Football

Run, Easton, Run

Ross Uglem sits down for one final interview with Bison quarterback Easton Stick before he steps into the professional ranks.

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Photo By J. Alan Paul Photography

After speaking to Easton Stick, it’s clear that he and I agree on one very important thing: wins are not a quarterback stat. Wins are an accomplishment shared by the entire team and shouldn’t be credited to the quarterback any more than they are placed next to the name of the left guard.

Wins, though, are what will forever be associated with Easton Stick’s name. Easton started for 49 North Dakota State victories. That, of course, is one more than Brock Jensen, NDSU’s QB from 2010-2013, achieved. NDSU even published a graphic on social media commemorating the achievement.  

“I just feel so fortunate to have been a part of that program. It has been a place that has won championships and won football games for a really long time. You go out to the walkthrough on Friday afternoon before Frisco, and you see 200+ guys that have done it,” Stick said. “They get a chance to address us, and we get a chance to mingle and talk and to tell stories. Just to be a part of it was unbelievable. I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.”

It is that humility, that selflessness, which should ultimately define Stick’s time with the Bison. No matter how many individual accomplishments were stacked one on top of the next, it was always about the team. It was always about what could be done to prepare to put himself and the Bison in a position to win on Saturdays.

Stick’s NDSU interest started at a very convenient time for the university. Bison head coach Craig Bohl, at the time, had assembled what many consider to be the greatest FCS team of all time.    

“For me, it was winning championships in ‘11 and ‘12. I took my first visit up in Fargo [during ‘13] and found out that they’d been winning championships since the ‘60s,” Stick said. “I learned about the unbelievable support that the program gets from the community, and I watched them beat Kansas State on TV. It was just an awesome opportunity for me.”

Stick, at the time, and arguably to this day, was NDSU’s greatest recruiting victory of all time. Easton had an offer to play in the Big 10 at Rutgers, and after head coach Craig Bohl accepted the same position at Wyoming of the Mountain West, Stick certainly had an open door to be a Cowboy as well.

Stick chose to remain committed to Conor Riley, Randy Hedberg and Chris Klieman and remain loyal to the Bison.

“I think the biggest thing was that I got a chance to know coach Klieman as soon as he got to be the head coach… Once I was around those guys, regardless of what else was going to happen, I wanted to be in Fargo,” he said. “Chase Morlock and Christian Dudzik were guys that showed me around. When I woke up that Sunday morning, I told my parents, ‘We’re good. We don’t need to look anywhere else.’”

It was clear early on that not only was this kid from Omaha highly touted, he was as advertised.

“He was being recruited my junior year. When the Bohl departure happened, he was a key recruit to keep. He took his official visit, and I was his host,” said former Bison safety and fellow product of Omaha Christian Dudzik. “I remember seeing a sign at one of our playoff games, Easton Stick Picks NDSU – ESPN – and I had never seen that for a recruit. He’s a big-time talent. I had a little bit of pressure on me to host him. He played scout team quarterback (his first year). I could tell why he was highly recruited. He ran really well, he cut really well and he had a really good arm. There was a number of occasions that he would tear us up.”

His position coach Randy Hedberg could see it, too.

“He was with us in the summer, but NCAA rules don’t allow us much contact in the summer,” Hedberg said. “You could see the ball come out of his hand pretty quick, and it had some velocity on it.”

North Dakota State did something a little unique with Stick. Despite the clear desire to redshirt him, Easton traveled with the team and was in full uniform for every game as a true freshman. The NCAA didn’t have their “four game” rule during Stick’s first year, and Carson Wentz was never injured. It was a year to learn and a year to get physically ready for college football, nothing more.

“It was an unbelievable experience for me. To be on the plane, understand what that mentality is about. My first road trip was to Iowa State. Seeing how Kyle and Carson and Duds and Heags [Colten Heagle] and what you did at the pregame meal, what you did after meetings, going into Saturday morning. Building a routine. My next year came, and I knew what it looked like and I was able to help the other freshman,” said Easton. “Being around Carson was huge for me.”

The last statement is always part of the deal. Stick is now, and will forever be linked to former number two overall draft pick Carson Wentz.

Because of the circus that surrounded Wents’z path to the draft, his winning the starting job and setting Eagles records as a rookie and his charge to MVP consideration as a second-year player, there was no discussion or interview of Stick that didn’t in some way involve Wentz.

“What did you learn from Carson?”

“What did Carson teach you about preparation?”

“Did you talk to Carson this week”

“How was Carson’s wedding?”

When I asked, Easton couldn’t recall a single interview during his time as a starter at North Dakota State that he did not discuss his predecessor. It’s understandable, certainly. The Bison had never produced the second pick in the draft, much less a starting NFL quarterback. It would have been also understandable if Stick didn’t handle Carson’s shadow very well.

For every Aaron Rodgers (Favre) and Steve Young (Montana), there are more than a handful of Bubby Bristers (Elway), Jay Fiedlers (Marino) and Quincy Carters (Aikman).

“I’m really fortunate to have played with Carson. It was such a huge blessing for me to play with him and to learn from him. I think we’ll always be tied together, especially with what happened his last year being my first opportunity. I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything,” he said. “I’m really fortunate to have played with him and to be able to call him a friend. To see the way he worked and the way that he treated people, I am just fortunate enough to have been around him.”

It’s never fun to be the guy after the guy. As much as Easton credits Wentz for his understanding of the game and his progression as a quarterback, Wentz owes Stick just as much. Without the flawless nine-game run that Stick and the Bison went on, there would’ve been no 2015 championship game. People sometimes forget that that team had already lost two games with Wentz as a starter.

Stick led the Bison to five straight victories and a top-three seed in the FCS tournament. Richmond defeated Illinois State in the quarterfinals, which meant that NDSU hosted all three playoff games. Stick and the Thundering Herd took care of business all three times, winning by an average of more than 22 points per game. That run, coupled with the three-week break between the semifinals and championship game allowed Wentz to return to the Herd. Wentz’s performance in the championship game ignited the fire that became the frenzy surrounding his draft stock.

Stick views that freshman season as a huge part of his development and growth.

“It played a huge part in my development. The big thing for me is that I was confident in what I could do. When I got my opportunity, I was going to be ready to go. I saw how Carson prepared, I saw how the seniors prepared. If I followed that process, I would be in the position to go out on Saturdays to be myself, cut it loose and play,” he said. “The opportunity came a lot sooner than I thought, and kind of in crappy circumstances, but I was fired up. It helped me a lot going into the next offseason, knowing that I was going to be the guy now.”

The following season seemed like it was going to script. North Dakota State was a one-loss team heading into the playoffs and were cruising right along. James Madison was the number five seed, rolling into to town for the semifinals, but that wasn’t anything new. CAA teams had been to the ‘Dome in the playoffs before, and those games all followed a similar script. Fast forward three quarters and 13 minutes, and the Bison were down ten and Stick was struggling to jump-start the two-minute offense. It never happened and NDSU lost. In the playoffs.

The crowd was stunned. The seniors were devastated. The fans, to their credit, gave the group a standing ovation for all they had accomplished during the “five-peat,” but the streak was over.

“We went through a season, and for the first time for everyone in that locker room, didn’t win a national championship. We felt what it was like, that feeling that your last game of the season was a loss. It was at home, and we didn’t send the seniors out the way they deserved to be sent out. That feeling really sucked, and we didn’t want to go through that again,” said Stick.

They wouldn’t.

“Guys were motivated because they didn’t want to feel that again. That offseason, you could tell. There was a fire lit under guys, and we had such a great senior class going into that ‘17 season. They really led the way and made sure there was no letup.”

Stick made a marked improvement from his sophomore year to his junior season. His yards per attempt jumped from 8.1 to 9.3. Completion percentage jumped from 59 percent to 62. His touchdown to interception ratio rose from 19:9 to 28:8 and his rushing TD output nearly doubled from 7 to 12. He was a different player.

The Bison were a different team, too. They kicked off that season by scoring 72 points and followed that up by obliterating an Eastern Washington team that had taken them to overtime in their own building a season before. The Bison had their customary one loss at South Dakota State, but that 7-1 league mark was good enough for another Missouri Valley Football Conference title. The Bison BLEW through the playoffs to set up another shot at James Madison.

“To that point, that was the most fun that I have had playing. Everyone will tell you that. When you’re a starter, it’s a bit different. Being out there on Saturdays is a different feeling. For me, it wasn’t about revenge or anything like that. It was about what I had to do and what we had to do as a team to make sure we were successful in Frisco that season,” Stick explained.

NDSU would exorcise their purple and gold demons. The Bison defeated James Madison in Frisco by a score of 17-13. Stick had a rushing touchdown and a beautiful passing touchdown to his friend and roommate, Darrius Shepherd. The Bison were national champions once again, and Stick was named the game’s Most Outstanding Player. A fitting end to a driven season.

“The narrative of it and the feeling of it afterwards was maybe cooler because it was James Madison. Plus, it was my first opportunity to be a starter in that game. Afterwards, as I reflected on it, that feeling was pretty special, but leading up to it, it was just like another game.”

It didn’t take long for foolish prognosticators like myself to point out two things. One, that North Dakota State was bringing a lot back, and that with a relatively easy non-conference schedule, they had a real chance at an undefeated season. Two, that NFL scouts were going to start paying attention to the kid from Omaha.

“Guys understood even after we won in January. There was a pretty strong feeling that this could be a really special group. There was a ton of guys coming back, a ton of experience, and we had some really talented young guys. If we could get them to work like the other guys have in the past, we’ve got a chance to be really special. It was just such a tight senior class, so we had no problem challenging one another. The relationship with our class and the juniors and sophomores,” said Stick.

Stick described the goal ultimately being set at a dinner at Chris Klieman’s house: “We sat there as a senior class, and it was something that coach did every summer. We were going through the goals of our season and what we wanted to accomplish, and it ended on this ‘mic drop’ moment. We said we wanted to be perfect. We want to be a national championship undefeated football team, and we want to be talked about as one of the greatest teams ever. It was cool to voice what a lot of guys had thought since January. The best part about it was that everyone understood that you weren’t just going to show up tomorrow and accomplish that goal,” said Stick.

That’s quite the goal to set. Football’s a difficult game, and there had really only been four teams prior to that season that had gone undefeated and claimed the national title. Eastern Kentucky in 1982, 1989’s Georgia Southern, Randy Moss’ 1996 Marshall team and, of course, the legendary 2013 Bison accomplished the feat. Stick and his teammates were attempting to enter very, very rarefied air.

As mentioned before, the non-conference slate didn’t offer much of a challenge, and North Dakota State was not challenged by it. They won three home contests by an average of 35 points. 

It was during that non-conference slate that Stick was named to the AFCA’s Good Works team. Stick was one of 22 recipients of the award, and it was presented to him at the Sanford Children’s hospital. Stick was active in the Student-Athlete Advisory Council at North Dakota State, and he spent time with the North Dakota Special Olympics, Make-A-Wish, the YMCA and numerous other charitable causes in the FM area.

“He’s tremendous. He’s extremely courteous. He’s extremely honest, he’s very appreciative of what people have done and will do for him and he acknowledges. I’ve mentioned this to his mom and dad: they raised a fine young man. He’s going to be a great contributor to whomever drafts or signs him as a professional athlete. That’s the thing you appreciate about him. It’s not very often you get the opportunity to be on the Good Works team. There are things that he did that didn’t get publicity. He’s done so many things when the camera wasn’t there,” explained coach Hedberg.

The rest of the season was a tour de force for Stick and the Bison.

North Dakota State indeed finished with an undefeated record. They reclaimed the Dakota Marker, then defeated South Dakota State again, just for good measure. They were unchallenged Missouri Valley Football Conference champions. NDSU’s eight consecutive conference titles are a league record.

“There were very few bad days if any,” quipped Stick.

Stick himself was a Walter Payton Award Finalist. Stick chose to forego the award ceremony to prepare for the national championship game. Though Stick was not chosen as the award’s winner, his head coach Chris Klieman maintained that he was not only the best player in FCS but in college football. He saw statistical jumps in nearly all categories, and the Bison used his arm to force the ball vertically down the field when they weren’t jamming it down the opponent’s throat.

Despite the lack of individual recognition, Stick finished a career that is unquestionably in the conversation for greatest Bison of all time. In this day and age of social media and televised debate shows, the “GOAT” conversation happens almost daily and is almost always foolish, but there can be no discussion without including Stick. Running, throwing, winning, leading. He did it all.

As might be expected, Stick not only sharpened his craft, but he imparted everything that he could on his younger teammates in the quarterback room. It didn’t go unnoticed.

“This is a charge I gave Easton back in the spring. One role I wanted him to have was to share his knowledge with those three guys. He did that, and he was very upfront with them. I told them after the South Dakota State playoff game that you guys have three weeks with this young man, then it’ll come to an end on January 5. When that day comes, he’s not going to be in that room anymore. I thought he did a great job with that role; he took that role and he ran with it. He’d have breakfast with those guys, every day at 7 a.m. It wasn’t just football stuff with him, either. He shared his faith, that’s very important to him. He shared with them that they had to give back. Those are things that Easton’s left with those three young guys,” said Coach Hedberg.

That’s the type of player Stick was and will continue to be. It wasn’t enough that he played well on Saturdays or that he spent endless hours watching film preparing to win on Saturdays. He needed to make sure that his young teammates were ready to take the ball and run with it after he’d gone. It’s an old North Dakota State mantra, but it’s a good one: “the team, the team, the team.”

It’s not easy to get Easton Stick to talk about himself. When pressed to finally send a message to the NFL teams that might have an interest, Stick summed himself up and his career at North Dakota State quite nicely.

“Number one, I’m a winner. I’ve been fortunate to be a part of a lot of winning teams and a lot of winning programs. More importantly, I’ve learned the process of winning. There’s a process to getting there, and there are steps that you’ve got to take every single day. You have to learn to prepare. When game time comes, I’m ready to go. I think our track record in Fargo and as a player, myself speaks for itself. I can take what I learned in Fargo and bring it to a team in the NFL. I’ll be a really good teammate and I’m gonna take that opportunity and run with it.”

Run, Easton. Run.

Run, Easton, Run
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