What a week for Nate Gunn.
Today, he’ll learn if he’s won the Harlon Hill Award, which annually goes to the top football player in Division II. On Saturday, he’ll play in the national championship game.
It was the stuff that he had hoped would happen when he transferred to Minnesota State from South Dakota before the 2017 season.
“I’ve been on a lot of crappy teams with a bad culture,” Gunn said. “When I was at South Dakota, we went 4-7 (in 2016) and we beat North Dakota State the year before, and we thought that was enough. I came here, and they were 8-3 the season before, and everyone was pissed off.
“I realized that ‘enough’ should not be in your vocabulary. It’s the culture. I look at things differently now. I understand that if you don’t work you’re hardest, there are other people out there that are working harder. When you’re around great players and great coaches, that brings out the best in you.”
Minnesota State (14-0) takes on West Florida (12-2) in the national championship game on Saturday in McKinney, Texas. Kickoff is scheduled for 2 p.m. Many eyes, especially those of the West Florida defensive players, will be on Gunn, who came to Minnesota State looking for a winning program where he could make an impact.
“When he arrived in 2017, we didn’t know how good he would be,” Minnesota State coach Todd Hoffner said. “He fit the prototype we’re looking for ... big back, physical, breaks tackles. We’ve only lost two games since he’s been here. A lot of things go into that, but Nate has been a huge part of our success.”
Gunn has rushed for 1,611 yards and 29 touchdowns this season, breaking the records he set last season. He’s is the career rushing leader at Minnesota State, with 4,866 yards and 63 touchdowns, and he’s the only player in program history with three 1,000-yard seasons. He is Minnesota State’s fourth Harlon Hill finalist, joining Jamie Pass (who finished third in 1993), Josh Nelsen (seventh, 1994) and Jon Wolf (sixth, 2013).
“The Harlon Hill is a great achievement, but it’s never been my focus,” Gunn said. “I’m grateful that I’ve been able to play with a great (offensive line) and great offensive players, but I really want to win the national championship.”
Gunn, who is from Minooka, Illinois, grew up playing football as a way to deal with anger, pushed to the sport by family and teachers. He started out as a linebacker, and he’s taken that type of punishing, physical attitude into the backfield. He spent his first two college seasons, one of which was a redshirt year, at South Dakota, but when they tried to move him to linebacker, Gunn made the move to Minnesota State, becoming the most prolific running back in program history.
“The way he carries himself, a lot of players aspire to play as well as he does,” Hoffner said. “He’s an inspiration to the younger players. His leadership skills on the field are exceptional.”
Hoffner said that Gunn’s production has been limited by the team’s need to protect one of its top assets.
There were six games when the team needed him to carry the football at least 20 times, and there were other games when he didn’t play in the second half because the outcome was already secured. There were five games with at least three rushing touchdowns, including a 254-yards, six-touchdown effort in a 42-39 victory against Sioux Falls.
He might be best remembered when he carried 50 times for 261 yards in a snowy playoff game against Tarleton State last season.
“We’ve tried to protect him because you want your biggest players playing in the biggest games,” Hoffner said. “This is his last game so we’re going to ride that man until it’s over. Hopefully, we’ll be 1-0 when the game is done.”
Gunn graduated last week before the team left for the semifinal game at Slippery Rock. He’s already received a job offer as a medical supplies salesperson in southeastern Minnesota. His future employer will allow him to train for a potential professional football career in Mankato and the Twin Cities this spring, keeping the job open if things don’t work out. Someday, he’d like to coach high school football.
“We’ll see what happens if I get an opportunity to chase my dream,” Gunn said. “I’m 100% dedicated to give it a shot.”
But first, his final week of college football offers different opportunities. If everything goes well, he could be named the top player in Division II, playing on the best team. Long after he’s done playing, he’ll have plenty of memories of his days at Minnesota State, winning football games and breaking records.
“I’ve played on great teams the last three years, and we could have been competing for national championships the last two years, too,” he said. “I have so many memories I’ll be able to tell my kids and tell my grandkids.
“But this isn’t a vacation. It’s a business trip. My playing career is about to expire, and I we still haven’t won a national championship.”
Follow Chad Courrier on Twitter @ChadCourrier.