Photo By Dennis Hoff
Some stories begin, “It was a day like any other … .”
This isn’t one of those. Not by a long shot. This day was different, one that you just knew could be special. It was Saturday, December 17, 2011, an unseasonably warm day for the week before Christmas in Fargo. The high that afternoon would near 40 degrees. I didn’t sleep much that Friday night, tossing and turning anxiously, until, finally, at 6:00 a.m., I threw off the covers, put on the coffee and started my anything but routine day. North Dakota State was a single win away from its first FCS national championship game. Standing in the way was the most storied team in FCS history, at the time, in Georgia Southern.
Pa Swany called to say he just pulled up to my old apartment tucked between 13th Avenue South and 45th Street, a few blocks behind Scheels. After climbing into the back seat of his truck, my brother was in the front, I took a big gulp from my thermos of coffee. My senses were on high alert, it was like someone cranked up the contrast on the TV. I vividly remember holding that thermos and looking out the window, thinking this was a moment to remember. You know the ones – where you take pause because something internal softly tells you to take a mental picture and store it safely away.
I remember driving to the Fargodome, too, over the 12th Avenue bridge, the Fargodome rising above the horizon. We’d taken this drive, this same road, dozens of times since the early 1990s when dad started bringing us to Bison games. And there we were, 21 years removed from going to our first game in November 1990 at Dacotah Field, a Division II playoff game against Cal Poly, with NDSU on the brink of meeting Sam Houston State and its high-powered offense in some unknown place called Frisco, Texas.
Unlike the “Friday Night Lights” games that are now legendary and part of Bison lore, NDSU’s first FCS semifinal started at 1:35 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon. To date, it was the only FCS semifinal game the Bison have played on a Saturday. The tailgating lots were buzzing with electricity. I don’t remember much, if anything, from tailgating that morning, other than talking about where Frisco was and nervously waiting for the minutes to tick by.
NDSU hung tightly to a 14-7 halftime lead on a pair of Warren Holloway touchdowns. Honestly, I only remember a handful of plays from the game – Brock Jensen pealing around the left side of the line and racing down the home sideline for a 55-yard touchdown that gave the Bison a 20-7 lead midway through the third quarter. We’d later learn that Jensen was battling the flu, making the sophomore’s performance Jordan-esque.
The defensive play of the game came the series before Jensen’s game-changing touchdown when John Pike caught up to the Eagles’ JJ Wilcox and punched the ball out, in what was a nip-and-tuck contest, forcing a fumble that Travis Beck recovered at NDSU’s 4-yard line. Jensen’s touchdown gave the Herd some breathing room before they later broke things wide open.
The other big play I recall happened with NDSU nursing that 20-7 lead and the Eagles threatening, driving down inside NDSU’s 10-yard line to start the fourth quarter. On a fourth-and-goal play from NDSU’s three, Brandon Jemison burst through the line to drop the Eagles ball carrier for a 5-yard loss. Following the defensive stand, the Bison offense drove 92 yards in nine plays capped by a Sam Ojuri touchdown. Game, set, Frisco-bound, Bison.
The Fargodome was euphoric. People were hugging and high-fiving, the party was on. You could see people on their phones in every row looking at flights and hotels, price be damned. This was before Bison fans booked their Frisco trips months in advance. I high-five and hugged my parents, and, admittedly, shed a tear or two. This was the first NDSU national championship that I’d get to experience in person. While the feeling never gets old, there was something about that first one, and the Herd breaking through. The vibe at Chubs Pub that night was like something I’d never seen. The bar was packed, and you couldn’t erase the perma-grins off everyone’s faces. Thunderstruck must have played on the jukebox 50 times.
We weren’t that far removed from the history-making and altering decision to move to Division I. In college, I remember sitting at 901 College Street with my roommates Adam Jones (the father of the Dakota Marker), Robb Weidemann, Luke Brisk, John Wald and others in happy shock after the Bison upset Montana in Missoula to kick-off the Craig Bohl-era. We walked on air from the house we called “901”, near campus, to Chubs to celebrate that win, too. It was a milestone, the first of many, like the Georgia Southern I game, marking NDSU’s meteoric rise in Division I waters. We may, or may not, have played a game called Edward 40-Hands when we got back to 901. That moment, too, is etched, albeit foggily, in my memory.
It’s been said that the world isn’t made of atoms, that it’s really made of stories. Think of all your stories centering around Bison football, and all the moments it’s given us. This August, we get to watch our Bison play a football game at Target Field in Minneapolis with upwards of 35,000 fellow proud NDSU fans clad in green and yellow. Indeed, the Strength of the Bison is the Herd.
Take a few seconds to pause and snap that mental picture when you get to Target Field. Yet another wonderful Bison weekend will fly by in a second, but the memories will last a lifetime. I can’t wait to see you guys in Minneapolis. What a story that will be. Everybody up for the kickoff, the march is on!