The city of Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, spreads across both banks of the Danube River in the southwest part of former Czechoslovakia, close to the borders of Austria and Hungary. The cityscape mixes medieval and modern architecture, from baroque palaces and churches to uninspiring Communist-era apartment buildings.
It’s not the hottest spot for sightseeing college students, but that’s not why standout Bethel University free safety J.D. Mehlhorn joined five other Royals athletes and two assistant coaches on a week-long trip there last summer. They volunteered for a ministry called GoodSports International, a nonprofit that, according to its website, strives toward “reaching children with the love of Christ through sports and recreational activities.”
“The goal of any ministry is to share the Gospel and spread the Gospel,” Mehlhorn said. “But their main purpose is to love on these kids and give them somewhere to go. These kids come from broken homes and different lives, I suppose, than Midwestern kids’ experience.
“A lot of activities they do are focused around sports. So it kind of gives them something to do, somewhere to go, a place to hang out.”
Bethel, the faith-based university in Arden Hills, bills itself as a community rooted in Scripture with a mission to serve others. Founded as a Baptist seminary in 1871, Bethel’s evangelical Christian values and beliefs set it apart in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. Its students are expected to attend chapel regularly and abstain from tobacco, alcohol, gambling and pre-marital sex.
It’s not for everyone. That complicates recruiting for football Coach Steve Johnson.
Royals’ strong season
Yet year after year, Johnson and his staff develop good players who push each other. Led by a core group of seniors that includes Mehlhorn, an all-MIAC first-team selection last year, the 8-0 Royals can clinch Johnson’s fifth MIAC Championship and an automatic NCAA Division III playoff bid by beating St. Olaf at home this Saturday.
In a season that saw four MIAC teams ranked in both national Top 25 polls as recently as last week – Concordia-Moorhead, St. Thomas and St. John’s were the others — Bethel emerged as the best candidate for a long postseason run. The Royals are rated No. 7 in the American Football Coaches Association poll, and No. 5 by Minnesota-based d3football.com.
“There’s a leadership that he brings,” Johnson said of Mehlhorn. “He’s just accomplished in a lot of stuff. When your best guys are your best players and your best students, that brings people along. We talk about giving our gifts away for free. He’s just got a boatload of gifts.”
Mehlhorn, a Lakeville South High product, carries a 3.95 GPA with a double-major in physics and biokinetics and minor in mathematics. He was one of 171 semifinalists for National Football Foundation national scholar-athlete awards, of which 39 came from Division III. And in September, the AFCA named Mehlhorn to its 22-player Good Works team for community service.
That dedication to service began in high school, when Mehlhorn teamed with his younger brother Matt (a sophomore strong safety for the Royals) and their father, Al, with a neighborhood care group that painted and landscaped churches and assisted people with moving.
After graduation, Mehlhorn plans to work with athletes as a coach or human-performance researcher. He thought the Bratislava trip fit his goals.
“When I got an email about the trip, it kind of hit me,” he said. “I feel like this was something I’ve been prepared for in my working with kids and athletes, and could teach me how I might do this later in life. And it was a great opportunity to serve a community, and love on some kids that might not have been blessed with the kind of love and family I had when I was growing up.”
Tom Johnson, a St. Paul native who pitched for the Minnesota Twins for five seasons in the 1970s, and his wife, Debbie, run a youth center for GoodSports in a Bratislava suburb. That’s where the Bethel group spent most of its time, working with kids ages 10 through 17.
A few kids pressed Mehlhorn and teammate Tom Keefe, a backup quarterback, to teach them American football. Others introduced the group to floorball, an enhanced version of floor hockey played with short sticks and a wiffle ball that even has its own international federation.
Most of all, Mehlhorn said, the kids wanted to practice English. For the younger ones, they taught them children’s songs like “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes.” For the older ones, it was questions and answers.
“The issue right now is, a lot of people in Slovakia are living just above the poverty line,” he said. “These kids, it’s not like they don’t necessarily have food to eat or a place to stay, but a lot of them don’t have much more than that. That Western lifestyle isn’t really attainable for a lot of people who have been there for a long time.”
Volunteer work leads to teamwork
So how does this relate to football?
Mehlhorn said he returned home with an enhanced sense of teamwork and togetherness. He still keeps in touch with a few of the kids via texts, Twitter and Skype.
This may be Johnson’s best senior class in his 25 years at Bethel, and he gushed when he talked about them. As freshmen, several played key roles on the Bethel team that finished 12-2 and lost to megapower Mount Union in the NCAA semifinals. Last summer, they established a serious tone and protocol in weight training that carried over to the season.
After Bethel handled traditionally strong Wartburg (Iowa) College in its opener, winning 30-17 after taking a 30-0 lead, Johnson said the seniors snuffed out giddy talk by underclassmen who demeaned their next opponent, Buena Vista University, as a pushover. Bethel won that too, 47-14.
“There’s no doubt they’ve gotten us where we are,” Johnson said. “And we are in a phenomenal position.”
The touchstone victory Oct. 19 over St. Thomas, last season’s national Division III runner-up, could not have been more dramatic. Bethel blew a 14-0 lead, fell behind 21-14 in the third quarter, then shut out the Tommies over the final 20 minutes to win, 28-21, with two touchdowns in the final six minutes 38 seconds.
Marshall Klitzke ran two yards for the go-ahead score with 40 seconds left, and quarterback Erik Peterson added a two-point conversion pass to Jesse Phenow to make up for an earlier missed point-after kick. Mehlhorn contributed a season-best 13 tackles.
The seniors talk about giving “good juice,” a metaphor for a positive vibe that melds self-confidence with support for others. Everyone gives off “juice,” Johnson explained, but it can be bad if you’re not careful. Mehlhorn’s is almost always good.
“We give, and the coaches give us, good juice,” Mehlhorn said. “Because we have such a strong bond, whether we’re up 40 or down 40 — luckily, we haven’t been down 40 — there’s been good juice all the time.
“Not everything is rainbows and butterflies just because we’re winning. Guys have been encouraging and giving good juice. I think that’s what has made this group special. I hope it continues.”