From Ecuadorian Glacier to Football Field: Gustavus Senior Linebacker Adapts

Gustavus senior Casey Decker pilots a drone over an Ecuadorian glacier this past summer. Photo: Photo by Abby Michels; Courtesy of Casey Decker
Gustavus senior Casey Decker pilots a drone over an Ecuadorian glacier this past summer.

October 13, 2017 10:42 AM

It was less than two months before the start of his senior season when Gustavus linebacker Casey Decker poked his head out of a tent nestled on the edge of an Ecuadorian glacier this past June.

There to greet him was 8 to 10 inches of thick, new-fallen snow.


"You really do wonder what you're doing there at that point," recalls Decker with a chuckle. "Luckily, I guess, we were leaving that day; so we packed up our things, and we were gone. But those aren't really ideal conditions for walking back down a mountain."

The 6-foot-1, 235-pound Mapleton native, who majors in both geology and geography, was in Ecuador for the second-straight summer studying the impact glacial change is having on the local population and climate.

It's a project for which he was personally recruited by Jeff La Frenierre, one of his geography professors at Gustavus who did his doctoral dissertation on the topic and has continued that work.

Decker's own senior thesis looks at how much the change in glacial volume has impacted the area.

"I think he thought I was a hard-worker, and I might enjoy something like this," Decker said. "The weather conditions and stuff aren't always so great. When we're up on the mountain; we're at around 13,000 to 15,000 feet. Sometimes we're up as high as 17,000, so there can be some adverse conditions to deal with and you have to be able to handle that."

Decker added, "The weather really changes every day. You can wake up, and it will be sunny. Then two hours later, you're dealing with rain or snow and very minimal visibility."

The first year, the group consisted of Decker, La Frenierre, two University of Minnesota professors (Crystal Ng and Andrew Wickert) and a U of M graduate student (Rachel McLaughlin). This year, it was just Decker, La Frenierre, another Gustavus student (Abby Michels) and McLaughlin.

The group brought down a drone La Frenierre built with Decker's assistance and flew it over two separate glaciers, studying various aspects and developing models.

This year, they were also joined part of the time by a camera crew from the BBC, gathering footage for a still-unscheduled future documentary.

"It really is quite an adventure," Decker said. "Before I went the first time, Jeff told me to expect the worst, and maybe it won't be as rough as I think. It's exciting to be part of, and it's rewarding. But it's nothing that would make you want to do it all the time either."

Games to Watch: Week 7

Minnesota State-Mankato (2-0 NSIC South, 6-0 overall) at Upper Iowa (1-1 NSIC South, 4-2 overall), 5:07 p.m. Saturday

The Mavericks, ranked as high as No. 3 in the nation in one Division II poll, are coming off a 42-21 win over Augustana last week. Sophomore Shane Zylstra earned his second NSIC offensive player of the week honor this season after making 10 catches for 147 yards and three touchdowns. MSU-Mankato has won all 11 previous meetings with the Peacocks.

Bethel (2-2 MIAC, 2-4 overall) at Gustavus (2-1 MIAC, 3-2 overall), 1 p.m. Saturday

The Gusties are looking for their first win over the Royals since the 2008 season. But they will have to do so without starting quarterback Michael Veldman, who was injured in a 27-17 loss at Concordia on Sept. 30. Freshman Gavyn Walsh, an Andover High School graduate, came on to take his place against the Cobbers.

Martin Luther (3-2 UMAC, 4-2 overall) at St. Scholastica (5-0 UMAC, 5-1 overall), 4:30 p.m. Saturday

St. Scholastica beat Iowa Wesleyan 38-28 last week. It marked the Saints' fifth-straight victory after the 98-0 loss at St. John's to start the season. Sophomore quarterback Zach Edwards, a Henry Sibley graduate, leads the UMAC in passing with 1,546 yards and 14 touchdowns. Senior Hunter Thompson, a Buffalo graduate, ranks second in receiving with 15 catches for 377 yards and five touchdowns. Sophomore Nate Stein of Martin Luther ranks fourth in the conference in rushing with 82 carries for 392 yards.

A glacial field in Ecuador seems about as far removed from a football field in St. Peter as one can get. But Decker, who earned All-MIAC first-team honors a year ago, said there are at least some correlations between the two.

"I'd think about it along the lines of adversity and learning how to deal with it," Decker said. "When you're on a mountain in Ecuador, and dealing with who-knows-what-kind of weather, you can't just leave. You have to stay there and deal with what's in front of you at the moment. And that's a lesson you can pretty easily adapt to the football field as well."

Adapting to the football field has never really been an issue for Decker, a three-year starter for the Gusties who currently leads the MIAC in both sacks (five) and tackles-for-loss (nine). He's also long handled the team's punting duties, averaging 35.3 yards per kick this season.

That can make for an interesting transition to his role in the defensive huddle.

"The first year I punted was my sophomore year, and there were multiple times I'd get done; and I'd run off the field," he said. "Then suddenly I'd remember I still had to be out there on defense, and I'd have to scramble. I'm more used to it now, but there still are times I have to remind myself to stay on the field."

Gustavus coach Pete Haugen said Decker's leadership ability has long been one of his strongest assets, both on and off the field.

"He really represents everything we champion in a student-athlete," Haugen said. "He's a leader on the football field. He sets a great example, and he's gone on to a pretty high degree of personal success himself. But then you look at what he's done academically, and the footprint he's left on his major through what he's done in the classroom and abroad. He really does encompass what we stress about the Division III experience."

Decker's leadership has been especially crucial this season, as once more the Gusties have had to weather the loss of starting quarterback Michael Veldman. Veldman, a Becker graduate, transferred to Gustavus from North Dakota State and got off to an impressive start last season before going down with a season-ending injury.

He had already thrown for 1,609 yards and 14 touchdowns through five games this season. But he was injured in a 27-17 loss to Concordia on Sept. 30, and Haugen said it's possible he could once again be out for the year.

"I think that's the mark of a strong leader," Haugen said. "Someone who continues bringing their best regardless of what the situation is around them. (Decker's) done that, and I think that rubs off on everyone else."

Gustavus is now 2-1 in conference play and 3-2 overall this season. The Gusties are tied with Concordia (2-1, 4-1) for third place in the MIAC standings behind second place St. John's (3-1, 5-1) and first place St. Thomas (4-0, 5-1). They play host to Bethel (2-2, 2-4) at 1 p.m. Saturday in a game they likely need to win if they hope to finish in the conference's top tier this season.

That's definitely a goal of Decker's.

"We haven't beaten Bethel since I've been here," he said. "We've come close. But we haven't beaten them. And this is an important game for us if we want to end up where we think we're capable of being. So we're going to come out ready to play."


Frank Rajkowski

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