It turns out that a tiny town in the middle of Minnesota has produced the best receiver in the Big Ten.

One of the best receivers in the nation.

And one of the top two-sport athletes anywhere.

The 6-foot-3 Eric Decker has been tearing up the league for three years now at the University of Minnesota, and he has caught the attention of Penn State's defensive backs for weeks now, in preparation for Saturday's homecoming game in Beaver Stadium.

He's so good in football that he leads the Big Ten in receptions per game (7.67) and receiving yards per game (114.8).

He's so good in baseball that even though he played just two years as a college outfielder and slugger, he was drafted both times, first by the Milwaukee Brewers and then by the home state Twins in the 27th round.

He's even made a name for himself, among teammates, for his pingpong skills.

"I'm real good, I'm telling you," Decker said with a laugh about pingpong. "I think I might go on that professional tour."

And to think that this all began in Cold Spring, Minn., a town of 2,500 people -- about the same size as York County's Manchester.

The kind of place where kids grow up and marry and have their own kids and never leave.

Decker, a senior, still looks forward to driving an hour north to go home to fish and hang out on the lakes with friends and watch amateur baseball.

"God's country, I call it," he said.

"It's just the family atmosphere you get. Everybody knows everybody. You don't take things for granted, that's the biggest thing I learned.


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I enjoy going home to see family and friends because everyone's so supportive there."

It was in Cold Spring where he learned to play sports and was given the gifts of family. His father played Division II football and basketball at St. Cloud State. Baseball and basketball players are sprinkled through both sides of the family.

He also had the early incentive of living up to the athletic accomplishments of his big sister, Sarah, two years older. She went on to run track and cross country at Columbia University.

"She was always a role model for me," Eric Decker said. "To see her work ethic and the success she had. I wanted to do the same for myself."

Ever since, the story almost seems too perfect.

The kid with the movie-star good looks from the small town decided to stay close to home and become the hero for the state university.

He's good enough with the books that he's been named to the Big Ten All-Academic team.

He's so good in football that he finished sixth in the league as a sophomore with 67 receptions and led everyone as a junior with 84.

"He's very meticulous with the way he approaches practice and games," said Minnesota defensive tackle Garrett Brown. "He does everything to a 'T' and makes sure he's doing everything 100 mph.

"He's good for a one-handed catch in practice pretty much every day."

Decker is good enough in baseball to hit .329 and lead the team in walks in 2008, his first year in program. This past season he hit four home runs and batted .319.

"He's just good at everything he does," his sister said.

But football is his priority for now.

"That's why I came back (to school) this fall."

And so far he dominates on most Saturdays, so long as quarterback Adam Weber can shake free of constant pressure and get him the ball.

Decker is one of the most talked about players in the Big Ten.

"I couldn't stop thinking about him since the Illinois game (two weeks ago)," said Penn State cornerback Knowledge Timmons, a William Penn grad. "We have to be able to strap him down. From what I see there's no corner who can slow him to a few catches."

"There's a chemistry with him and the quarterback," said Penn State coach Joe Paterno. "And the quarterback has so much confidence in him, he'll make throws to him that you ordinarily wouldn't make. You got to know where he is all the time."

Certainly, he'll make his share of catches on Saturday, like always, and move on.

The NFL Draft will come soon enough next spring.

And wouldn't it just be the perfect fit, once again, if the Minnesota Vikings happened to need a ball-catching hero from a small town not too far up the road.
fbodani@ydr.com; 771-2104