Winston DeLattiboudere and Mohamed Ibrahim met for the first time when the latter made an official visit in 2016 to the University of Minnesota and was paired up with the former, who was a redshirt freshman at that time. That’s when the two began to realize that they were linked by their Baltimore roots.
“We were just talking, and he said a name, and I was like, ‘Wait, I think I know that person. He went to school with me.’ He was like, ‘Oh for real? So you know X, Y and Z?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I know all of them. How do you know them?’ ” Ibrahim recalled. “It was just cool because we would start telling stories, and he was like, ‘Yeah, I was there,’ and I was like, ‘How were you there when I was there, too?’ It was just cool knowing that we grew up in the same friend groups. We just didn’t know about each other until we got up here. It was destiny.”
That shared commonality delighted DeLattiboudere.
“Me and Mo talk about that all the time,” he said. “I told him I was always going to have his back, that I wasn’t going to leave his side. And I feel like that’s a promise that I’ve held up to this day.”
DeLattiboudere, who grew up primarily in Columbia but has extended family in Baltimore, and Ibrahim, who hails from Baltimore, have developed into major contributors for a Gophers program that is ranked No. 17 in the College Football Playoff Top 25, is 8-0 for the first time since 1941, and will welcome No. 4 Penn State (8-0) to TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis on Saturday for one of the biggest home games in program history.
DeLattiboudere, a redshirt senior defensive end, has 19 tackles, one fumble recovery and a half sack. Ibrahim, a redshirt sophomore running back, ranks second on the team in rushing yards with 307 and touchdown runs with six.
Despite their links to Baltimore, their roads to Minnesota included different curves. When DeLattiboudere joined Howard High School’s varsity squad as a junior in 2013, he was a 6-foot-1, 197-pound two-way player who lined up at defensive end and tight end.
After two years of working out and eating four peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches per day, DeLattiboudere grew to 6-2 and 219 pounds, was named The Baltimore Sun’s All-Metro Defensive Player of the Year as a 16-year-old senior in 2014, and was recruited by Idaho, Buffalo and Towson before committing to the Gophers.
Former Lions coach Bruce Strunk said DeLattiboudere — now listed at 6-3 and 260 pounds — endeared himself to Strunk and his assistants by readily accepting coaching and to his peers by connecting with them.
“The kids loved him and followed him,” said Strunk, who now coaches Nauset High School in North Eastham, Massachusetts. “If he was doing something, other people were doing it, too.”
One of Strunk’s favorite memories centered on DeLattiboudere traveling to Baltimore to witness the Freddie Gray riots in April 2015. The next day, he stood atop a table in Howard’s cafeteria and implored his fellow students to connect with each other.
DeLattiboudere earned a one-day suspension and lost lunch privileges for the remainder of the school year, but said he had no regrets about taking a stance.
“It was a speech about unity, not turning against anybody despite what was going on in the community,” he said. “We’re 15 minutes down the road from each other, so why aren’t we building each other up? That was the whole basis of the speech.”
Meanwhile, Ibrahim — who might have gone to Woodlawn — was a three-year starter at Good Counsel in Olney, rushing for at least 1,250 yards and 14 touchdowns in each of his final two seasons. As part of the private school’s Alumni Day celebrations, Ibrahim got to meet a pair of future NFL standouts in Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Stefon Diggs and Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Kendall Fuller.
Bob Milloy, who coached the Falcons for 16 years before retiring in February 2017, remembered Ibrahim as “a jitterbug” when he was a seventh grader. Now the 5-10, 210-pound Ibrahim runs over would-be tacklers.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen him get knocked backwards,” said Milloy, who stepped down as Maryland’s all-time winningest high school football coach with 405 victories. “When you hit him, he’s usually going to go forward and usually on top of you. I watch every one of his games, and the pile goes forward.”
As a redshirt freshman last season, Ibrahim played in 10 games and started nine, rushing for 1,160 yards — the second-most by a Gopher freshman — and nine touchdowns. He set a freshman single-game record of 224 yards against Georgia Tech in the Quick Lane Bowl.
“It was pretty cool just because I didn’t know what I was getting myself into,” Ibrahim said. “Going into that year, I was third- or fourth-string, not knowing if I was going to play at all. Then injuries happened, and things happened, and it was my time to play and my time to uphold the running back standard. So I felt like I couldn’t let down the running backs. I had to live up to the role.”
Ibrahim is too young to remember Minnesota’s 5-7 record in 2017, but DeLattiboudere said the current season has helped ease the memory of that lean year.
“We’ve had tough times, some very rough times,” he said. “But watching the journey of everybody coming together has been beautiful. … The build-up has been nothing short of astronomical.”
Teammates call Ibrahim “Mo,” but DeLattiboudere is the only one who uses the “Mo-Mo” nickname that Ibrahim’s family members use. Their allegiance is especially helpful when they try to educate their teammates about the delicacy of eating Maryland’s blue crabs.
“When I brag on seafood or stuff like that, I know that there’s one person that’s always going to have my back,” DeLattiboudere said, adding that he greatly misses Baltimore radio station 92Q. “When I talk about a chicken box or food that I miss from home that no one here can give us, I’ve always got somebody that always has my back. It’s a beautiful thing.”
The Gophers have already cemented a bowl bid and appear to have an outside chance at cracking the top four for the College Football Playoff. But Ibrahim said he and his teammates have a more pragmatic objective.
“It’s the next game,” he said. “I think that’s the most important part. Penn State’s a great team, and they bring some great things to the field. We have to prepare and get better day by day, and that will give us the best chance.”