MINNEAPOLIS -- Emmit Carpenter was out to dinner with friend Jace Trettin in early December when the Gophers kicker asked the 5-year-old boy what he wanted for Christmas.
Trettin told Carpenter he wanted Legos, and to go on rides with his 23-year-old pal at Mall of America.
This wasn’t unusual. Carpenter has hung out with Trettin many times, and they have ridden together on Jace’s favorite rollercoaster, the Pepsi Orange Streak at Nickelodeon Universe. They formed this unlikely bond as Trettin has undergone multiple surgeries and procedures at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital.
Jace had another gift in mind, as well: Carpenter’s white road jersey from last season.
“I wish I could explain how cool of a moment it was in giving him the jersey and the smile that he had on his face,” Carpenter said.
Nearly every night since, Trettin has crawled into his bunk bed at home in Ashland, Wis., and snuggled Carpenter’s No. 38 jersey before drifting off to sleep.
“It’s the cutest thing ever,” said Jace’s mother, Brooke.
The most accurate kicker in Gophers history will play his last collegiate game in the Quick Lane Bowl against Georgia Tech on Wednesday, Dec. 26, in Detroit.
With his tenure in twilight, he knows mementos like jerseys are something he will cherish more and more as the years pass.
While he plans to frame a few others in his future home, he was happy to give one to Jace.
“It was just seeing how much he and his family have gravitated toward our football program,” Carpenter said. “It’s seeing how much our team and program and ‘Row The Boat’ means to them and what they go through in their personal life.”
Trettin has battled through congenital issues that have resulted in monocular vision and hearing loss. He also has worn braces on his legs.
Doctors are working to establish a full diagnosis and see if the ailments are connected. Jace has undergone more than 10 operations.
Trettin was a patient at the U’s hospital for one of his eye surgeries when a group of Gophers athletes, including kicker Justin Juenemann, visited in 2016.
Brooke Trettin guided her son down to the lobby in a wheelchair.
“He couldn’t really open his eyes,” she said, “but he remembered Justin’s name.”
This jump-started a connection with the Gophers football program.
Juenemann and offensive tackle Garrison Wright, U seniors a year ago, became Trettin’s friends and have included his older brother, Jaxon.
Carpenter came into the picture when Jace was an honorary Goldy’s Kid Captain for Minnesota’s game against Michigan State last season.
When Carpenter ran off the field after kicks against the Spartans, he would wave to the Trettins.
“Jace just thought that was the coolest thing ever,” his mother said.
Carpenter and Jace now send each other Snapchat videos and other messages on a weekly basis. Emmit will try to pick Jace up during hospital visits; Jace will text Emmit to remind him he did good job if the U lost its game that week.
“You can get carried away in being a football player and getting trapped in the little bubble that we’re in,” Carpenter said. “But when you can do something like that, that puts a smile on a kid’s face and makes them happy, it’s worth it.”
Brooke and her husband, Brian, often tell Carpenter that their boys look up to him so much. Carpenter says it’s not a one-way street.
“I tell them that I learn just as much from the boys and you guys as much as they learn from me: Everything that they’ve had to go through at the Masonic Children’s Hospital, and how tough and resilient they are,” Carpenter said. “They always have a smile on their face no matter what. It’s really inspiring.”
Before Christmas last year, Jace had a four-hour magnetic resonance imaging test done to scope for neurological explanations. Jace didn’t know why he had to do it, so Carpenter messaged him.
“I think that Jace gets strength from Emmit’s words,” Brooke said. “(Emmit) does this all completely behind the scenes. He doesn’t do it for publicity. He just does it because he truly wants to do it and has kind of become part of his family.”
Carpenter and the Trettins share a volunteer spirit.
When Jace was staying at the children’s hospital, he was gifted a blanket. It comforted Jace, so Brooke asked a nurse if all patients get a blanket. The answer was no; they’re not always stocked. The Trettins have since collected and donated 628 blankets to the hospital.
Meanwhile, Carpenter has continued the U’s “Very Specialist Christmas,” a fundraising effort for children’s gifts inspired by former U punter Peter Mortell’s gesture in 2014.
When Minnesota went to the Citrus Bowl in 2014, Mortell, a childhood friend of Carpenter in Green Bay, Wis., received a $452 gift card to BestBuy. Instead of buying stuff for himself, he turned around and bought Christmas gifts for those staying at St. Joseph’s Home for Children in Minneapolis.
Three years ago, Mortell started a crowdfunding effort that has raised more than $28,000 for kids’ gifts. Carpenter and the rest of the Gophers kickers, punters, holders and snappers rebooted the page last week. They’ve raised more than $3,000 in a few days.
They will keep the page up, seeking to collect about $8,000 more to reach a total of $40,000. They are figuring out logistics and plan to give gifts soon.
Carpenter has enlisted freshman holder Casey O’Brien, a four-time cancer survivor, and junior punter/holder Jacob Herbers to champion the cause.
“I have a (few) days left at this point of truly being a Golden Gopher,” Carpenter said. “I will always be a Golden Gopher, but I really wanted to end my career on a bang of keeping that (fund) going and making sure the younger guys in the group have a really strong foundation.”