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Rosemount's Vraa set to become NDSU's leading receiver

What the records won't show for the top two wide receivers in North Dakota State football history is what they endured to reach that status. Who knows, if Kole Heckendorf had different big toes, might he still be playing in the NFL?

Turf toe on both feet cut into his Bison production and ultimately ended his pro football dream.

The dream is still alive for NDSU senior Zach Vraa, a Rosemount High School graduate and former Minnesota Mr. Football who overcame collarbone issues in both shoulders his first two years and a hamstring problem last year. Last week, Vraa passed Heckendorf to become the school's all-time leading receiver with 179 receptions. He needs 29 yards on Saturday against the University of South Dakota to break Heckendorf's mark of 2,732 yards.

It was one of the reasons Vraa decided to take his medical hardship and come back for a sixth year of school. Time has been his friend. He's been part of four FCS national championships and with that has come additional playoff games to aid his record.

"That's football, when you get in the playoffs that many years and win that many games, that's what happens," said Heckendorf, now an assistant coach at St. John's (Minn.) University.

Heckendorf, who played from 2005-08, talked with Vraa over the summer and told him "if you're going to break my record, you better break it by a lot."

"He's had a heck of a career and records are there to be broken," Heckendorf said.

The medical hardship was only worth two receptions for Vraa--that's what he had in the 2011 season opener against Lafayette (Pa.) before leaving with his injury. Fully recovered with plates stabilizing both collarbones, his breakout year was 2012 with 44 catches and that was followed with a first team all-Missouri Valley Football Conference season in 2013.

The record breaker came on NDSU's winning drive last week against Northern Iowa, although that was the furthest thing from Vraa's mind.

"I was 100 percent dead solid focused," he said.

He actually didn't find out until talking with his parents after the game when one of them asked Zach how many he needed to pass Heckendorf. Zach looked at the NDSU release online and told them five. Then it was a glance at the game statistical sheet, which showed he had five receptions.

"And then it was just like oh my gosh I got it," Vraa said. "And then the tweet came out and I started getting some texts and everything."

Getting a receiving record at NDSU probably should come with an asterisk, in the fact receivers are asked to do more than run routes. In a physical West Coast offense, which Heckendorf also played in, if you can't block, you won't play.

"You're not coming there to break receiving records if you're going to NDSU," Heckendorf said. "You're coming there for the program--to be a champion. You watch those guys, they block their butts off for the running backs and tight ends. That's the main thing I took out of college, it's a team game."

Vraa noted the number of decorated running backs NDSU has had over the years. As a receiver, he's shown deceptive speed over the years, but his strength are his dependable hands and the ability to use his body in traffic.

"Zach is definitely the standard of what it means to be a receiver here," said sophomore receiver R.J. Urzendowski. "He does everything right, so I've been very fortunate to be his teammate and watch how he works and prepares."

Leading by example, head coach Chris Klieman said, is invaluable to the Bison offense. He said the fourth down catch on the final drive against UNI was tougher than what it looked and Klieman said Vraa does that all the time in practice.

Vraa still needs two touchdown receptions for that NDSU all-time mark.

"Individually, still have two more to go but the season is long and I'm still hoping as a team we can pull together and get this going," he said. "I just have the mindset we want to keep moving forward as a team."

Jeff Kolpack
Jeff Kolpack covers North Dakota State athletics, the Fargo Marathon and golf for The Forum. His blog can be accessed at www.bisonmedia.areavoices.com. On the radio, Kolpack & Izzo sports talk show runs from 9-11 a.m. every Saturday morning. April through August, the WDAY Golf Show with Jeff Kolpack runs from 8-9 a.m.
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