Never Ring the Bell

South Dakota State opens the 2019 football season on Thursday, August 29 at the University of Minnesota. The Golden Gophers have a young man named Bailey Schoenfelder on their roster.

He is from Huron, South Dakota.  He is #43 and he is a redshirt junior linebacker. He is not a superstar or even a starter, but he is a special teams demon and a warrior and a worker. How he even got to Minnesota and what has happened to him since he got there is a remarkable story.


High School

Schoenfelder did everything at Huron High School. He rode bulls and ran track and won a state championship in wrestling. But football won out as his sport of choice because he got to hit people and because of the team aspect of the game.

Huron has had some reasonable success in football in the last decade, but Tiger Stadium has not necessarily been a hotbed for college football recruiters. So Schoenfelder had to stand out as an individual in a team sport.

“We started turning it around when I was in high school,” he said, “but yeah, that was more of me believing in myself and knowing I could get it done.”

He played linebacker and running back and tight end for the Tigers and had scholarship offers at NSIC schools and walk-on offers at FCS schools. But here is the thing. He wasn’t even planning on going to college after high school.

“I was going to join the military," he said.


Plan A

Schoenfelder had a friend in Huron who had already been accepted to the Marines but was not yet on active duty.

“He was a poolee for the Marine corps, and I would go with him to workouts as a guest and thought, this is pretty cool,” Schoenfelder said.

Recruiters were there, and the more Bailey talked with them, the more he wanted to be in the military – or, more precisely, a Navy Seal. He signed up and took the physical. His lungs were great, his eyes were good, and his muscles were fine.

Despite being in the best physical shape he could be, there was a problem with – of all things – his ears.  

“I did my hearing test," he said. "You go into the room and do the beep test, and an hour later doing something else, they came up and wanted to check my ears and make sure they were clean. And I’m pretty sure my ears are clean. I clean them every morning. And they go, that’s fine, but had me re-do it. And they were like, you’re below the standard, and said you’re done. Just kicked me out and left. I had one big dip that was severe, and the rest of my hearing was fine, and it disqualified me.”

The recruiters told him he could enlist again, but not for two years. Schoenfelder went to an ear doctor, and they confirmed that prolonged exposure to loud environments had done nerve damage that hindered his hearing.

So, for the time being, the military was not an option. He had been set on making that his future, and he hadn't given a thought to what he would do if it didn’t happen.

“I felt kind of lost," Schoenfelder said. "I had zero back up plan, and I was scrambling after that, because that was the winter of my senior year of high school. So I had to pick up the pieces pretty quick after that.”

Schoenfelder’s former high school wrestling coach at Huron – a former Marine – had always had good advice for Bailey.

“Especially when I got rejected," he said. "Because I’d talk to him about it, and he’s like, that sucks, but you gotta keep that same mindset. You can’t lose that Marine Corps, always going forward, press on mentality.”


Plan B

He gave himself 24 hours to get over it, and then put a new plan in motion. He applied for school and got accepted at the University of Minnesota. He talked to the football team and worked out a way to join them as a walk-on. And that gave him a whole new sense of purpose.

“The big thing behind joining the military was that you are part of something bigger than yourself," Schoenfelder said. "You’re part of a team, a unit working toward something for a greater purpose. And that filled that gap for me… when I got rejected from the military.”

Schoenfelder joined the Gophers football team in 2016, red-shirted his first year and tried to make an impression on head coach Tracy Claeys.

In 2017, Minnesota hired P.J. Fleck as its new head coach, and Schoenfelder had to prove himself all over again.

“Obviously there was some doubt there, because I had started to get some credit with the old coaching staff, and that’s just gone," he said. "The new coaching staff is coming in, and they are worried about so many other things, not this walk-on from South Dakota.”

But Bailey didn’t want to just exist. He wanted to make a difference. He admits he is not the biggest or fastest or most athletic guy on the field, but he leaned on the work ethic and the values he grew up with: outwork everybody else and prove that you belong.

He recalls a conditioning test during a Gopher team workout: 26 55-yard sprints with 30 seconds of rest in between. 

“All of the coaches showed up, and we were doing our test… and I won all 26," Schoenfelder said. "We had linebackers like Blake Cashman… some human specimens… and I won all 26 of those. And I remember a couple weeks later, our special teams coach came up to me and said, ‘I saw what you’re doing, and I see you’re working and your top end speed, and I’m going to get you on (special) teams.’ And I feel like that’s where I got my foot in the door. And that’s what I’ve stuck to since then and what I try to instill in our younger guys, too.”


The Payoff

In the last two years on the field, Schoenfelder has earned his spot on the Gophers special teams units. And on August 10, 2018, all the work he has put in earned him something else.

“We were going through our day ... and got done with pre-practice stuff… and two guys in parachutes and colored smoke coming out the back come circling down in the stadium," he said. "I had no idea what was going on, but apparently everybody else had figured it out at that point. I had a gut feeling when they landed and called Ko (Kieft) up – one of my best friends. They called him up with the envelope, and I’m like, okay, there might be something going on here. And then he held up the piece of paper and everybody lost it.”

That piece of paper said, "Congratulations, You're On Scholarship, Bailey Schoenfelder."

“Coach Fleck had a lot of emotion when he was talking to me," Schoenfelder said, "and one of the strength coaches ... he was like, ‘I knew this was coming. You earned it.’ And all my teammates were congratulating me, and that kind of hit like a truck, and I was trying to keep it together and keep my composure and thank the guys that parachuted in. It was a wild ride for sure.”

Schoenfelder said the scholarship has not and will not change his mindset. He knows he has to keep doing everything he can to make the team better and make himself better every day. And if there is anything that anybody can learn from his story, it is this:

“I would say the main thing to take away from what has happened to me and what I’ve done would come from Navy Seal training, actually. They have a saying: Never Ring the Bell. Because when the guys drop out of BUDS (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training), they have a bell that you have to ring to tell the other recruits you are done, and you have to set your helmet by the bell and everybody can see all the people that quit that day or since it began. And I would say, yeah… Never Ring the Bell is what I would tell anybody that asked.”


See and hear more from Bailey Schoenfelder on a new episode of Midco Sports Magazine airing Monday, September 23. 


All photos courtesy of Brace HemmelGarn/University of Minnesota.

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