SJU's Backes, UST's Bennett among semifinalists for William V. Campbell Trophy

Backes (left) and Bennett are two of just 40 Division III athletes to be named as semifinalists for the Campbell Trophy this year.
Backes (left) and Bennett are two of just 40 Division III athletes to be named as semifinalists for the Campbell Trophy this year.

BLOOMINGTON, Minn. -- A pair of senior football student-athletes from the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) are among the record 199 semifinalists for the William V. Campbell Trophy Presented by Mazda, the National Football Foundation (NFF) announced on Thursday.

Saint John's quarterback Chris Backes and St. Thomas long snapper/tight end Zach Bennett are two of just 40 football student-athletes from NCAA Division III up for the award, known as the "Academic Heisman."

An economics major and one of nine Campbell Trophy semifinalists with a 4.0 GPA, Backes earned the 2018 and 2019 MIAC Elite 22 Award for having the highest cumulative GPA among the conference's top two teams at the end of the regular season. The two-time Academic All-MIAC honoree (minimum 3.5 GPA) has played in each of SJU's last 27 games as the team's holder on field goals and PAT's and appeared in 17 games at quarterback. Backes has a 191.4 career pass-efficiency rating (20 of 28 passing for 282 yards and three touchdowns), as well as 158 rushing yards and one touchdown on 32 career carries. Backes became the fifth Johnnie, and fourth consecutive, to be named to the 22-man, Allstate American Football Coaches Association (AFCA) Good Works Team Sept. 23. Off the field, Backes is in his fourth year volunteering for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital as a member of the SJU football team. He was strictly a fundraiser as a freshman and sophomore (2017-18), was a board member in 2019 and serves as the recruitment director this season (2020-21). Backes spearheaded SJU football's 2019 fundraising effort for St. Jude's, where the team raised over $38,000, and visited the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Nashville in summer 2019. He has also volunteered for SJU Football's Tackle Cancer initiative each season as a member of the team. The Johnnies have raised $82,000 over the last five seasons for Tackle Cancer, including over $25,000 last fall, which benefits the Randy Shaver Cancer Research and Community Fund in Minnesota. Backes was a member of SJU's Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) in 2019-20 and serves as the organization's president in 2020-21. SJU's SAAC meets monthly to help plan events for Special Olympics and to organize fundraising efforts for Kids Fighting Hunger, SJU's annual meal-packing event during Lent. In addition to SJU's meal-packing event, Backes also volunteered at the local No Kid Hungry meal-packing event, through Kids Fighting Hunger, at the local St. Cloud Convention Center in January 2017 and January 2020. Backes is a member of OIKOS, SJU's Economics Honor Society, which organizes several conversations on the economics of a current event or topic each semester during the academic year and regularly sponsors other events related to economics. He also volunteered at the Church of St. Joseph's (St. Joseph, Minn.) local fish fry during Lent and for its annual Thanksgiving meal in 2015, 2016 and 2017.

Bennett is a Mechanical Engineering major who has built a 3.86 grade-point average at St. Thomas. He is a two-time Academic All-MIAC and honorable mention All-Conference honoree and helped the Tommies build a 27-6 record with a pair of conference championships during his time at UST. The Tommies' Fr. Lavin Award recipient for spiritual leadership, Bennett has worked summer internships with a medical supply manufacturer and an engineering technology company and is a three-year participant in St. Jude's "Up 'til Dawn" student fundraiser event, helping the team collectively raise more than $100,000 and lead all national student fundraising groups each year. Bennett also leads a weekly bible study and has volunteered at Global Health Ministries each of the last two years. He is an active member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and has served as both a participant and intern at the organization's "Ultimate Training Camp," which features one-on-one conversations with college athletes around the country and the best ways to combine sports and faith. 

Celebrating its 31st year, the award recognizes an individual as the absolute best football scholar-athlete in the nation for his combined academic success, football performance and exemplary leadership. The NFF will announce 12-to-14 finalists in November, and each of them will receive an $18,000 postgraduate scholarship as a member of the 2020 NFF National Scholar-Athlete Class Presented by Fidelity Investments. Later this year, one member of the class will be declared as the winner of the 31st Campbell Trophy® Presented by Mazda, having his postgraduate scholarship increased to $25,000 and receiving his own 25-pound-bronze version of the iconic statue.
Nominated by their schools, which are limited to one nominee each, candidates for the awards must be a senior or graduate student in their final year of playing eligibility, have a GPA of at least 3.2 on a 4.0 scale, have outstanding football ability as a first team player or significant contributor and have demonstrated strong leadership and citizenship. The class is selected each year by the NFF Awards Committee, which is comprised of a nationally recognized group of media, College Football Hall of Famers and athletics administrators.

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