Photos by J. Alan Paul Photography and special to Bison Illustrated
Featured photo: Former Bison football players Jeff McKinnon (left) and Jason Boutwell (right)
It’s North Dakota State’s homecoming week. The Friday afternoon sun is warm while the fall air isn’t too crisp with temperatures hovering in the low-60s. It’s a perfect fall day. The Bison are 2-0 and will play the Delaware Blue Hens that Saturday. A team of workers is setting up a couple of large tents behind Herd and Horns near campus just south of 12th Avenue for the weekend’s festivities. The stragglers from the lunch crowd are clearing out as several groups of Bison fans start gathering around tables, replete in Bison gear, kicking off the celebration.
I walk in the south door to meet with Jeff and Amy McKinnon. A stream of Florida Georgia Line’s “Get Your Shine On” and Darius Rucker’s “Wagon Wheel” plays from the speakers in the background. Jeff, a Wahpeton, N.D., native played outside linebacker for the Bison from 1993 to 1997. He was recruited by then Bison head coach Rocky Hager. Jeff’s first year was the inaugural season NDSU played in the Fargodome. The McKinnons are sitting at a table with several family members. A large Bison head is mounted above the table on the wall. Wearing Bison gear, Jeff and Amy are upbeat, smiling, friendly and give me a warm welcome. But looking a little deeper, there’s a hint of tiredness under their eyes. Being the parents of two children on the brink of their teenage years with busy schedules, combined with work, a Friday afternoon at Herd and Horns is a nice respite.
That slight hint of tiredness hiding behind their smiles, though, tells a story itself beyond the lives of two busy working parents. This Friday afternoon finds Jeff in the middle of chemotherapy treatments. The former Bison linebacker was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a blood-based cancer, in July. According to the Mayo Clinic, multiple myeloma is a cancer that forms in plasma cells, a type of white blood cell. Plasma cells help fight infections by making antibodies that recognize and attack germs. Multiple myeloma causes cancer cells to accumulate in the bone marrow where they crowd out healthy blood cells. Instead of producing helpful antibodies, the cancer cells produce abnormal proteins that can cause complications.
The cancer diagnosis was the culmination of several months of pain and uncertainty, going back to last November, for what was ailing Jeff’s back. The pain was so severe and debilitating, even for a former hard-hitting college linebacker and athlete like McKinnon, that he could only sleep 90 minutes a night. And what little sleep McKinnon could get was restless at that, often coming on one of the family’s recliners.
“It was a funky deal. Back in November, I went out and shoveled snow and felt a little pinch in my back,” said Jeff, describing the beginning of the pain that culminated in his cancer diagnosis. Having run many Fargo Marathons, the full 26.1 miles, McKinnon was starting to train for another and thought it was his back flaring up, nothing to worry about. “I thought, it’s just back issues, so I persevered through a month. Then in December, it wasn’t getting any better. I went into the walk-in clinic at Christmas and was diagnosed with a slipped disk.” For the rest of the winter, McKinnon did physical therapy to address what was thought was a slipped disk. But it wasn’t getting any better and the pain continued getting worse.
Mystery back pain and diagnosis
In April, Jeff went to an orthopedic walk-in clinic in Fargo and they took an x-ray. The x-ray seemingly confirmed the slipped disk. He was given a cortisone shot that, as Amy noted, was ironically injected unknowingly at the time, into a fist-sized tumor hiding in Jeff’s back. Cortisone shots are used to relieve pain and inflammation and are familiar to athletes in high contact sports, like football players. “May and June was when the pain really started to escalate, my pain was off the charts,” said Jeff. The McKinnons knew something wasn’t right and pushed for answers beyond the slipped disk diagnosis.
Then came the answer neither suspected. In mid-June, in the middle of the night, Jeff went to the emergency room because he was in so much pain. An MRI was ordered. “On June 29, I went and saw my primary care doctor, and that was when I was informed that I had a tumor in my back pelvic area.” A biopsy was done and Jeff was officially diagnosed on July 12. “It was a long ordeal, it was months and months.” The radiological doctor told the McKinnons it was a very unusual spot for a tumor. The tumor was the size of a fist, which explained Jeff’s back pain.
Now they knew. And just like his playing days, the linebacker from Wahpeton took an aggressive approach in confronting this fight. “The second I was diagnosed, I said let’s just get a plan and figure how we’re going to treat it,” explained Jeff as other Bison fans came and went from Herd and Horns that afternoon. While Jeff is still in pain and undergoing chemotherapy, that pain pales in comparison to the tumor’s impact on his back and the nerves centered in the lower back. “I’m still in pain, but it’s nothing like it was before.”
How do you take that news? You have cancer. What’s more, how and what do you tell your kids? That is something, quite obviously, only those that have went through cancer can even remotely begin to understand. Jason Boutwell, another former Bison football player, told me the McKinnon’s story a few weeks earlier when I was guest-hosting the Afternoon’s Live program on KFGO. I knew the McKinnons had two kids. “It was a surreal experience,” hearing the diagnosis, said Amy. For both Jeff and Amy, it took a few days for the news to sink in. “I didn’t even believe it, it took a while. The day I was diagnosed I was supposed to have a Bison Football Players Association meeting. I remember thinking okay, we have to figure out how we’re going to talk to the kids because they’re 13 and 11, and then figure out how we’re going to tell our family. I was literally half an hour away from going to my BFPA meeting.”
The BFPA is an organization established by former Bison football players to keep each other informed and help deal with this sort of news. The group mobilized to help the McKinnons. Jeff told Sean Fredricks, another former Bison linebacker and teammate, who came in with the same class as Jeff. From there, the word spread to the rest of the BFPA who were eager to do whatever they could to help the McKinnons. This included Rocky Hager, McKinnon’s former head coach, who is now coaching at The College of New Jersey. “When players are giving you so much in their efforts on the field, classroom and as citizens, you feel they are part of your family, and the Bison family,” said Hager. Hager wasn’t there for Jeff so much to talk, but to listen. “I listened to what he had to say, and when he brought up things that were positive, I embraced that he was on the right track. I told him that I loved him, and truth of the matter is I love all of our former players because they gave so much to us. This is when I get to restate that to Jeff.”
A “cancer mentor”
Boutwell, like Jeff, used to play football for the Bison. He knew what Jeff was going through. Four years ago, during a run while vacationing in Mexico, his appendix burst. The burst appendix revealed that Boutwell had appendix cancer. “It was a punch to the gut,” said Boutwell of the diagnosis. He knew what Jeff was experiencing. “I was still young and healthy, and young people aren’t supposed to get cancer. If I thought I was healthy, McKinnon was ten times healthier and had run ten Fargo Marathons in a row.” Boutwell knew that he and other former players needed to rally around the McKinnons.
“I might have made some deals with God when I was going through cancer of my own,” said an emotional Boutwell, recalling his battle. “When I was going through it, I was on my knees, looking for guidance. Hey Lord, you bring me through this thing, I’m going to be there for others in my circle if someone else is diagnosed.” Boutwell kept that promise, reaching out to the McKinnons when he learned the news of Jeff’s cancer diagnosis.
During the early days after the diagnosis, still in what they described as a fog, Boutwell sat down with Jeff, Amy and their two kids. “He’s been my cancer mentor,” said Jeff. “He went and talked with the kids, walked them through it. He told our kids, here I am, I had cancer and now I’m healthy, so he really walked us and the kids through.” One of the first things Boutwell told the McKinnon’s kids was that cancer is not contagious. “You don’t think about that. I think it was good for the kids to be able to hear that, and see that Jason is super healthy,” said Amy.
“It’s a scary, scary time, and I wanted to show Amy and their kids that hey, you know what, your dad can make it through this, look at me.” Boutwell wasn’t alone. The BFPA knew they needed to get involved and support the McKinnons, just like their playing days years going through two-a-day practices on Dacotah Field. “Cancer is a crappy deal for many reasons, and it’s really expensive,” said Boutwell. From everything to travel, preparing meals or paying for meals during treatment out of town, hotels, taking kids to different events, cancer presents numerous challenges to those families contending with it.
The McKinnons were grateful for the care they received at Sanford Health’s Roger Maris Cancer Center here in Fargo. “Roger Maris has been fantastic. I don’t know if people realize how blessed we are to have Roger Maris in town. They walked us through all the treatments,” explained Amy. They provided something as important as the chemotherapy drugs pumping through Jeff’s veins. They gave the McKinnons hope. “We were in a whirlwind the first day we were there,” said Amy describing their experience. “I said, do they pump hope into the air here. The doctors and nurses are constantly reiterating it’s going to be okay, we’ll get you on the right plan, we’ll get you what you need, it was amazing to have that support network locally.”
Jeff’s chemotherapy started the day after being diagnosed with 14 days of chemo, a week off, 14 days of chemo and seven days off. He does a total of five of these chemotherapy cycles, and was in the middle of his fourth of five treatments when we talked. His last Fargo treatment of this cycle at Roger Maris was October 19, and now he’s at Mayo Clinic for a stem cell transplant that will take six to eight weeks.
How you can help: the Bison Family and Fargo community
The BFPA has started a Facebook page, Jeff McKinnon #12, open to everyone. This extends to anyone in the Bison family, player or not, that proudly wears green and yellow in support of the Herd. There are numerous items to bid on at the Facebook page, and an electronic silent auction, that includes once in a lifetime items like a trip to the Masters, tickets to ESPN’s annual awards show – the ESPY’s, a VIP experience for two at the FCS National Championship at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, TX, tickets and sideline passes to regular season Bison games and Carson Wentz autographed mementos. You can text the word “Bison” to 79230 to view and bid on items in the silent auction.
The McKinnons are grateful for the outpouring of support. “The support of the community and the BFPA has been incredible. People bringing us over meals, helping to clean our house and offering to bring our kids to activities, and even willing to walk or watch our dog,” explained While the McKinnons were hesitant to reach out for help initially, Boutwell told them one of the biggest things they could do was let people that care for them be involved. “That’s one of the first things I asked Jason when he came over was what do I even say. I don’t even know where I need help right now because it was all new to me,” said Amy. “He’s really helped navigate that process for us and engage the BFPA. The Bison family has really been incredible.”
Tailgating at the Fargodome has allowed the McKinnon’s kids, Miles and Merritt, to meet Jeff’s former teammates and their “Fortunately, because of tailgating, the kids know a lot of those folks,” said Amy. “So it’s not just like I’m sending my kids with a complete stranger.” The diagnosis forced Jeff to take a look at the big picture and ask what were the important things in life. “We’re super grateful and appreciative. After I was diagnosed, you really start taking an introspective look at life in general, what e-mails are really that important, what day-to-day activities are important.”
At the heart of the support for the McKinnons was the Bison family. We’ve heard stories of how hundreds of players come to the Friday practice before the national championship game in Frisco every January. The same guys, even going back to the 1960s, are rallying around the McKinnons. “All the football guys, one of the things that’s been great, after I was diagnosed, Coach Hager reached out to me. He’s always so positive and optimistic, and has such wisdom and he pumped me up,” said Jeff.
Before the North Alabama game in early September, Esley Thorton, himself a former Bison linebacker, and his wife met the McKinnons for the first time at the BFPA tailgater in the northwest lot of the Fargodome. Thorton’s interception in the closing seconds of the 2014 National Championship game against Illinois State sealed NDSU’s fourth straight FCS title. “Esley and his wife came up to us at tailgating, introduced themselves, and said we’re bringing you guys a pizza in a few weeks,” said Amy. Like Jeff and Thorton, Doug Hushka also played defense for the Bison. Hushka, a senior on the 1983 national championship team, is a doctor in Fargo. “You realize how much cancer has touched people’s lives,” said Jeff towards the end of our visit. “Doug Hushka, his brother had multiple myeloma, and he reached out and walked me through it and sent me some messages of the positive things his brother has gone through.”
In addition to the Bison Family, the community is rallying support, too. Lend A Hand Up, a local nonprofit focused on supporting families battling health issues, has partnered with the BFPA in their support of the McKinnons. “With Lend A Hand Up, our goal is to raise help and hope for families going through some health issues,” said Jeana Peinovich, the director of Lend a Hand Up. “So many times when people are hurting, they don’t know how to help, and so we want to provide some structured ways for people to comfortably show they care about the McKinnon family.”
Lend A Hand Up has a website where people can make a gift to the McKinnons and other families to help with medical expenses. Unlike other fundraising sites, Lend A Hand Up does not charge administrative costs or solicit tips from any donations. “Dakota Medical Foundation pays for all the costs to administer Lend a Hand Up so every gift is distributed. Even better, through Lend A Hand Up’s community boost program, every gift is increased by 20 percent. People make a $100 gift that turns into $120 through our site. Our goal is to maximize people’s generosity because, ultimately we want to rally that team spirit the Bison have as a community, and be that community that cheers on the McKinnon family and provides them with hope and financial help to get them through this tough time,” said Peinovich.
“We don’t know what this is going to cost, and we are so thankful for the Lend A Hand program,” said Amy.
“I take it day-by-day. Each treatment I go to, I feel better,” concluded Jeff with a smile with Amy sitting next to him. “When I started feeling sick, we used to have a routine, I’d do this, she’d do that, and everything kind of got out of whack. Now, we just try to keep as much routine as we can. The kids know dad needs to get his nap in, and I’ll get a nap in today before going to the [homecoming] parade. It’s nice that they’re seeing me feel better than I was before.” Amy agreed. “The kids have pretty much taken the philosophy that dad’s tough, he’s going to kick this. That’s been their mentality.”
When people talk about Bison Pride and Bison Tradition, this means more than any banner or national championship trophy. This isn’t just at the heart of the Bison family, this is the Bison family. “The Bison family, that’s what kind of things that keep it going,” said Hager, who won four national championships at NDSU, two as a head coach. “Jeff, coming into being a Bison, was a very positive young man, so it’s not surprising that he’s holding to that positive outlook on things as they’re going through this.”
For their part, Jeff’s cancer diagnosis has brought home what Bison Pride means. “Bison Pride. It’s interesting. Bison Pride means a lot when you’re playing, but you realize how much more real it is when you’re done because you really see it then. I don’t know you can really conceptualize how big it is when you’re playing. Knowing that there are all these guys and families that are going to be there through thick and thin no matter what. It’s authentic, people are going to be there when things are going well and when things are a challenge.” To Amy, it’s the true strength of the Herd. “For me, it’s the strength of the Herd. It truly is the strength of the Herd because all of these guys are behind Jeff and they’ve been there for Jeff.
Each of these items below are available for viewing at the Bison Football Players Association Tent.
Questions can be directed to Jason Boutwell at 701-200- 1400. You can donate directly at LendAHandUp.org and with a deposit into the Jeff McKinnon Fund at any Bell Bank location.
Items on silent auction
- Autographed Carson Wentz Helmet
- Day of Magic at the Masters 2019 for two
- Bison Gift Basket including a Bison Scarf, bag and T-Shirt
- Framed Autographed Carson Wentz Picture Collage
- Green Bay Packers Super Bowl Ring Set
- Denver Bronco’s Super Bowl Ring Set
- Autographed Phil Hanson Helmet
- Autographed Case Keenum Helmet
- Three day trip and tickets to the National Rodeo Finals
- Bison Tailgate Kit
- Framed Copy of the Bison Fight Song
- 10×40 Storage for 1 year at Apartment Movers
- Autographed Stephon Diggs MN Miracle Collage
- Autographed Brett Farve (Vikings) Collage
- Autographed Fran Tarkenton Collage
- Autographed Payton Manning Broncos Collage
- Wrigley Field Rooftop Experience – 2019 Season
- Trip and tickets to the 2019 ESPYs
- Framed and autographed Wentz’s Jersey