ACROSS THE SOUTH DAKOTA PRAIRIE -- Our story begins with a miracle. Pastor Carl Larson happened to be sitting in the stands in fall 2012, watching his Milbank Bulldogs host a high school team from the tiny town of Britton, South Dakota. The game was forgettable, but he couldn't take his eyes off a skinny, 6-foot-5 senior on the opposing team who "was so much better than everyone else."
So Larson phoned a friend.
South Dakota State University coach John Stiegelmeier took the call, but only because Larson had coached with him before entering the ministry. "We get that type of plug a ton around here," Stiegelmeier said. "But when Pastor Carl calls, he has some authority."
"The tape was really rough, actually," he said. "I saw a big guy who could control his body, but I did not see a dominant football player."
There was no time to waste on a single prospect from a town of 1,250. Stiegelmeier stopped at Britton-Hecla High School once to watch Goedert play basketball but continued recruiting elsewhere. A few months later, Larson called again. He had just volunteered at a track meet where Goedert was tossing the discus like it was a piece of bread.
"I just kept telling Coach Stieg, 'This kid stands out,'" Larson said.
Finally, Stiegelmeier relented. He offered Goedert a chance to walk on, and redshirt, as a tight end.
Life can turn on the chance of a random gift. Goedert wouldn't have made it to South Dakota State without Larson's repeated intervention. And if Goedert hadn't made it to South Dakota State, albeit an FCS school, he would never have stuck the one-handed catch that catapulted him into the national consciousness. He wouldn't have competed against FBS opponents such as Kansas and TCU. And, without a doubt, he would never, ever have become a projected first-round pick.
Goedert could be the first tight end selected when the draft opens April 26. The team that takes him will get 256-pound tight end with 10-inch hands like Odell Beckham Jr. and an affinity for dramatic plays. It will also take on a unique character who rides a 6-foot unicycle for fun, is ready to bust out from small-town stereotypes and isn't opposed to wearing a leopard-print Snuggie to embarrass his sisters in public.
"I like to bring the flair," he said. "Fans of the city I go to will like it. If people are wondering what they'll be getting, I'd say to think about how much fun and how much energy I'll bring."
You can trace Goedert's elite receiving skills to the nighttime routine he began as an 8-year-old, when he would refuse to sleep until his stepfather, Gary Carlson, agreed to throw him footballs from his bedroom doorway.
"A stalling tactic," his sister Megan said.
Not so, said Goedert.
"I'd have him keep throwing me the ball," he said, "so I could do one-handed catches. That's where it all came from."
Goedert showed up on the Brookings, South Dakota, campus in 2013 amid little fanfare. He redshirted his first year, then caught 34 passes over his next two seasons as he added 60 pounds. From the beginning, however, Goedert brought with him undeniable assets: big hands and a star's mindset in deploying them.
To find gloves that fit, the school submitted a special order to Under Armour for size XXXL. With those mitts, attached to 34-inch arms on a 6-5 frame, Goedert could reach over any FCS defender.
Never was that more apparent than on Sept. 10, 2016, when he swallowed up a 3-yard touchdown pass with his right hand while a 5-8 linebacker from Drake University pinned Goedert's left arm to his body. The high floater stuck on Goedert's fingers as if it were a Nerf ball. Instead of pulling it in, Goedert held the ball aloft -- and away from the defender -- as he fell to the ground.
Amid a wild celebration at Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium, the ensuing extra point was delayed. The referee wanted to see the replay on the scoreboard for himself.
"I have really big hands, but I try to use all of my fingers," Goedert said. "I feel like when the ball hits my hands, it sticks. A lot of the one-handed catches you see, people bring it to their body and don't completely catch it one-handed. I feel like I'm really good at ... being a hands-catcher.
"That catch made people say, 'Whoa, who is this guy?' Is this a one-time deal or is he a good player?"
The answer was clear as he neared the end of a 92-catch season. He was one of the most dominant skill players in FCS, with a body that was easy to project at the next level. NFL scouts, perpetually in search of mismatch opportunities, began showing up in Brookings.
"The winter after that season," Stiegelmeier said, "a pro scout asked me, 'Is he going to leave early?' Well, everything here is small. I didn't know what he was talking about. You don't think about our players 'leaving early.' Then it dawned on me: Was he going to enter the draft?"
Goedert opted to stay for his final season, and Stiegelmeier's assistants dug in to supplement their offense with plays that could maximize a tight end who had the advantage in any matchup. They used him as an "X" receiver in the red zone. They studied how the Kansas City Chiefs deployed tight end Travis Kelce, adding a tight end shovel pass to the playbook. They even made plans to hand Goedert the ball as a true running back; as a junior, he had taken a handoff 17 yards for a touchdown against Southern Illinois.
"One-on-one, he's super tough to guard," tight ends coach Luke Schleusner said. "And it's not just size; he has quick feet to go with it."
D. Goedert runs for 17-yard TD
Dallas Goedert run for 17 yds for a TD
Goedert participated in a pro day as a junior, running the 40-yard dash in 4.68 seconds without training to perfect his time. He hasn't run another since. He suffered a Grade 2 hamstring tear on Jan. 23, the first day of Senior Bowl practice, and did not work out at the scouting combine. Fully recovered by his pro day on March 30, Goedert opted out of the 40 but did all other drills.
It's unusual for a receiver not to have a current 40 time on record. But sitting in the local Applebee's, crushing a double order of artichoke dip and smothered chicken, Goedert said simply that he didn't need to run.
"[The 40] was first," he said. "And there were maybe seven or eight tight ends coaches there. I wanted to do the position work. I felt like obviously teams want to see the 40, but my tape shows how fast I really am."
In truth, if there is any question about Goedert as the draft approaches, it's that his recent tape doesn't show much of the traditional in-line blocking NFL teams like to see. South Dakota State coaches had too many ideas for him as a receiver and scheme-buster to give him conventional blocking assignments.
"I'm not going to say it would have been wasting him," offensive coordinator Eric Eidsness said, "but it would have been almost like wasting him."
Goedert is honest about his priorities. "Any tight end that says blocking is his favorite part of the game," he said, "is lying to you." But he is willing, he said, and scouts who have studied him don't have much of an issue.
Steve Muench, who spends the year evaluating draft prospects for ESPN, gave Goedert an above-average grade for blocking.
"There's room for improvement," Muench said. "[But] he's a willing run-blocker with the size and strength to compete as an in-line blocker and engulf smaller defenders as a move blocker in space. He's got the length to push linebackers past the hole when he climbs up to the second level, and he's competitive in pass pro."
Conventional wisdom suggests Goedert will be in play late in the first round and almost certainly off the board midway through the second. Who will take him? His pre-draft visits were scheduled to include the Jacksonville Jaguars, Minnesota Vikings, Miami Dolphins, Carolina Panthers, Detroit Lions, Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Redskins.
There is some lineage to consider, as well. Named "Dallas" by his biological father, a Cowboys fan, Goedert grew up rooting for the Green Bay Packers.
The walls in his boyhood bedroom are painted a distinctive green, and a Brett Favre poster still hangs. Goedert long dreamed of playing in Green Bay and catching passes from Aaron Rodgers, but the Packers' decision to sign Jimmy Graham in free agency makes the connection unlikely.
"The last few years, I thought it would be really cool to go play with Aaron Rodgers because he's one of the best and the way he can fling it," Goedert said. "But now I'll go anywhere. Any franchise that picks me up, I'll be more than happy to play for."
He grinned wistfully as he mentioned Rodgers. For much of an hourlong conversation, though, he rarely cracked a smile. Goedert earned an operations management degree from South Dakota State's engineering school in December and responded to every question with a precisely formed answer.
A fuller picture of the man awaited two hours north in Britton, a town with a stop sign at its center and "more cows than people," according to Goedert. There, his extended family -- mother Mary, stepfather Gary, sisters Emily and Megan and their husbands and children -- gathered to share stories about him.
"If you're too serious, Dallas can actually be annoying," Mary said. "He's not social until you get to know him, and then he's very funny."
"My sides hurt after spending a day with him," Emily said. "Honestly, you laugh so much."
"The big thing," Megan said, "is he's impatient. He likes to do things. He doesn't want to sit around all day."
Much like his one-handed catches at bedtime, everything develops into a game. Part of the reason Goedert is a Packers fan, he admits, is to give him a competitive foil. Most of Britton, and South Dakota for that matter, is Vikings territory.
"When the Vikings played, I would bet my buddy a pop," he said, using the Midwestern term for soda. "And if I was a Vikings fan, I wouldn't be able to bet him -- or anyone."
Watching television? Let's do a push-up contest during commercials. Jumping on the trampoline? Let's play "500." Swimming? Let's race.
When he was 8, Goedert set six state records in swimming. When informed that he had broken the previous records, the boy -- known for demolishing household objects during competitions -- burst into tears.
"Broke?" he said, according to his mother. "Is that bad?"
There is much more laughing than crying around Goedert, though. A few years ago, his sisters made plans for an ice cream run. He asked them to wait a moment. Soon he emerged wearing a leopard-print Snuggie.
"Just to embarrass us," Emily said.
The costumes come out for unicycle expeditions, as well: clowns, cowboys and even the Incredible Hulk.
The story of how Goeddert became a unicycle enthusiast goes back nearly 50 years, when Mary's father noticed one in a North Dakota parade and thought it would be fun for his family to try. Five of his daughters learned, including Mary, and when Goedert was old enough, his grandfather offered $50 to the first grandchild to learn.
Goedert taught himself in a day, bracing the side of a wall until he felt balanced. Then he took off down the family's downhill driveway. There are no brakes on a unicycle, of course, so dismounting is perhaps the most difficult part. Essentially, you slow down and jump off the front.
"It's harder than a bicycle," Goedert said, "but once you learn it, it's the same thing as a bike. You don't forget how to do it. You figure out where your body position needs to be."
Typically, Goedert opts for a 6-foot unicycle, the kind that makes parade onlookers gawk.
"He has no fear," Gary said.
That extends to Goedert's plans. The kid from Britton is looking forward to life in a big(ger) city.
"Depending on what city I go to," he said, "there's a good chance I stay there, depending on if I like it. Just to explore the world more and to find a place to raise a family."
His pending move is a reminder of the arbitrary nature of life. What if Carl Larson, a stranger most of Goedert's family has not met, had skipped that Milbank game five years ago? What if he had stopped with one call to Stiegelmeier?
Goedert probably would have wound up at Northern State University, a Division II school in Aberdeen that hasn't had a player drafted in the NFL's modern era. Instead of preparing for the draft, Goedert would have been hoping -- at best -- to find work as a rookie free agent.
"Life is full of things that just happen," Mary said. "I do think there is intervention or reasons that they happen. I don't know what would have happened for Dallas. He would have been successful at Northern. Would he have had the same success? Highly unlikely."
As it turns out, Larson provided the best kind of gift. It was anonymous, without recognition or the expectation of reciprocation. For years, no one in Goedert's family even knew about it.
"I was under the assumption that coaches find athletes," Gary said. "I kind of thought that's probably what happened and how he ended up at South Dakota State."
It wasn't until years later that the parent of another player, who knew Larson, relayed the story. Larson, who recently moved to a congregation to Brainerd, Minnesota, waves off any responsibility for Goedert's football life.
"He would have been a star wherever he went," he said.
But that's not always how life works. Sometimes, the cream needs a little shove while rising to the top. Dallas Goedert got a determined boost from a man he had never met. His football story began that night. The rest was up to him. Let it be a lesson for us all.