I have seen a lot of football games in a lot of places over the past five decades, but I have never seen one played in a large brick house that doubles as a nearly 20,000 seat stadium.
That is until last Saturday when I found myself in Fargo, N.D., watching the five-time defending national champions, North Dakota State University. Though they play in the NCAA division a notch below Alabama, Auburn and Georgia, even the Crimson Tide would envy the Bison’s recent title run.
So, how did we end up in Fargo? Good question.
In January, I was watching North Dakota State rip Jacksonville State in the Football Championship Series title game with two guys who work for the city: Ross Horner, the Civic Center director, and Will Johnson, a planner. Ross is a North Dakota State graduate and Will has a graduate degree from Jacksonville State.
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Rightfully so, Ross was talking smack. You can do that when your team is winning national championships every year. Being Southern, Will and I took exception. We invented football down here, didn’t we?
As I remember the conversation, Ross said something about we just all needed to go to a North Dakota State game —in Fargo.
That’s how I ended up in the FargoDome the third Saturday in October and not in front of a television set watching Alabama destroy Tennessee.
I have been to the Rose Bowl, two national championship games, a handful of SEC title games, a dozen or more Alabama-Auburn games. I have seen games between the hedges and at historic Grant Field. I have been to the Sugar Bowl and I have even seen a Troy State playoff game in Vermillion, S.D.
I have been to Cleveland, Miss., and Cleveland, Ohio.
But last weekend was different — and it was a blast thanks to Ross’ in-laws, Arlin and Ann Foss and his good friend Darrell Olsen, who lives in Bismark. Arlin and Ann are longtime season-ticket holders who proudly showed off their hometown team.
There is a lot to that North Dakota Nice thing.
Let’s start with the tailgate party. Unlike an SEC school, the tailgate section is concentrated in the parking lots closest to the stadium. And, I promise, I have never seen a tailgate trailer in the Deep South that doubles as an ice fishing house.
I was prepared for cold, and it wasn’t even cool as the temperatures were well over 60 degrees. It was a perfect football Saturday.
And the Bison fans play just as hard as their team, especially on a pretty day when they don’t all have to cram into the ice fishing house.
There was something about the experience that felt comfortable — the game against rival South Dakota State kicked off at 2:30 in the afternoon, a lot like college football was down here before every game found its way onto TV.
The people are incredibly friendly, and they know their team and its players. They come from all over the state to cheer the Bison, who have a simple team philosophy — “the strength of the Herd is the Bison; and the strength of the Bison is the Herd.”
They have this herd mentality down pat.
The kicker last week was that we saw something rare. North Dakota State lost on the game’s final play. These guys have only lost five games in the past six seasons.
It doesn’t happen a lot. But with the teams I pull for, I am used to it.
I hope we get invited back.