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Elk Mound native ventures into new business as owner of Thunderhawks

by Marlys Kruger

Although he already has experience in owning his own business with D’s Doors, Elk Mound resident Dennis Johnson took on a whole new ball game when he became the owner of the Menomonie Thunderhawks semi-pro football team this past year.

Johnson, age 39, has been a player for the amateur team since they came into existence six years ago and became interested in the ownership after finding out the team was up for sale at the conclusion of the 2014 season.

“I had business experience owning my own garage door business for the past 20 years so I figured I could handle owning a team,” he said. “But like anything you do for the first time, you find out there is a lot more to deal with then you anticipated.”

The biggest problem when dealing with a non-profit organizations such as the Thunderhawks is finding enough sponsors who are willing to donate money to keep it going. The team has to pay to use the UW-Stout football field (Don and Nona Williams Stadium) for practices and games, and they furnish most of the equipment and uniforms for the players. Players are expected to pay a $100 fee each year but that doesn’t cover a lot of the cost to  keep a team running. Another factor is finding enough players to be competitive against the teams they play, and also finding qualified  coaches.

The football team plays in the Northern Elite Football League against teams from places like Eau Claire, Winona and the Fox Valley. Tryouts for the team are conducted over the winter and are run much like the NFL Combine you hear so much about.

“We put players through strength, agility and speed tests during three or four workouts to determine if they are healthy and can show some athletic ability,” Johnson said. “Players have to be at least 18 years old and most of them have high school experience, some have played college ball, but a few don’t have any prior experience. Since we are allowed to have 52 players on the roster and we have to compete with local teams for players, we very rarely have to turn anyone away. But they really have to have a love for the game because they don’t get payed to play. Neither do our coaches but we have been lucky finding both experienced players and coaches this year. We practice twice a week so everyone has to arrange their schedule to try and get here and some have to travel quite a distance to get here,” he added.

Members of the team try to help out other non-profits by being involved in community events. Players volunteer with the Special Olympics Polar Plunge, Big Brothers-Big Sisters and the NFL Play 60 league in Menomonie. They can help reduce their fee by volunteering but most of them put in a lot more time than needed, simply because they want to promote the game and their team, and they want to be good role models for kids.

As of July 2, the team was 1-3 in league play and needed to win their final two games to reach the playoffs. A 48-0 loss to the Eau Claire Predators in a July 4 game in Eau Claire dashed those hopes however.

“We were struggling early on because of injuries to some key players, but I thought we are figuring things out,” Johnson said. “Whenever you have new personnel, it takes a while to get adjusted to each other and the tempo of the game. But the players we have work hard in practice and are willing to play wherever we need them which makes coaching a lot easier.”

Johnson is a rarity, not only playing for the Thunderhawks at his age (the oldest player on the team is 43), but not having any prior experience on the gridiron. Although he lived in Elk Mound in his high school days, he graduated from Eau Claire North and did not play high school football. He decided in his 30s he wanted to have the chance to play a game he has always loved and discovered he had the talent to play the game at a high level.

“Playing while owning a team is always a challenge but so far it has worked out OK,” Johnson said.”I consider myself a “utility player” and play wherever they need me. I am just grateful I found a way to be involved in a game I have always had a passion for.”

He and his wife, Heather (formerly Jenson), an Elk Mound High School graduate, have four kids in the Elk Mound school district.

“Taking care of my door business and the football team takes up a lot of time,” he said. “Heather and my kids have all been really understanding and that is important when I am running in several different directions.”

Johnson encourages football fans to get out and cheer on the Thunderhawks in their final regular season game July 18 at Williams Stadium. If they are looking for a familiar face to root for, Derek Susa, a graduate from Elk Mound is a defensive back for the team while Shawn Goodell, a Boyceville graduate is the backup quarterback. Johnson also wants to encourage prospective players to try out for the team next year.

“I will be back as the owner and we are always looking for new players,” he said. “We would like to get some local players because that seems to draw a lot of fans to the games,” he concluded.