FOOTBALL: Zollie Kaplan, man of many motivators, is leading Bemidji State on one last run
Nowadays, Zollie Kaplan is a sack machine. He’s an All-American candidate. And he’s a two-year team captain for one of the strongest programs in the NSIC. But more than anything, his achievements are the culmination of certain pivotal episodes in his life.
BEMIDJI -- All of his football life, Zollie Kaplan has had fuel for the fire.
Nowadays, the Bemidji State football senior is a sack machine. He’s an All-American candidate. And he’s a two-year team captain for one of the strongest programs in the NSIC. But more than anything, all his achievements are the culmination of certain pivotal episodes in his life.
“I’m definitely proud of myself,” Kaplan said. “I try not to toot my own horn too much. But I’ve accomplished a lot of the goals I’ve wanted to coming into BSU.”
Fans pack the stands on Saturdays and watch Kaplan, who’s listed as a linebacker, dominate in his do-it-all hybrid role on defense. But underneath the eyeblack is a man motivated from all sorts of sources, both the good and the bad. His upbringing has produced a blend of disappointment and inspiration, all of which he’s converted into an unrivaled drive to succeed.
Finding a fit in Bemidji
To tell the full tale -- both the hardships and the positives -- requires rewinding well before Kaplan’s Bemidji State days.
The St. Louis Park native grew up with a strained relationship with his father. When Kaplan first went out for football, his dad told him to quit if the coaches put Kaplan on the offensive line. They did. But he didn’t.
“I go, ‘I’m not quitting. I’m going to stick with this,’” Kaplan asserted. “And look at me now.”
Then came recruitment. Kaplan said he wanted to attend Minnesota Duluth, a school he was familiar with because his high school team spent time at their summer camps. He was a team captain for the Orioles, the team MVP, an all-conference defensive player of the year and his section’s leading tackler. Kaplan had the resume, but not the Bulldogs’ attention.
“I kind of wanted to go to Duluth coming out of high school,” Kaplan said. “But then in the recruiting process, they just kind of ghosted me.”
Instead, the Beavers showed him the love that he didn’t find on the shores of Lake Superior.
“Bemidji was recruiting me at the same time Duluth was,” Kaplan said. “That was my motivation to come here. And then every year we play, I’ve got that extra chip on my shoulder to prove to them that they’ll miss me.”
Kaplan arrived at BSU in 2017 and redshirted. He landed on the scout team, where one practice, “I was going really hard,” he recalled. The player opposite of Kaplan complained about it, but former defensive coordinator Rob Aurich quickly took Kaplan’s side.
“Good,” Aurich told the other player. “Give him a good look because he’s probably going to be an All-American someday.”
“When he said that, that just solidified my belief that the coaches here are genuine and actually believe in the guys they recruit,” Kaplan said. “They’re invested in us. Not just to get us to sign the (national letter of intent) paper in February, but they actually believe in what we can do five years down the line. That one line fueled my whole college career, to be honest.”
‘A really good player’
Kaplan held his own in 2018 and 2019, playing in every game for the Beavers. But before his junior season, the pandemic hit.
His father, Steve, died in 2020 due to COVID-19 and other complications.
“That, on top of COVID, was a really tough year for me,” Kaplan said. “It’s been my motivation since.”
The 2020 season was canceled because of the pandemic, but Kaplan returned in 2021 and produced a breakout season. He recorded 18.5 tackles for loss -- the most for Bemidji State since 1999 -- had eight sacks, and was one of the biggest defensive pieces that led BSU to the NCAA Tournament for the first time ever.
And this year, he’s been even better.
Kaplan has 11 tackles for loss and eight sacks through seven games. His 19.5 career sacks are nearing the program record of 26.5 -- and his three sacks and a safety from last week are further proof that he haunts opposing quarterbacks.
“His work ethic, that’s where he gets (his edge),” head coach Brent Bolte said. “On-field recognition is great, but the way he works in the weight room, off the field, behind closed doors is a way he gets the respect from the coaches and the players. I commend him. He’s made himself into a really good player.”
Kaplan has one more chance to lead the Beavers to the NCAA Tournament. Bemidji State likely has to win out with four games left, and fittingly, the biggest remaining roadblock is the team that made the mistake of doubting Kaplan in the first place.
“I definitely have some extra juice,” he promised.
UMD comes to town with postseason aspirations of its own. But only one team will feel good about its chances after the two rivals face off at 1 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 22, at Chet Anderson Stadium. Both BSU (5-2) and the Bulldogs (5-2) are 3-0 in the NSIC North, and the odds of clinching the division championship will skyrocket with a Saturday win.
The stakes are high as ever, but Zollie Kaplan’s not stressing.
“I’m extremely proud of this team. But I’m not surprised we’re doing well,” he said. “When I came in freshman year and I saw Brandon Alt throwing the ball and Jalen Frye rushing it, I knew we were going to be the class to turn this program around.”
“The pressure’s a privilege,” he said.