Feature photo by Hillary Ehlen
A Roundtable With Five Teammates Who Became Lifelong Friends Through Bison Football
When NDSU football players and coaches talk about their successes, they eventually start by talking about the process. They’ll mention that championships aren’t won on game days, they’re won during the week of preparation or in the offseason during conditioning workouts. What’s overlooked about NDSU’s process is the bond these young men make during their time together. Five years of hanging out with the same people you met during your first practice on campus generates countless special relationships within the football team. The 2017 senior class embodied that sense of brotherhood. We got five seniors in one room to talk about their time at NDSU and how their college decision changed their lives. Together, they take us through how the Bison culture creates friendships that will last a lifetime.
#7 Cole Davis
21 Games Played
2015, 2016 MVFC Honor Roll
#93 Jarrod Tuszka
Warner, South Dakota
47 Games Played
45 Total Tackles
2014, 2015, 2016 MVFC Honor Roll
#62 Bryce Messner
McVille, North Dakota
38 Games Played
15 Starts in 2017
2014, 2015, 2016 MVFC Honor Roll
#44 Matt Plank
45 Games Played
117 Total Tackles
2014, 2015, 2016 MVFC Honor Roll
#86 Jeff Illies
Lidgerwood, North Dakota
59 Games Played
2016 All-MVFC Second Team
Topic No. 1: A Budding, Lifelong Friendship
Matt Plank: Cole Davis and I met the summer before we came up here (2013). We played in an All-Star game against each other.
Cole Davis: What was the score?
Plank: They won a close match. Our team was better, more natural talent, but the refs helped Cole’s team and they had better coaching and whatnot. Talent-wise, we were better. We actually roomed together as well. Bryce (Messner) took me to my first college party. That was fun. That’s when I first started meeting guys. I didn’t meet Jarrod (Tuszka) for a while because he was battling some Achilles stuff. And Jeff (Illies), he was actually roommates with one of my best friends my freshman year. He’s not with us anymore. We played basketball a lot together. We were a really tight class, though. I feel like we got to know each other really quick.
Davis: We really bonded. Me and Matt were roommates, and I’m pretty sure I was along for that first “social gathering.”
Plank: Austin Kuhnert, that’s who it was. Us three and Kuhnert.
Davis: We were all, our whole class, we weren’t cliquey or anything. We didn’t have five guys here, five guys there. We’re all super tight.
Bryce Messner: We all had similar interests.
Jarrod Tuszka: Similar personalities, too.
Jeff Illies: I think a lot of it had to do with the senior class that year (2013). That was the “Dream Team.” If you’re in my room (position group), especially, I don’t know about your guys’ rooms, but I didn’t get paid attention to at all — me and Connor (Wentz) — which was expected. We had the whole coaches leaving and stuff, and I felt like that brought us together.
Messner: Everybody was in a panic initially. What are we going to do? Where are we going to go? And we all stuck it out, stuck together and couldn’t ask for anything better.
Plank: It’s actually really impressive to think about because we would have only been with each other for what? Five months at that point, four months? And the fact that was even a thought that we’re not going to leave just because the guys that we’re with. Already after four months, that’s a good sign for a class.
Topic No. 2: Growing Closer Through Adversity
Davis: We were all on the offensive and defensive scout teams together, and redshirts do developmental lifts before practice, and at meetings so we’re with each other pretty much every day for five straight months. I think that developmental lift, especially, is where young guys really start to develop those relationships, and that kind of vision and work ethic toward the greater good.
Plank: You gotta remember there was a guy at lunchtime, the first day of fall camp, that quit. Like that’s how fast it happens to some kids.
Tuszka: A lot has changed since that first year, though, the NCAA rules and stuff.
Plank: There are guys that drop the day after camp starts, a week after camp starts, and then you get to the middle of the season and that’s when you’ve been with these guys for so long, you’ve gone through so much together, the 6 a.m. lifts on Fridays with (Jim) Kramer, pushing plates, getting punished together, you’re successes are together, and you just can’t imagine leaving this place.
Messner: The guys you meet and the guys you bond with are a huge reason you don’t give up in a situation like that. When you feel like you can’t do that anymore in the middle of the season or the end of the season, it’s been a long however many months grinding playing scout team every day and not getting any credit. You’re kind of the tackling dummy, as a metaphor…
Plank: Or literal…
Topic No. 3: The 2013 Senior Class Impact
Illies: I feel like a lot of them were good and helpful guys, but then it was just that vibe that year, you know? They won it the year before and two years before. They had this big senior class with all these big-name guys, and they were just supposed to win it that year, and the focus was that we’re going to win a championship. There’s a lot of great dudes in that class that helped me, personally, and probably these guys, too.
Davis: We had a lot of good leaders and guys who set good examples so that definitely helped.
Plank: You just watch them and you noticed, like Cole said, everybody could just talk to each other. It didn’t matter if you were from a small town in Kansas, small town in Missouri, South Dakota or North Dakota; if you were from Minneapolis or you’re from a bigger city. I always felt like I could talk to the Tre Dempseys from Florida, the Chris Boards from Florida, the Pierres (Gee-Tucker) who’s from outside St. Louis. I felt like I could talk to those guys as much as I could talk to Bryce from a smaller town in North Dakota. It’s just something that’s unique about NDSU, I feel like. That senior class had that. You can sit back and watch that happen.
Tuszka: There were a lot of guys that helped. Cole Jirik was a big one, Mike Hardie was a really big one. He took me under his wing a little bit when I first came in. When I came in, I was fresh off an Achilles repair, because I blew it out in track in high school, so I got grey-shirted my first year. I could be at practice, but I couldn’t practice, couldn’t go to meetings, but I could lift with the guys and do all that stuff so it was nice to be a part of it from that aspect. They helped out with learning stuff because I got one year with Cole Jirik and two years with Kyle (Emanuel) and Mike, and they helped a lot. Kyle Emanuel was a big one. He is one of those guys if you want to know how to do it right, you watch him. And he’s still playing and doing really well. It’s been fun, but like the guys said, as far as just hanging out with everybody, offensive line, defensive line, I mean, yeah, during practice it’s fighting every day but off the field, you wouldn’t know they’re on opposite sides of the ball, everyone just kicks it. It’s not position-cliquey or anything, it’s just guys with similar interests.
Davis: We could sit a lot of the guys in our class with this group right now. Guys like (Nick) DeLuca, even Brad (Ambrosius) and Chase (Morlock), even though they were older than us, Nate Tanguay and…
Tuszka: Keenan (Hodenfield), Pierre (Gee-Tucker), Chris (Board), Tre (Dempsey), there’s a ton of guys…
Davis: You could interchange any of those guys with us right now, and it would be the same thing. I think that’s pretty cool.
Plank: There are multiple situations where some guys went home for a weekend or something like that or some guy wasn’t available and you’d show up at a place and you see one of your teammates from any position group, any background, and the same thing would always happen as if it was your roommate. The situation wouldn’t have changed because we have such a bond with all our teammates, where you can’t imagine the situation changing regardless who’s there.
Topic No. 4: When the out-of-state guys realized NDSU was a big deal in the community.
Plank: On the visit.
Davis: The visit and the camp before my senior year, I think. But then getting up here, I didn’t really feel it during fall camp or anything because we’re just doing football 24/7, but as soon as that first game day rolled around, because I hadn’t been up to a game previously before I got up here. That’s when it was like “Holy — this is legit.” This whole state is behind this team, this community. You have 19,000 people rocking the dome. It was pretty cool. I hadn’t heard — I don’t know about you guys — I didn’t know nothing in high school. Like when they won their first two championships, if you were to tell me I was going to college in North Dakota and we’re going to win four national championships, I would’ve called you crazy.
Plank: When Coach Klieman was the defensive coordinator before he was the head coach, he was a D-coordinator our freshman year, and he actually was my recruiting coordinator. He came and visited my house, came to a basketball game and recruited me. He walks in and asked if I wanted to come to North Dakota State. You’re like, “No, I don’t want to go to North Dakota.”
Plank: That’s just what you think. Even if you’re from a small town in a different state, you imagine the smallest towns in North Dakota being smaller than the smallest towns in Kansas. And Kansas has some small towns. I came up on my visit — I didn’t actually go to the camp — and I got to see a game. It was the Wofford game. In 2012?
Illies: Yeah, 2012. I was there, too.
Plank: Yup, it was the playoff game and Grant (Olson) lit it up. Got like 28 tackles. It was a close game. I think they won it on a blocked field goal or something like that. The crowd was going crazy, it’s loud as heck, and I’m like, “Alright. I’m going to North Dakota State.” Definitely the first game I saw, that’s when I noticed something was different.
Topic No. 5: In-State Recruits Dealing with the Pressure
Messner: I think there’s always that, like you said, pressure…
Illies: The thing for me was that it seemed like half the people initially were like go for it, and the other half were like, “Who does this guy think he is?”
Messner: …Yeah, that sense of “he’ll never make it.”
Illies: And, you know, no one has ever said that, but it’s just the attitude that you get from certain people that just because they didn’t get out of the town or whatever, they didn’t go play college football, it’s like, almost like a jealousy thing. At least it seemed like it. As the years went on, I just had another deal back home, the other day, and the support I had from my community and my school was absolutely unbelievable. Every year we went to the national championship…
Plank: Jeff Illies. Hall of Famer, by the way.
Illies: Yeah, whatever.
Illies: Anyway, every year we went to the championship, like my whole school, K-12 — there’s not very many of them — get together and take this picture with the sign and send it to me. That kind of stuff is unbelievable.
Messner: It’s crazy the support that you get from those small towns and the towns around you. People that have been diehard UND (North Dakota) fans or U of M (Minnesota) fans their whole life, and then, they get to see someone they watched at the McVille gym play basketball and they get to see them play at NDSU, and they all just would be happy for anything that I was able to accomplish with the team that I was on here at NDSU. It was pretty great to have that backing from home.