Like almost every kid who grows up playing football, Spencer Dille dreamed of one day winning the Super Bowl.
A two-way starter on the offensive and defensive line for the Litchfield High School football team back in the late ‘90s, Dille’s dream of holding the Lombardi Trophy came true Feb. 7 as he stood on the field at Raymond James Stadium, celebrating with the rest of the champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers organization following their 31-9 win over the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LV.
“The moment was very surreal,” Dille said in a telephone conversation late last week. “I don’t know how else to say it. The whole week has been … well, it still hasn’t set in. You wake up thinking, did we really just do that?”
Indeed, the Buccaneers did, claiming the franchise’s second Super Bowl title and becoming the first NFL team to win the championship on their home field.
And Dille had a big part in it.
Instead of slamming into 300-pound linemen to try to keep them from getting to the quarterback, or trying to tackle 250-pound running backs, however, the 40-year-old Dille’s role was much more behind-the-scenes.
But in many ways, no less important to the team’s success.
As director of football technology for the Buccaneers, Dille was in the coaches’ booth during the big game, capturing and transmitting overhead photographs from every play back down to coaching staff and players on the field, allowing them to analyze and make real-time adjustments to game plans.
That game-day duty, though, is a very small part of Dille’s duties, which have grown in significance in his nine years with the Tampa Bay organization.
Dille’s journey to an NFL championship was a little different than his boyhood dreams.
The son of Pam and the late Steve Dille, he grew up on the family farm in eastern Meeker County and attended Litchfield Public Schools. He was a three-sport athlete, playing football, basketball and track, while also participating in FFA in high school. In addition to being a starter on the offensive and defensive line in football during his junior and senior seasons, Dille was a member of the Dragons’ basketball team that just missed a state tournament appearance when they lost to Monticello in the section championship game in 1999. Though, he humbly admits, his actual playing time was limited.
Upon high school graduation, he headed to the University of Minnesota where he pursued a degree in computer engineering, receiving his bachelor’s degree in 2003. His grandfather, Robert Johnson, then encouraged him to put his skills to work at COMANCO Environmental Corp., a Florida-based construction firm co-founded by his grandfather, and he did, managing and developing their software platform over the next eight years. He left that position to join Kobie Marketing, where he helped develop a loyalty management software platform for credit card companies.
In 2012, he heard the Buccaneers’ director of football technology position might be opening up, and he applied.
“I was happy where I was at, but I couldn’t pass up the chance,” Dille said, adding that he wasn’t sure he had much of a chance of landing the job, as he expected hundreds would apply.
Turns out, he was one of three people interviewed for the position, and he was offered the job. He happily accepted because of the professional opportunity, but also because it was close to his home in Lithia, Florida, about 20 miles from Tampa, where he and his wife, Deborah, who will celebrate their 14th anniversary in March, were starting their family, which now includes Amelia, 12, Erik, 10, and Josephine, 6.
Dille, who also went back to school to earn his master’s degree in computer science, would do the same kind of work he had been doing in his first two positions. But in a very different setting.
He is in charge of developing all of the in-house software for the football side of the operations — all of the scouting applications, draft applications, i-Pad apps used on draft day and so on. This past season, those duties expanded to include the contact-tracing software necessary as part of the NFL’s COVID-19 protocols.
Dille doesn’t rate player talent, but the work he does allows those who do rate the talent — a coaching staff of 25, and a college scouting team of another 20 or so — to collect all of the information in one place. And in case you’re wondering, it’s a lot of information.
The “player acquisition” analysis includes the basics like height, weight and speed in the 40-yard dash, but it expands to include everything from who a player’s friends are, to what his family is like, and how well they learn.
“Everything about them,” Dille said. “It is a lot of information. A lot of them have no idea how much information we have on them when they’re drafted.”
It’s all part of a business to make sure a multimillion contract is offered to the right kind of talent.
“My job is to make sure what (scouts and coaches) put in to the system is gonna be accurately displayed to themselves and the higher-ups,” Dille said.
That work has been done under four different head coaches and two general managers in Dille’s nine seasons with the Buccaneers.
His relationship with the current general manager Jason Licht grew even closer last spring when the pandemic descended and threw the NFL’s annual draft into disarray. Normally a large event, with representatives of teams in one location for a made-for-TV talent festival, and the coaching staff and front office folks for every team gathered in their talent “war rooms,” last year’s draft was different.
The Bucs’ Licht monitored the draft from his home, where — due to COVID-19 protocols — he was allowed one other member of the team’s front office. That person was Dille, because the technology of talent acquisition needed to work.
“I was just trying to make sure everything went smoothly for him,” Dille said, admitting that it was pressure-packed. “I was trying to go through every scenario, it was nerve-racking. I was sitting there thinking, ‘This is probably the biggest night of my professional career.’ Of course, I didn’t know it would be trumped this year by the Super Bowl.”
In addition to his technology duties, Dille found himself wearing many hats. He took publicity photos, he shot video of Licht talking with coaches and other staff, he informed the social media team what was happening.
“A lot of people needed me to fill in for them, because each team was allowed to have one tech person (with the general manager),” Dille said. “It was a very busy night.”
Along with taking top-rated offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs of Iowa with the 13th overall pick, the Buccaneers also drafted two players — defensive back Antoine Winfield and receiver Tyler Johnson — from Dille’s alma mater, Minnesota. That had some of Dille’s old college friends asking questions.
“I had some friends joking with me that I was pulling the strings l.. of course I wasn’t,” Dille said with laugh. “It was pretty cool though.”
Two of the first four draft picks — Wirfs and Winfield — became starters for the Bucs, while Johnson, drafted in the fifth round, contributed more as the season went on.
For Dille, it was fun to see the Buccaneers develop. He said that after Week 12, “everything just started exploding. It’s hard to describe, but it felt like we were the team this year.”
Traveling with the team to the NFC Championship Game at Lambeau Field in Green Bay was a special treat, he said.
“I grew up a Vikings fan, obviously … being able to go into Lambeau Field and beat the Packers was obviously the best win of my life,” he said. “Well, until two weeks later.”
Manning his station in the coaches’ booth at the Super Bowl, Dille said, he tried to be all business. He knew he needed to do his job. But as the game went on, the fan in him came out.
“I was trying to do my best to do my job, but it definitely creeps into your mind,” Dille said. “We were kind of expecting a Chiefs comeback … and it just never came.
“And then the thought creeps into your mind, like ‘Oh my gosh, we’re going to win the Super Bowl,’” he said. “It was pretty crazy.”
With the game decided early, Dille and the rest of the coaches made their way to the field in time to be part of the raucous celebration as the final seconds ticked off the clock.
As he walked with his wife on the field, celebratory confetti filling the air, Dille’s phone blew up with “close to 100” congratulatory texts.
“It was just so fun,” he said. “it’s very surreal. You can’t believe it’s happening. Everyone congratulating each other … seeing the commissioner up there. The whole thing. It was pretty cool.”
Jake and Kellen Johnson tried ice fishing for the first time last winter.
It was fun enough for the Litchfield father and son to invest in a little better equipment and venture out a few more times this winter, including one excursion when they landed a 28-inch walleye on a local lake.
The fishing didn’t offer quite that big a prize Saturday afternoon at Lake Ripley. In fact, the biggest challenge was staying warm on a day when the day’s high temperature hovered in the single digits below-0, with a brisk wind that offered a “feels like” temperature of minus-18.
But the pair braved the cold, along with hundreds of others, to participate in the Wintercade fishing tournament on Lake Ripley. Jake Johnson said he and his son had been looking forward to the tournament, and even the arctic temperatures did not deter them from participating. And, well, it helped that his truck was parked nearby and they could go there to warm up when necessary.
Tickets for the tournament sold out early this year, and the fishing area was packed with anglers, vehicles and fish houses Saturday, while some opted simply to watch Facebook Live video from a warmer location to monitor prize drawings.
In any case, the tournament — which raises money for youth and veterans programs throughout the area — was counted as a big success.
All Litchfield Public Schools students will return to full-time in-person learning beginning Feb. 16.
That decision came during the Litchfield School Board meeting Tuesday as members responded to a presentation from the district’s COVID-19 coordinator, Laurie Garland, and other information, including statements made during public comment period by a former board member.
“I’m really glad that we’re at the point of discussing what the options are of getting kids back (in school),” board member Alex Carlson said, adding that “tensions are growing” among parents, educators and students for a return to in-person learning.
“We have a golden opportunity to get these kids back in school, and the time is now,” board Chairman Darrin Anderson said. “I’m excited.”
Meeker County’s COVID-19 infection rate — a major factor in determining the education model the district would follow — has seen a mostly steady decline since late November. The reporting period of Nov. 15-28 saw an infection rate of 229.21, according to a memo from Superintendent Beckie Simenson. The most recent published reporting period, Jan. 3-16, had a rate of 39.
And, board member Greg Mathews said, that rate has fallen even further, to just 22.
“I think all of you here know, nobody was more supportive of taking our kids out” of school when infection rate skyrocketed, Mathews said. “Since then, I think we’ve learned a lot. I believe in science and I believe in numbers. The numbers have come down dramatically. I strongly support bringing all of our kids back, and as soon as possible. I wouldn’t have said that a month ago; I’m saying it now.”
Currently, high school and middle school students in the district have been in a hybrid learning model, with about half of them attending class in-person on Mondays and Tuesday, and the other half attending Thursdays and Fridays, with a Wednesday “flex” day that allows for parent-student catch-up sessions as needed. Lake Ripley Elementary School students have been in-person since early January.
While confirming the Feb. 16 return-to-school date for high school and middle school students, the board also approved a teacher prep schedule after reviewing results of an online survey that asked parents, teachers and students to choose their favorite among three options that included one day off every other week, an early release one day every week, or a school day shortened by 30 minutes every day.
The board approved the full day of teacher prep every other week for the rest of the year.
The prep day was part of a Gov. Tim Walz executive order aimed at giving teachers statewide more flexibility to prepare lesson plans during difficult pandemic circumstances.
The one day every other week plan was favored by parents and teachers who responded to an online survey while it was the least favorite of the three options among students, though in close voting that saw just 16 votes separate the third choice (full-day every other week) from the top (early release).
The board did not decide when the prep day would fall, though Carlson suggested either Monday or Friday would be least disruptive to family schedules.
Former board members Dave Huhner and Chase Groskreutz, both of whom left the board at the end of last year, attended Monday’s meeting, with Huhner requesting to speak.
Saying he spoke for the parents who have been pushing to get students back in school for quite some time, Huhner told the board it was “way past time” to make it happen. He said board members should talk to Activities Director Justin Brown about the number of students struggling with distance and hybrid learning.
“Kids need to be in school,” said Huhner, who while a board member supported going against executive orders and returning students to the classroom. He also questioned the value of mask-wearing, another topic he addressed Monday, saying “wherever you stand on the mask debate,” anyone who watched Sunday’s Super Bowl and the maskless crowds on the field after that game.
While children are suffering during distance learning, Huhner said, Super Bowl MVP “Tom Brady is running around living his dream.”