Feature photo by J. Alan Paul Photography
It was about 30 minutes or so before kickoff when the crowd began filtering into BJ’s Lounge on Decatur Boulevard in Las Vegas for North Dakota State’s game against Robert Morris. It wouldn’t be much of a game, not that much of a game was expected. NDSU reeled off five touchdowns in the first quarter, several of the familiar big-play variety we’ve seen throughout this team’s nonconference slate, to build a 35-0 lead on our way to another blowout win. But that’s not what was remarkable about this particular Saturday. Not for me, anyway. This was only the fourth Bison home game in the last 25 years that I’ve missed.
My family has had season tickets since the inaugural season at the Fargodome in 1993, the last 10-11 years in Section 17 just off the student section behind the visiting team’s bench. Bison football has become such an ingrained part of my life, like it has for many of you, that a weird feeling flows over me like a haze of sorts when I’m not in the stands. The game against the Colonials doesn’t start for another six hours. Tailgating is just getting underway in the west lots, and I’m wide-awake. With a two-hour time difference, I find myself at the hotel breakfast area at the Residence Inn Marriott around 6 a.m. local time, piling up the waffles and sausage while looking through the morning headlines, then pacing my hotel room for a couple more hours.
“We may say ‘roam like its home,’ but to that, I’ll add this. ‘Never roam alone!'”
ESPN’s “College GameDay” is broadcasting from New York City and Tom Rinaldi’s segment on football from one tip of the island to the other, complete with stops at various school’s watch parties, helps pass the time. Serendipity. Watching Rinaldi go from one New York City pub to another gets me excited, we’ll soon be at a similar party. Although tempted, having a few adult beverages in our hotel room at this hour seems a bit much, even for Vegas standards, so I settle for another round of coffee, largely ignoring the Florida State versus North Carolina State and Texas A&M versus Arkansas games on the flat screen. Shortly, we’ll jump in an Uber to my first official NDSU Alumni Association watch party.
The Uber takes us to BJ’s Lounge where we’re the first Bison fans to arrive. Libby, my fiancé, asks what channel the game is on. A pretty obvious question until I realize what she was driving at. BJ’s Lounge does not get the North Dakota NBC Network because, well, we’re not in North Dakota, we’re in Nevada. Hence BJ’s Lounge does not get KVLY’s pregame show. Oh well, we’ve already got the first round of the day when Steve Gebeke, a 1994 NDSU graduate walks in. Steve is a planning supervisor for the City of Las Vegas. I’ve never met him before, but we can tell it’s him by the yellow Bison shirt and hat, along with a box of those NDSU table tents the Alumni Association dutifully sends to the hosts of these parties taking place all over this great country of ours. Steve has hosted this watch party for a couple years now and makes the rounds welcoming friends and other guests alike.
Bison fans have earned the nickname the “Herd” for good reason. We show up in places like Texas, Iowa, Kansas, Colorado and all points in between, in numbers, to support our team. Like that conspicuous omnipresent Bison shirt reads, “We roam like it’s home.” There are watch parties in 16 different states, coast to coast, for the Robert Morris game. These parties are in places like Arlington, Virginia; Plano, Texas; Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Nashville, Tennessee; Gwinner, North Dakota; Waterloo, Iowa; Denver, Colorado; Tucson, Arizona; and Santa Clarita, California. And, of course, I can’t forget my good friends at the Star City Golf Course in Velva, North Dakota, who are pros when it comes to hosting Bison events. All in all, there are 71 “official” watch parties promoted by the NDSU Alumni Association.
For Libby and me, home today is Las Vegas. We feel welcome, we feel at home. The Herd marches on. Although, admittedly, a couple texts come in from friends back at Six Flags Tailgating telling me the party just isn’t quite the same without my unique set of DJ skills. We quickly meet new friends and talk about this team, the explosive Bison offense and suffocating defense, how tough the Missouri Valley Football Conference is shaping up to be, North Dakota in general, our families back in the Peace Garden State and where we grew up, and wanting desperately to get back to Frisco this January.
Ray has lived near Vegas for many years and hails from the Dakota Prairie area of North Dakota. Over the years, he’s come to prefer the “safe” games where the Bison score early and often with little drama. He jokes they’re easier on his health and heart. Fortunately, it was an easy day for Ray and his heart. Lance Dunn’s second of four touchdowns (Dunn touched the ball four times against RMU, scoring every time) was quickly followed by a 23-yard interception return for a score by Tre Dempsey, giving the Bison a 21-0 lead less than seven minutes into the contest. Our table shares a good laugh when I tell Ray it looks like we were probably out of the woods after Dempsey’s score.
“To be able to watch a game with a group of people we’d never met, and feel that welcome, speaks to how special Bison Nation is. The strength of the Bison really is the Herd.”
Ray reminds me of my grandma in this regard, I tell him. During close games, Grandma Norma has been known to nervously pace the concourse of the Fargodome. Ray recalls games from the early 1960s when the Bison roamed at Dacotah Field, a time when his contemporaries who played would come straight from harvest the day before practice started. While things have changed quite a bit since then, Bison Pride has remained constant, and the fact Ray has diligently followed this team for half a century, even though he hasn’t lived in North Dakota for most of those years, is a testament to that. Thanks for making us feel welcome, Ray.
A couple named Kevin and Kathy are across the table from us. They’re farmers from the Pekin, North Dakota area, and have just finished a motorcycle trip to Vegas where they store their bikes for the winter. I hear them mention soybeans, which spurs a discussion on how the soybeans look this fall as my dad, Pa Swany, sells soybeans from his bean plant in Maddock, North Dakota. After Dunn’s third touchdown of the half, Kevin jokingly tells me that the group usually takes a shot after every Bison touchdown. Well, when in Rome. Given the pace of the escalating score, everyone wisely passed on the shots. Notwithstanding, the talk and warm tailgating atmosphere continued until the final horn sounded.
Thanks for making us feel welcome, Kevin and Kathy. I should add, they’re looking forward to getting back to Frisco, Texas, where they’ve been to four of the five championship games. They’ve even got their hotel rooms booked for this January. Not a bad idea. Steve, like any good host, makes the rounds and settles in during the second half, telling us some of the biggest crowds at the Vegas watch party come later in the season when fall starts turning to winter. An annual highlight are games that fall over the National Finals Rodeo every December in Las Vegas, where Steve estimates northwards of 100 Bison fans show up. Thanks for making us feel welcome, Steve.
We may say “roam like its home,” but to that, I’ll add this. “Never roam alone!” To be able to watch a game with a group of people we’d never met, and feel that welcome, speaks to how special Bison Nation is. The strength of the Bison really is the Herd. I have a feeling Libby and I will be back to Las Vegas for another watch party at BJ’s Lounge, although next time it will probably be when the Bison are on the road. From Las Vegas, Arlington, Sioux Falls, Denver, Waterloo, to Fargo, and everywhere in between, everybody up for the kickoff, the march is on!