Photos By Nolan P. Schmidt
It’s a cold, cloudy day in north Moorhead, but the attitude inside the D-S Beverages warehouse is anything but dreary. Kenny Sampson, a lifelong Bison fan and D-S Beverages employee, is the one brightening up the warehouse this day. Things begin to flow naturally as Sampson launches into story after story about North Dakota State.
Kenny Sampson has been working with D-S Beverages for almost three decades. He has been a Bison fan for nearly five decades. Known for his quick wit and timeless stories, Sampson seems like a man who could spend all day talking about his life. On this day in Moorhead, he sits on an Anheuser-Busch barstool to talk about his favorite topic: the North Dakota State Bison.
“That’s the one right there. That one is mine,” he said, pointing to his go-to forklift inside the D-S Beverages warehouse. It’s your standard forklift, but “Thundering Herd” is emblazoned upon the side, complete with NDSU’s logo and a Bud Light logo. Recently, D-S Beverages was able to make Bud Light the “Official Beer of the Bison” thanks to North Dakota State athletics’ new relationship with Learfield IMG College.
You see, while Kenny has been committed to his work at D-S Beverages for almost 30 years, he has been committed to North Dakota State even longer. Sampson is a true Bison fan. Not only that, but his relationship with NDSU helped D-S Beverages become the “Official Beer of the Bison.”
Think of your favorite Bison memory? Chances are Kenny Sampson was there. He was there to pick Gene Taylor up from the airport upon Taylor being hired as the new athletics director at NDSU. Sampson has been there for epic games inside the Fargodome, Scheels Center, BBF and the Bison Sports Arena and of course Dacotah Field before that.
Ironically, Sampson did not attend North Dakota State University but he does have an alumni connection to the university. Sampson’s daughter is a graduate of NDSU and one has to assume her father nudged her in a certain direction. For this Bison fan, he sort of fell into a love for the Bison.
“I actually went on to graduate from NDSCS in Wahpeton. I got a two-year degree and then I was thinking about being a teacher. I went to Moorhead State for one year and I just went to work after that,” Sampson said of his early years before the Bison came into view. “I worked for a sporting goods store Downtown here and guess who we sold equipment to? North Dakota State. That’s how I really got into Bison athletics and it sort of mushroomed from there.”
The first Bison game Sampson ever attended was a night game against South Dakota State in 1976. Played at the old Dacotah Field, Sampson says this was the pivotal moment in him becoming a fan of NDSU. It probably helped that the Bison bested the Jackrabbits 13-0 in that game. The Bison finished the season 9-3 under coach Jim Wacker before losing in the Division II semifinals to Montana State.
“I was tickled pink because I thought attending a college football game was a big deal. And it was a big deal,” Sampson said of his unforgettable night at Dacotah Field some 45 years ago. “40 some years later, I get to go to college football games at Notre Dame, Michigan, Iowa, Iowa State and Arizona State. If you were to tell me that back then, I’d probably call you crazy.”
Sampson’s love for the Bison bleeds into how he lives his daily life too. He sees the value system in place within NDSU athletics and uses it in his own life too. Sampson and NDSU are committed to helping their team first. In many ways, Sampson’s employer shares the same values as NDSU athletics. Just as NDSU has a family with athletes, coaches and staff, D-S Beverages has its family of team members and customers.
“I see the same things in both organizations. I think it gets bred into you because you just learn to do things the right way,” Sampson said of the similarities between NDSU athletics and D-S Beverages. “Each person here works so hard for the benefit of the whole team. It is the same way in the athletic department, regardless of sport. You cannot teach that level of work ethic.”
Why does Sampson see these values as the right ones to live by? Because they have been proven to work. A simple look inside the Scheels Center trophy case is evidence enough. While there have no doubt been ups and downs in NDSU’s athletics history, Sampson has stuck by the Bison through it all.
That level of commitment does not go unnoticed nor should it. Sampson has opted to serve NDSU athletics in numerous ways. Over his years as a member of the Herd, Sampson has been an avid member of Team Makers and served as president in 2001. He has created lifelong friendships with coaches, athletes and staff along the way.
It is those relationships that mean the most to Sampson. To this day, Sampson texts each respective coach ‘good luck’ on game day. While the act seems minor in principle, it only affirms the green and yellow running through Sampson’s blood.
However, it is the evolution of the athletic department that keeps Sampson invested. “The year I was Team Maker’s president in 2001, we raised $700,000 for the first time. I remember that was such a massive deal when we did it. We were so proud of what we were able to provide student-athletes,” he said. “Now, they are raising something like $5 million for athletics. It’s crazy because it has really evolved, but that is so amazing. The Bison name is everywhere now. I had a cousin text me last night from Scottsdale, Arizona, telling me he was watching the Bison. I never thought that would happen. It has gone way beyond what I would have ever imagined.”
“I have been very fortunate and I’m humbled and honored. I’ve been to every place in the Summit League. I’ve been to Georgia Southern. I’ve been to Cal Poly. I’ve been to Cal Davis. I’ve been all over the country just to witness these teams play,” he said. “I’m proud to go and I just know when I get to an airport and I am wearing my Bison visor, people know who the Bison are.”
The love for travel and seeing the Bison perform also had its advantages for Sampson in his professional life. Now that NDSU is working with Learfield IMG College, D-S Beverages was able to bill Bud Light as the ‘Official Beer of the Bison’. While Sampson is far too humble to take credit for anything, he did hint at being partly responsible for the current relationship between NDSU and D-S Beverages. “I don’t want to brag, but I’d like to think I had a small something to do with that,” Sampson said, chuckling.
For years, Sampson and his friends had a tailgate space for Saturday mornings at the Fargodome. Oftentimes, that tailgate spot would offer former players, coaches and fans some of D-S Beverages’ latest samples. Needless to say, Sampson’s tailgate spot was always a hot commodity.
Kenny recalls a couple of his favorite Bison memories as he takes his seat in his forklift. Two events come immediately to mind.
“My two highlights are both from Dacotah Field. The first has to be beating UND when they were ranked number one in the country. I believe that was a night game in 1981 and the Bison just crushed them. They ended up going to the national championship game in Division II that year.” NDSU beat UND 31-7 on that night at Dacotah Field. The Bison would lose to Southwest Texas State in that year’s national title game. “The other moment was the 1990 semifinal game against Pittsburg State. That was an electric atmosphere. When I think of events inside that dome, the Georgia Southern semifinal game also jumps out.”
Chat with him longer and you may get to hear the story of him chopping it up with Rocky Hager at the Bison Sports Arena (that is a story for another time). Whatever memory he does come up with, you will no doubt be entertained by Kenny Sampson.
It is that commitment to history and tradition that has made Kenny Sampson such a beloved figure in the Bison community. His love for the school, its student-athletes, coaches and staff is truly a quality to behold. Kenny Sampson is and always will be a Bison. If you were to ask him, that is all he ever wanted.