FIELD TWP- Once upon a time, well before North Woods Grizzlies football coach Joel Anderson ascended to the high school varsity head coaching spot, he coached the seventh and eighth grade team. Many …
FIELD TWP- Once upon a time, well before North Woods Grizzlies football coach Joel Anderson ascended to the high school varsity head coaching spot, he coached the seventh and eighth grade team. Many of his players came with experience playing in the Pop Warner league during their middle elementary years.
One season, a group of concerned Pop Warner coaches came to Anderson with a request. There was a sixth grader named T.J. Chiabotti who they wanted Anderson to put on the junior high squad.
“From what I was told, it was a thing where they were concerned about some of the other kids out on the field,” Anderson said, smiling as he recalled the day. “The other teams kind of asked if we could move him up. So, the first time I met T.J. he was a sixth grader.”
As either a head coach or assistant, Anderson has been there for every game of what turned out to be an illustrious high school career for Chiabotti, a player noted for his offensive prowess toting the football but who also excels on defense.
Chiabotti was likely destined to play sports of some kind, because he’s part of a sporting family. His father, Neil, and his older brother, Dylan, played football and basketball, just like T.J. His younger brother, Brenden, plays basketball and may play baseball this spring. His mother, Nicole, and his younger sister, Presley, are both volleyball players.
Chiabotti doesn’t remember his Pop Warner days that well, but Anderson has been a key figure for Chiabotti through the seven seasons they’ve been together, a relationship that was solidified from the very beginning by Anderson’s demeanor.
“He just had confidence in me,” Chiabotti said. “He brought energy, and he showed me a lot of drills that really helped me.”
Playing for Anderson for three years made the transition to high school football under then-Head Coach John Jirik relatively easy, Chiabotti said, since the systems and drills were similar. Anderson was still along for the ride as a Grizzlies assistant.
“It’s been a lot of fun for me to watch him develop from an early age all the way through, which sometimes you don’t get to see,” Anderson said. “But to be able to say I was probably there at every game he’s played as a Grizzly is pretty, pretty special.”
Chiabotti put the football world on notice right away that he would be a force to reckon with, racking up 903 yards in 10 games as a freshman. It was the only season as a varsity player that he rushed for fewer than 1,000 yards. As a sophomore, he racked up 1,241 yards in nine games and bumped his per carry average up from 5.9 to 6.8 yards.
Fans could get into a spirited argument as to whether Chiabotti’s junior or senior season was his best as a runner. Those who would argue for his COVID-shortened junior year can point to the fact that he only played five games and still broke the 1,000-yard barrier with 1,110 yards, nearly equaling what he did in nine games as a sophomore.
But a number of things point to Chiabotti’s senior season as the one that will go down in the annals of Grizzlies football as probably the best of all-time.
In nine games, Chiabotti carried the ball 201 times and amassed 2,130 yards, averaging 10.6 yards every time he touched the ball. In four games, he rushed for more than 300 yards, scored 24 touchdowns, fourth-best in the state, and finished the regular season as the state’s leading rusher among all classes.
He slipped to second overall in rushing when adding in postseason play, as running back Emmett Johnson claimed the season rushing crown by virtue of playing in two more games than Chiabotti. For his efforts, Chiabotti was the only Class A player nominated for the Minnesota Football Coaches Association “Mr. Football” award.
“He had another gear this year,” Anderson said.
The season also brought another milestone for Chiabotti, who with 5,384 career yards became only the 19th Minnesota high school player in history to eclipse that mark.
A humble athlete
There’s little argument that T.J. Chiabotti is a special athlete who had an extraordinary Grizzlies football career, but he’s not much for talking about his stats. He’d much rather talk about the people who helped him along the way, starting with the main influence in his endeavors, his father Neil.
“He didn’t force me to play, but I wanted to play. Football is my favorite sport,” Chiabotti said. “When I was younger, when I was working out, he pushed me a lot. He’s the main reason for my success.”
Chiabotti was effusive in his praise for his teammates, particularly those on the offensive line who paved the way for him to break loose downfield, even though a large number of his yards came by running over would-be tacklers. He said that quarterback Ty Fabish and lineman Ethan Byrum were particularly helpful when things would get tough and he needed a boost.
It only got tougher for Chiabotti as his career progressed, because opposing coaches learned that to stop the Grizzlies, they would have to stop him. Anderson said other teams adjusted their defensive schemes to shut Chiabotti down, but he was for the most part unstoppable.
“We gave T.J. a lot of freedom to make cutbacks, to allow him to use his vision, which is fantastic, and to be able to find the open hole,” Anderson said. “Our offensive line knew that all he needed was a seam and he’d find it and he’d go.”
Chiabotti is also quick to say that it’s been mostly hard work that’s helped him to be a standout runner, but Anderson wasn’t so quick to dismiss his natural abilities, too.
“Athletes in that caliber in general, they have tremendous amounts of natural talent, and we’ve seen that from T.J.,” he said. “But that talent has grown exponentially with his dedication and work ethic. He’s been the first kid to practice and one of the last ones to leave. He never misses a day in the weight room.”
And what you get with Chiabotti on the field, you also get in school.
“TJ is not just a great football player and athlete,” North Woods Principal John Vukmanich said. “He is a great kid and a strong student academically. He is humble, kind, and sets an example for others to follow.”
“He’s a great student,” Anderson said. “He’s the kind of kid that will get everything done, his responses are well-written and well-crafted.”
Chiabotti has made no secret of the fact that he would love to play college football, but despite a stellar senior season and career, college recruiters aren’t beating a path to his door. Chiabotti said he’s gotten serious interest from two schools, moderate interest from another, but as of yet, no scholarship offers. Anderson thinks part of that may be due to the increasing reliance on viewing online video clips by college recruiters.
“I think schools are missing seeing him in person,” Anderson said. “Film does not do justice to what T.J. can do. You need to be there firsthand to witness what he can do. He’s done well at all the camps he’s been to. He keeps improving day by day.”
Football isn’t the only thing Chiabotti has his sights set on. He wants to become an electrical engineer. And while football has been a huge part of his life up until now, he may have played his last game if he doesn’t get the right offer for football.
“If I’m offered a full scholarship, I’d probably take that, but if it was anything less, I’d probably just go for the academics,” Chiabotti said. “If they’re not giving me any (scholarship) money (to play football), that’s a lot of extra work to do at the same time as getting an electrical engineering degree.”
Anderson said that attitude is reflective of the maturity level Chiabotti has displayed both on the field and off. He’d like to see Chiabotti get the chance to play college football, but believes whatever comes his way he’ll tackle with the same hard work and positive outlook he’s shown in sports.
“If he sets his mind to it, it will happen,” Anderson said about an electrical engineering degree. “I could definitely see that.”
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