NDSU's Lechler finds country comfort at family farm
Saddle Butte Township, N.D. — The greeting party is a chocolate Chesapeake Bay Retriever named Lilly, a friendly dog who wags her tail at any human being who approaches her domain She chews rocks for fun.
Tough and polite, that about sums up life on the Lechler farm and ranch. It’s a busy place – and then in a sense it is not. There are 300 or so lambs and 130 cattle and none of them care that Landon Lechler has three NCAA Division I FCS national title rings.
It’s a workin’ man’s place, and the only glory within the 2,500 acres is the beauty of the land itself.
Where an English major may look at it as drudgery, Lechler looks at it as his escape from the hustle and bustle of Division I football.
Whenever he gets a weekend off – and that isn’t often in the year-around world of college athletics – Lechler hops into his white pickup that was once his grandfather’s and drives the several hours to the last exit before Montana.
From there it’s north on Highway 16 for a few miles and then a right turn into a bright red scoria road, where the setting of the house is something out of a painting. A creek runs below the farm facility through a mini-canyon that gives the Lechlers their own mini Badlands.
“I’ll leave Fargo sometimes, and it feels like an hour drive to get home,” Landon said. “I can come out here and just escape and have everything on my mind except football for a weekend. It’s a good way to clear my head, and I can go back kind of fresh and get ready to go.”
He’s not the only Bison offensive lineman who can do that. Of the 13 on the roster, four are from rural North Dakota, and all four were essentially lightly recruited by almost everybody – regardless of division. Guard Tanner Volson is from Balfour, tackle Jack Plankers has a Leonard address, and guard Luke Bacon is from Granville.
All four are expected to contribute at some point. Lechler started all 16 games at right tackle last year and Plankers started one game. Volson and Bacon redshirted. Over the past four years, the importance of small-town players in the run of four straight national championships cannot be emphasized enough.
The first introduction offensive line coach Conor Riley had to rural North Dakota players and their tough-nosed mentality was his first conversation with former Bison fullback Andrew Grothmann, from Hillsboro, N.D. That was in 2013 when Riley had just accepted a Bison assistant position.
“I asked him what his plans were for that summer,” Riley said. “He says I get up and lift, I go to work for my internship, then I go directly to the farm where I have a flock of sheep and then I come back and run that evening. Rinse, and recycle the next day. And I’m going, holy cow and you begin to understand that’s the culture, that’s the acceptable norm.”
The acceptable norm on the Lechler ranch is a long way from the modern, air-conditioned tractors and GPS fields of the Red River Valley. There are eight pickups on the property and the one common denominator is they all run. Nobody cares if there’s a little rust, cracked windshield or empty cans in them.
Paul Lechler, Landon’s father, is a master of engines who has the ability to make something run that has no business running. For instance, a piece of farming equipment called a toolbar used for tilling is dated from somewhere in the late 1950s to early 1960s and it still suffices in 2015. Landon wonders how farmers who buy the latest in farm equipment can sleep at night, citing the enormity of the costs. By the house sits an old Jeep Wrangler that Paul got for $100 and a case of beer. Yes, he figured out how to get that working, too.
William and Olive Lechler, Landon’s great-grandfather and great-grandmother, started the farm in the 1920s. His grandfather and grandmother, Gerald and Verona Lechler, took it over, and the baton was passed to Paul Lechler after that.
“Now, hopefully I’ll be able to do it,” Landon Lechler said.
Lechler is a general agriculture major, which is separated into four disciplines: animal science, plant science, soil science and agriculture systems management. It’s not as if he’s seeking an internship this summer because he’s worked all four aspects of his major his entire life. During the school year, he works in the NDSU Sheep Unit near the junction of Interstate 29 and 19th Avenue North which, like the ranch near Beach, gives him a getaway from the rigors of football and city.
“I had a huge adjustment coming to Fargo,” said Lechler, looking over the vastness of his farm surroundings. “Living there full-time … I still have trouble now and then.”
It’s been an adjustment since the day Gerald Lechler died of a heart attack at the age of 74 in 2013. He was Landon’s idol, the guy who helped show him the ropes of farm life.
“Obviously my dad was there every step of the way, but my grandpa was big time in raising me and my sister and getting me excited to go into the agricultural profession,” he said. “He was a big reason why I do what I do. He was a very gruff old man and at first he said football would cripple you the rest of your life, that kind of story. But he supported me and gave me the ‘give them hell speech.’ Yeah, I play for him and I know he’s watching every step of the way.”
Gerald never missed a game, although he wasn’t thrilled that Landon decided football was going to be his best college avenue. For the longest time, he saw himself as a college basketball prospect playing at a school like Gonzaga – until the day former Bison assistant coach Brent Vigen contacted him during his junior year at Beach High School about NDSU football.
“I watched the Bison growing up and I was like, ‘That’s awesome, but I could never see myself coming from Beach and nine-man football to NDSU,” Landon said.
Vigen invited Lechler to the annual Bison summer football camp held every June and that’s where things took a turn for the better. That’s where Lechler met Jack Plankers, a big offensive line prospect from Kindred High School just southwest of Fargo. That’s where Lechler figured out he was probably good enough to play at that level after going toe-to-toe with some of NDSU’s best prospects at the camp.
It’s been an incredible growth cycle, both physically and mentally. He’s now just short of 6-foot-8 and is a solid 310 pounds. The work ethic he learned growing up fit in nicely to the demanding schedule of Division I football.
“I have a biased opinion,” said Bison head strength and conditioning coach Jim Kramer, who grew up on a farm, “but the hard hours at the farm – the long and boring hours of doing the same repetitive task over and over again – that mentality helps here, too.”
In one sense, fall camp that starts this week for Bison players is a break compared to working the ranch all day and night. Some days during seeding, the day goes from 6 a.m. to 3 a.m. It’s the same hours during combining if the weather is good.
“It’s just a way of life out here and in those small towns, and you’re prepared for anything,” Lechler said. “You can do one thing one day and it will be completely different the next day. It doesn’t matter, as long as you do it to the best of your abilities and you do it hard. Just trying to get everything done and having a good time doing it.”
It pretty much sums up NDSU’s West Coast offense – a physical style of play that fits into the mold of a small-town rancher. Lechler is as kind and polite as the summer day is long, but there are those who say once he puts on the football helmet that there is a mean streak in him.
Center Austin Kuhnert can relate. Although from Sioux Falls, S.D., and Washington High School, he spent many summers on his uncle’s farm growing up near Rowena, S.D., just east of Sioux Falls.
“We’d haul cattle and fix fence,” Kuhnert said, “and if we got into trouble, then we’d really have to fix fence on our own, with no machinery or nothing. Some of these guys work all day long and all night long because it’s gotta get done.”
He’s been to the Lechler ranch, where they did chores day and night and fixed equipment.
It was just like old times.
And some day, playing football will be like old times for Lechler. He’s got two seasons left, and perhaps who knows after that. Nobody, especially him, thought he would get even this far.