By Kyle Roth
College Sports Journal
FRISCO, TX. — Almost four years ago, a younger, more uncertain version of myself was just a wide-eyed freshman on a charter bus with the Gold Star Pep Band on our way to Minneapolis, MN, traveling to play at the NCAA Basketball Championship Tournament’s first-round match up between the third-seeded Kansas Jayhawks and the little ol’ North Dakota State Bison.
That game ended in a 10-point heartbreaker to the defending national champs.
After the initial disappointment faded, I thought fondly of that game and at the time considered the possibility that it may have been the single most profound sporting experience of my college career.
Boy, was I wrong.
As I stood among the roughly thousand-or-more Bison fans that crowded the field at Pizza Hut Park once the FCS Championship game had ticked away, I knew I’d been mistaken, and gladly so.
The journey began around 3 p.m. on Thursday as five of us, NDSU students all, piled into a 2011 Toyota van and hit the road.
We chose to avoid the Kansas Turnpike and exposed ourselves to some very colorful imagery in the southern Wichita area.
One of the places we drove through was the incredibly terrifying town of Milford, NE. After a few hours’ drive nonstop, a few of us in the car understandably needed a break for relief.
As soon as we pulled off the interstate on the turn into Milford, we noticed a dark, foreboding dirt road leading straight past what appeared to be an abandoned and crumbling house.
Deciding the paved road was the way to go, we happened upon a gas station that was completely lit but entirely deserted.
Needless to say, we didn’t know what to expect so took care of our business and were on our way.
At last, we arrived around 5 p.m. Friday, and the game was afoot.
After checking in to our hotel in The Colony, we caught a ride to the Plano Marriot Hotel for the alumni gathering put on by the university.
Bison fans are known for traveling extremely well and any time a local place holds a gathering where the game is being held, the venue is picked clean of any alcohol and the staff is frequently overwhelmed by what is easily one of the best-traveling fan bases in the FCS.
The Plano Marriott did not understand this, and even when the NDSU Alumni Association tried to heed them otherwise, they refused to believe more than 500 Bison fans would show.
The event drew over 6,500 Bison fans.
The two-man bar was the first casualty, the small pub in the hotel lobby didn’t stand a chance, and hearing 4,000 fans of NDSU sing the school song was downright magical.
After a night of pillaging the area bars and finally heading back to the hotel room to play cards with some parents and alumni, the day was at last upon us.
Awake at 6 a.m. sharp, the five of us cleaned up, put on the colors, and made our way to the stadium.
Already, we were greeted by the view of NDSU tailgate flags and the sounds of beer tabs popping as the “West Lot South” opened (the West Lot is where NDSU fans tailgate at home).
The gumbo-etoufée was already steaming (courtesy of a pair of Deep South-schooled chefs in our tailgate group) and Bison fans were everywhere.
Talk of the game, the trip down, and how NDSU was bound to win was heard everywhere. Family reunited, fast friends were made, and the joyous occasion of another opportunity to win a national championship.
While enjoying a particularly delicious Yuengling as part of the tailgate tradition, I had the opportunity to meet several former Bison players, and some of them were particularly insightful of what this game meant to them.
Former linebacker Charlie Stock, part of the ’83, ’84 and ’86 championship teams from the Division-II days — and one of the most intense individuals I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet — nearly tore us up before and after the game with the sheer emotion he felt as NDSU continued its long-standing tradition of championship football.
Former Bison players Steve Walker and Mike Dragosavich, a quarterback and punter, respectively, who helped guide NDSU to a pair of 10-1 seasons in the last two years of the transition to Division-I, were proud to have set the table for NDSU’s success now.
It was something to behold.
Here were two guys who were recruited knowing they would never have an opportunity to play for a national championship, and yet the chose the Bison anyway, and the impact was substantial.
Current St. Louis Rams starting safety Craig Dahl made an appearance, and surprisingly enough, so too did former quarterback Jose Mohler, who transferred to a Division-II school after losing the starting job to Brock Jensen.
Everyone who commented on him being there received just a smile and the phrase “once a Bison, always a Bison.” It was certainly something.
At last, after the pictures had been taken, the bets made, and the rigs taken down, the game was upon us. Bison fans stampeded into the arena and I barely made my seat in time for the opening kickoff.
The field itself was split fairly evenly down the middle between NDSU and SHSU fans, though an isolated section of gold seen in the Bearkat orange gave the Bison the advantage crowd-wise.
That advantage quickly cemented itself as the Bison fans simply out-cheered the ‘Cat fans all game long, drowning out the opponents on defense and quieting on offense.
The sight of those 12,000 moving in unison and raising their hands in the horns as the national anthem is something I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life.
The first half ended with Bison fans feeling uncertain.
Down 6-3, we knew our defense had come to play but that our offense was struggling in the worst possible game to do so.
I personally chose to purchase a one-pound turkey leg from a convenience stand to assuage my concerns about the team, but as the Gold Star Band did their thing and roused the Bison fans into a frenzy as the team made the field once more, I felt better about our chances.
Though the first drive stalled out, that hope wasn’t misplaced.
Senior punter Matt Voigtlander, who switched to the position from running back just this offseason, took the punt and sprinted up the left sideline, getting the first down by a country mile and injecting life back into the raucous crowd of some 12,000 Bison fans that were there.
The very next play, DJ McNorton did what he was famous for last season when he took a middle screen the distance for a 39-yard touchdown.
Pizza Hut Park erupted. I high-fived my traveling companions and even received a kiss on the cheek from a Bison fan who may have conservatively been in her seventies.
Hugs were exchanged, profanity was loosed, and suddenly Bison Nation had reason to celebrate with a 10-6 lead.
A few short series later, the play of the game came when Travis Beck, a redshirt freshman from a town called Munich in far northeast North Dakota, baited an interception and took it to the one-yard line as Bison fans exploded in the stands.
Chants of “Let’s Go Bison!” poured out, and when Brock Jensen charged across the goal line on the next play, the celebration began.
It took a few series after that, but when the seconds finally ticked off and the field-storming began, it was time to party.
I wound up on the field and nearly dove onto the back of senior running back DJ McNorton, whom I’ve had a class with every year I’ve been at NDSU.
I hugged senior safety John Pike and reminded him of how I’ve always said he makes game-icing interceptions, such as his in the fourth quarter that was another dagger in the Bearkats’ coffin.
A pair of us hoisted Thundar, the NDSU mascot, onto our shoulders to the cheers of the thousand Bison fans that were on the field.
At last, the trophy ceremony came, and when that ragtag group of yellow-jerseyed football players hoisted that trophy, 12,000 Bison fans cheered in unison.
A state’s pride was returned. A university’s chosen path was affirmed. A hundred college athletes’ dreams were realized.
One thing that was a bit perplexing was the lack of Sam Houston fans around the area both the night before and the night after.
Particularly with Huntsville so close, I went in thinking we’d be seeing orange and blue at least every once in a while around the local pubs, but aside from a few checking into the hotels there weren’t many to be seen.
The few that came to tailgate with the Bison fans were gracious and respectful, though optimistic of their team’s chances.
Aside from a few outliers in the game itself, the crowd for SHSU seemed responsive and supportive of their team, which helped to make for a dynamite atmosphere that, being shown on ESPN, only helped to portray the Football Championship Subdivision in a positive light on a national stage.
My hat’s off to SHSU fans for their support of their team, and to the city of Frisco and surrounding communities for their stupendous hospitality.
Waking up the next morning was like the scene from one of the “Hangover” movies as last night’s postgame celebrations were lamented for their consequences now, and once the senses were returned and the vehicle packed, we made our way out of Texas with the weight of a national championship on our shoulders.
A few miles out of town, we chose to gas up and ran into another caravan of Bison fans inside.
A few minutes of chatting led us back outside and as we parted ways, the driver said to me “The drive back sure doesn’t seem so bad with a championship now, does it?”
“Nope,” I said. “Sure doesn’t.”