MINNEAPOLIS — College athletes get plenty of team-issued apparel to wear around campus, and each gets a team backpack with their number on it.
A few years ago, in a lab on the University of Minnesota campus, a Gophers football wide receiver from Illinois and a Gophers hockey forward from California spotted each other’s backpacks in class. Both of them had No. 7. It was an instant connection.
“We’re all wearing our Gopher sports wear and our Gopher backpacks, so we’re easy to point out and we just looked at each other and said, ‘Yep, we’re friends now,’” recalled Brannon McManus, the puck shooter, of his first encounter with Chris Autman-Bell, the pass catcher. “We share mutual friends and see each other on weekends or whenever that may be. It’s pretty cool how worlds collide like that.”
As Autman-Bell preps for the Gophers’ gridiron season opener versus Michigan, and McManus carves up the ice in the expectation that the Big Ten hockey season is just three weeks away, both took a minute to reflect on their unlikely friendship, which spans different sports and half the country.
“We see each other all the time, out and about or whatever. It’s like the ‘seven and seven’ connection, so it’s cool to have that,” said Autman-Bell, a redshirt junior from Kankakee, Ill. “I think it’s kind of cool to have relationships and connections to other players from different teams and to have that certain vibe around campus.”
There are similarities between their situations in uniform as well. Autman-Bell is an offensive weapon for P.J. Fleck's team, but definitely lacks the attention paid to superstar wide receiver Rashod Bateman. For a time, it looked like the Gophers would not have Bateman in 2020, before the NCAA restored his eligibility in time for the season.
“When he came back, I can’t even talk about how happy I was,” Autman-Bell said. “I’m glad I got my partner in crime back, and it’s exciting. I can’t wait for Saturday.”
McManus, while not garnering the on-ice attention paid to the likes of Sammy Walker or Sampo Ranta, was quietly second on the team in scoring last season, and enjoys the “under the radar” role for Bob Motzko’s team.
“Obviously Sammy is our leader and Sampo is the big fast guy that comes around the ice, but then I’m that kind of helper guy,” said McManus, a senior from Newport Beach, Calif. “Whatever you need, I’ll be there.”
The friendship ticked up a notch last February, when McManus set up the tying goal in a come-from-behind win at Notre Dame with a highlight reel between-the-skates drop pass. Not long after returning from South Bend, Ind., hockey’s No. 7 heard from football’s number seven.
“I got a (direct message) from him after we got a big win over Notre Dame and he said, ‘We should jersey swap soon,’” McManus said. “It kind of fired me up, because I’ll take a No. 7 Gopher football jersey for sure.”
Autman-Bell doesn’t own a hockey jersey, yet, but thinks it is only a matter of time.
“Having that connection with Brannon is cool and I’m going to end up trading jerseys with him sooner or later and getting a hockey jersey,” Autman-Bell said, referring to hockey friends like McManus and Scott Reedy as “my brothers from another sport.”
With some good fortune and good results for the maroon and gold, there is hope that with Autman-Bell bound for pro football someday and McManus bound for pro hockey, the “seven and seven” men could finally celebrate by trading jerseys.
“We both need to have big years and it will be a little going away from college gift for each other,” McManus said, with a laugh.