Jason McEndoo remembers putting his foot down and almost losing John Weidenaar. If not for a late decision, an all-time record might have stayed in tact.
McEndoo, Montana State’s offensive line coach from 2003 until last season, was also the Bobcats’ primary recruiter for the state of Montana for head coaches Mike Kramer and Rob Ash. Five years ago, Weidenaar was a skinny 6-foot-7 kid from tiny Manhattan who was waffling between playing left tackle for McEndoo or heading across the Great Divide to play defensive end for Montana.
Weidenaar flipped back and fourth “four, five, six times,” McEndoo said. He would call, commit, call back, flip his commitment.
“Finally I told Coach Ash, ‘I’m going to be the bad coach, you gotta be the good coach,” McEndoo said. “I told him if he was going to keep flipping, I didn’t want him to come. I only wanted him to come if he wanted to be all in for Montana State. I dropped him right there. Then I called Coach Ash and told him he better call him right away because I had to be the bad coach so Coach had to be the good coach.”
Weidenaar knew coming to Montana State would mean he could stay close to the potato farm he grew up on outside of Amsterdam. He also knew that playing offensive line would take an intense physical dedication to piling on the pounds to his then-220-pound frame if he were to become competitive at the Big Sky Conference level.
“I knew I was a good athlete but to go play defensive end at the NFL level, I didn’t think of myself as that big of a freak,” Weidenaar said. “If I had (former MSU defensive end) Brad Daly’s speed and quickness at 6-7 and I got up to 250, heck, I could’ve made it. But I don’t. There were some reality checks I had to have with myself.”
McEndoo emphasized the same factors to Big John. The former Washington State standout told Weidenaar that he had the frame to become an NFL prototype on the blind side of MSU’s offensive line. He told Weidenaar he could have him game ready entering his redshirt freshman season.
With the ultimatum on the table, McEndoo earned a commitment from Dillon standout offensive guard Kyle Godecke. Mac told Godecke to use his recruiting sway. In February of 2011, the long recruitment paid off. And the projection of what Weidenaar would become has been spot on.
The 6-foot-8 giant put on nearly 50 pounds during his redshirt season before making his first career start against Chadron State on August 30, 2012. He has not missed a start since. On Saturday, Weidenaar will make his 49th consecutive start as the Bobcats take on the rival Grizzlies in Bozeman. Weidenaar will break Montana State’s school record held by former offensive tackle Brent Swaggert, an All-America who started 48 straight games between 2000 and 2003.
“He’s been absolutely phenomenal,” Montana State head coach Rob Ash said. “I mean, 49 games in a row. That’s unheard of. You have to be in the playoffs a few times to even get to 49 games much less start all of them. It’s not just a guy who is treading water in there. He’s been a dominating player for us, a very highly contributing player, a leader off the field. He’s a guy we’ve never had any kind of issues with of any kind. He leads our Bible study group. He’s a competitive guy. He’s an NFL prospect. What more could you ask from a young man? I’m really excited for him to get the record.”
Montana State third-year offensive coordinator Tim Cramsey has never coached a game at Montana State in which Weidenaar was not part of the plan. He attributes Weidenaar’s durability to his work off the field as much as his talent and good fortune on it.
“He’s a guy who takes care of his body,” Cramsey said. “He isn’t out there on the weekends doing all the crazy stuff and all that jazz. If you can’t find him, you’ll find him in the weight room. He eats right. His body is a temple.
“He’s a potato farmer. We had a day off this year during camp and I asked him what he did and he was like, ‘Oh, I was working on the farm from 5 a.m. until 9 p.m.’ It’s what he does. He’s a special kid. We are going to miss him after this one.”
The Weidenaar potato farm is 285 acres of rich soil protected by the looming, picturesque mountains that border it on each side. From the seat of the tractor, it seems like you can see for hundreds of miles. The operation is the key to mass-produced potatoes, but the seeds outweigh the spuds in importance.
John is the fifth generation of Weidenaars to work the fertile soil on a farm founded in 1945 by the man Weidenaar’s great uncle Dean calls “the real Big John”, a physically imposing 6-foot-8, 300-pound Dutchman who stumbled upon one of the cleanest patches of land in the Northwest some 70 years ago.
On this May afternoon, John is what his cousin Kyle Weidenaar calls the “gopher”, a go-between, do-everything laborer who helps keep whoever is driving the tractor stocked full of seeds, fuel and whatever else the day calls for. The 285 acres will yield between 8,000 and 9,000 tons of potatoes when the harvest rolls around in mid-September.
“We are just a small part of the process here,” the younger Big John said on a May afternoon as his father, Brian, planted the field with seeds that look like rocks more than potatoes. “We are a seed operation. We are pretty isolated here in the valley because we get harsh, long winters and we are away from all the disease that can come up in Idaho. We grow our potatoes for Idaho because of the generational process. There’s the nuclear stage that we get from the potato lab in the plant growth center on campus (at Montana State). It’s state of the art stuff. They give the nuclear stuff to generation one and two growers. Then we plant generation two to get generation three, then we sell them to Idaho, Washington and Oregon and they grow it commercial for fries and chips.”
The farm has always called to John, so much so some would argue it might have hindered his offensive line pursuits. The MSU senior has professional football aspirations but the largest obstacle standing in his way is his struggle to keep his weight at an NFL level. Once upon a time, he was a skinny 225-pound sprinter with deft balance from his time practicing Karate as a kid.
Weidenaar hoped to play at around 300 pounds for his senior season but reached 290 pounds before his final college campaign. He has struggled to get above 285 his first three seasons at Montana State. Much of it has to do with his strenuous work load each summer. When it’s 90 degrees out and you’re doing manual labor from sun up until sun down, it’s hard to pack weight onto a lanky frame, especially when you spent the wee morning hours lifting and running with your teammates.
“I am burning all those calories and I’m trying to gain weight but I’m still trying to work and help on the farm,” Weidenaar said. “Then people come up and ask why I’m not bigger. Maybe if they came and worked with me for a week of my life they’d know why.”
In 2014, Weidenaar was a third-team All-Big Sky Conference selection at left tackle, heightening his professional aspirations. To aid in the pursuit of his dreams, he took the summer leading up to his final season off from the farm, a decision he called “the toughest thing I’ve ever had to ask my dad.”
“Growing up here my whole life and having worked here every summer on the farm, I feel I have a responsibility to be here for the farm and this is the first time I’ve ever asked to not be on the farm,” Weidenaar said as he gazed over the land he hopes to one day inherit. “It’s a narrow window now and I have to not have any excuses. If I want to make it a career, I have to treat it like one.”
The challenges of transforming his lanky frame into one with NFL offensive lineman potential has been draining physically and mentally, Weidenaar said. His freshman year living in the dorms, McEndoo and former offensive coordinator Brian Wright encouraged Weidenaar to consume as much food as he could. He would load up four, five and sometimes six plates in the cafeteria. It would take him more than an hour to put it all way.
“It made me really self-conscious,” he said. “I probably looked like a slob. I hoped people weren’t looking at me like, ‘Look at this fatty.’ I was trying to do what I could to put on the pounds and it’s still like that some days.
“But the biggest challenge has been envisioning it. Am I just going to be rolling all over myself? Am I going to be fat and flabby? Or is it going to be fit? I had a hard time getting past that mental block.”
Weidenaar’s physical transformation now makes him one of the most physically imposing players in the FCS, a hulking giant who’s challenging seven feet tall when he has football cleats and a helmet on. His body combined with his skill development — a great testament to McEndoo — and his newfound mental consistency makes him a legitimate threat to receive an invite to an NFL training camp next spring.
“He’s a freak,” McEndoo said. “He’s going to test off the charts. I bet he runs under a 4.8 (seconds in the 40-yard dash). He’s going to smoke it. He’s got great speed, great lateral quickness, great burst off the ball. That’s what the NFL is looking at.”
Off the field, Weidenaar is closing in on his degree in agricultural business. If the NFL or Canadian Football League are not in his future, he knows he’s got a passion in farming and a piece of land that means the world to him. The staunch Christian is also active in Campus Crusade for Christ and has a strong moral foundation that’s led him to this point in his journey.
“The kid is the total package,” McEndoo said. “He’s got a tremendous work ethic. He’s a yes sir, no sir guy. He grew up on a potato farm so he’s not afraid of hard work. He doesn’t party. He’s entrenched in campus crusade. That’s pretty good moral fiber there. If a lot of kids had his discipline and direction off the field, they’d be a heck of a lot better players.”
Montana State’s season will end regardless of Saturday’s result. If Weidenaar is to start a 50th game at a high level, it will be at the next level. It’s a bittersweet feeling for someone who is experiencing the end of an era while still chasing a lifelong dream.
“I’ve lived in this same little 25-mile stretch my whole life,” Weidenaar said. “I love it here but I want to see what else is out there. Lord willingly, I want to keep playing. Whether that’s the NFL or the CFL, we will see. But I’d like to play as long as I can.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.