christiansen before moving onto professional football, where he played one season with the Minnesota Vikings in 1962, kicking and playing linebacker. Christopherson would later play for the Toronto Argonauts of the CFL before switching his attention to coaching.
“I started out as a practice squad player, then I made the team as a rostered player in my second year,” Christopherson said in a recent appearance on the Cobber football Coaches Show. “It was very hard to make a team back then because there were only 36 active players, so there were only about 500 players in the NFL. Now there are 53 active players with 32 teams and about 1500 slots. To be able to play football at the highest level, even for only one year, was a tremendous accomplishment.”
After his professional career, Christopherson would take the reigns from his former coach, Christiansen, and become the all-time winningest coach in Cobber football history with a 218-101-7 record over 32 seasons in Moorhead. During his career, Christopherson would coach four players who made it to the NFL, but arguably the most successful Cobber alum to make it to the pros came before him.
Gary Larsen finished his football career at Concordia a year after Christopherson made his NFL debut, and he would go on to become a fixture in Minnesota sports for a decade. Larsen was drafted by the Los Angeles Rams in 1964 before being traded to his hometown Vikings after one season in California. Larsen played 10 seasons for Minnesota, appearing in three Super Bowls and forming one-fourth of the famous defensive line that became known as the “Purple People Eaters” before retiring in 1974.
Larsen played in his first Super Bowl in 1970 and competed in two more in 1974 and 1975 before retiring. Despite never coming out on the winning end, Larsen remains the only Cobber to have played at the ultimate level.
During Christopherson’s tenure from 1969 to 2000, he coached four more players who reached the top level of football. Those players — Kim Bokamper, Barry Bennett, Dave Klug, and Todd Black — lasted between one and 11 seasons in the NFL.
Bennett, a defensive lineman from Long Prairie, Minnesota, was a three-time national champion wrestler at Concordia before being drafted in 1978 by the New Orleans Saints.
“Concordia was a fantastic time in my life,” Bennett said in 2010. “I was this scared little 18-year-old, 220-pound kid who was hoping he could play football at Concordia. Lots of good things happened.”
Bennett would go on to play 11 seasons in the NFL with three teams, tallying 18.5 sacks and four fumble recoveries in 132 games played. Since Bennett stepped off the field in 1988, no other Cobber football player has made the top flight of American football.
Zylstra is hoping to change that, but has learned a lot in the process. The NFL has been a dream he has chased since graduating from Concordia, through a laborious pro day process and all the way to Canada.
“I’ve learned a lot about self-discipline and self-motivation,” Zylstra said in 2016. “At the D-III level, you get overlooked by so many different people it just makes it so much harder to step up and prove to these coaches that you can play.”
After an intense workout regime and traveling schedule to participate in as many tryouts as possible in the spring of 2016, Zylstra earned himself an invitation to Minnesota Vikings tryout camp. Instead of accepting the invite to Mankato, Zylstra signed onto the CFL.
Zylstra said recently that the Vikings have reached out to him this season, but with his two-year contract in Edmonton expiring in February of 2018 the receiver has been coy about his future plans.
“I’m definitely going to be exploring my opportunities,” Zylstra told the Edmonton Sun last week. “I’m talking with my agent right now and just seeing what’s the best fit and everything, but I have a couple months to decide what’s the best situation for me.”