Hometown tragedy lends perspective to Gophers TE Lincoln Plsek

Jim Dedmon/USA TODAY Sports

The blast could be heard as many as 50 miles away, and it blew out windows in a town seven miles to the north.

The fertilizer plant explosion on April 17, 2013, rocked the small community of West, Texas, to its core, ultimately killing 15 people, wounding more than 150 and causing more than $100 million in damages. Throughout the ordeal, West native Lincoln Plsek felt helpless in his dorm room at Minnesota.

Plsek was finishing up the spring semester and spring football with the Gophers, where he is now a senior tight end, when a friend texted him asking how his family was. Unaware of the developing tragedy, Plsek responded, "They're fine. Why?" Then he learned about the news and began frantically trying to reach his relatives, but disrupted cell service in West left him in the dark and on edge. He wondered about his younger brothers, who had friends that lived near the fertilizer plant.

Plsek (pronounced PLEE-sek) eventually learned through social media that his immediate family was unharmed. (His cousin's father died from the explosion). His mom's house sits about two miles from where the fertilizer plant stood but on the opposite side of the blast radius. The windows of the house rattled but stayed intact. His great-grandmother's house incurred heavy damage and later was bulldozed.

Through it all, Plsek stuck with his obligations to school and the Gophers even if his mind often wandered elsewhere.

"It [stunk], to be honest," he said. "During that time, being so far away, all I wanted to do was go home and try to help."

Plsek finally made it back to West -- a town with a population of fewer than 3,000, situated about 20 miles north of Waco -- in late May of 2013 and said he was "shocked" at the destruction he saw.

"Even now, there are still place that are blocked off, streets that are empty, because some houses are not livable," he said. "It's such a small town that everyone knows everybody. Everyone knows the people who were affected, the guys who were injured or killed."

On his first visit home after the explosion, Plsek found himself hovering around his family more than ever.

"When it happened, I think he really wanted to come home, but there was nothing he could do," said his mother, Jennifer Plsek. "I would say that something like this makes a person really realize how much their family and their home means to them."

Plsek has made a second home at Minnesota, adjusting to the vastly different climate and thriving in an important, if often unglamorous, role for the Gophers.

He played in all 13 games last year at the team's 'Y' tight end position. Maxx Williams got most of the attention as the pass-catching option at the 'H' tight end spot, while Plsek and 2014 starter Drew Goodger focused on blocking. Minnesota ran for more than 215 yards per game last season, and the tight ends were a secret weapon in that success.

"It's no secret that we're not a four-wide, spread offense, so we need to have a tight end we can rely on at the point of attack," Gophers offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said. "Lincoln has become that guy for us in his first three years."

Limegrover said the staff didn't quite know what it had in Plsek after signing him, as he lined up everywhere from running back to offensive line to linebacker in high school. The coaches were pleasantly surprised by his quick grasp of the tight end position, where he played as a true freshman.

Though labeled as an all-block, no-hands guy early in his career, Plsek has made progress as a receiver. In the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl against Missouri, Limegrover called a passing play where Williams would be split out wide and serve as the No. 1 look. Because of a personnel mixup, Plsek was in the game instead of Williams. Minnesota stuck with the original call, and Plsek caught a nine-yard pass.

Goodger has graduated, so the 6-foot-4, 266-pound Plsek is in line to take even more reps this season. He is hoping for big things in his senior campaign and can't wait for the opener against TCU, a school he followed while growing up in West. No matter what, because of what happened two years ago, he'll have his hometown in his heart.

"I can tell he really appreciates it now when he comes home and can just be with his family," Jennifer Plsek said. "It's one of those good things that comes out of tragedy: It makes you stop and think about what's important in life."