When the University of North Dakota’s All-American linebacker Mike Mooney stripped the football away from North Dakota State University’s Jason Miller to end an unforgettable 12-game losing streak, James Cheatham was standing on the sidelines remembering what was said before the iconic game.
“I can just remember going into that game knowing that this was our game. We had a good scheme and we had great players,” the former UND free safety said. “Mooney, being the great linebacker he was, he wasn’t the biggest guy, but he was definitely the smartest, tough-nosed, an opportunist if you will. And a great example of him being smart and having the presence of mind to see an opportunity that actually really changed the face of the game, but also changed the face of what the upcoming relationship would be between NDSU and UND football.”
After playing for UND from 1992-96, it was James Cheatham that held the upper hand over his brother Jerome Cheatham, who played for NDSU from 1993-97. James Cheatham claimed superiority over his little brother with a 4-1 record against NDSU.
James Cheatham was a two-time All-American safety in 1994 and 1996 and Jerome Cheatham was putting together a solid cornerback career at NDSU that culminated into him being selected as a team captain in 1997.
“In 1993, I was a redshirt freshman. I started the last 2-3 games that year,” Jerome Cheatham said. “Then, in 1997, about a week and a half before our first game when I was a senior, I tore my Achilles. I didn’t play my senior year (and) I was already done with school and so I just finished my grad school and I didn’t come back. I could’ve medical redshirted, but I decided not to.”
With both Cheathams on defense, the two rarely shared the field at the same time. But James Cheatham said he did have a chance to tackle his brother during one UND-NDSU game.
“He was returning a kickoff and I was on the kickoff team, and he was being tackled kind of off the field and I just nudged him a little bit,” James Cheatham chuckled.
Jerome Cheatham was exposed to the UND-NDSU rivalry when he was a senior in high school and James Cheatham was playing for UND. Jerome Cheatham would watch his older brother play, and all he could do was wait until the next year when he would have a chance to be a part of the in-state rivalry.
“There’s no way to anticipate it when you’re actually involved in it,” Jerome Cheatham said about the games against UND. “I could tell you that our practices were intense, and I’m not sure if I would capture the level of intensity and focus that you had going into that week.”
Many videos, books, photos and articles about the rivalry attempted to capture the intensity that ensued when UND clashed against NDSU. It lived up to its title as the biggest rivalry in Division II.
“To know that the entire state comes to a standstill to really watch that game, and I say that lightly about coming to a standstill, but as a player, you really felt like the entire state was watching,” James Cheatham said.
The population of North Dakota sits at 739,482, with half the state split in half with loyalties to UND and the other half cheering for NDSU, which does lead to a fair share of trash talk.
While the fans were chirping at the players during warm-ups and throughout the game, James and Jerome Cheatham had their own unique moments during every meeting between the two teams.
James Cheatham said during warm- ups he and his brother would run down to their opponent’s end zone and just breathe in the atmosphere during a matchup between the two rival schools.
“My parents have pictures of us standing in one another’s end zones,” said James Cheatham, whose 12 pass breakups in 1994 ranks second in single-season history at UND. “When you think about it, how many times in a normal game do you see another player from the other team and more-or-less your rival walk to the other teams end zone, while other players are around and no one said too much about it because we were brothers. I’m sure they accepted it, but it was unique in that aspect.”
And when the two brothers come back for the first game in 12 years between the rival schools, there will be more trash talk throughout the stands between the two.
It’ll be the first time James Cheatham has been back to North Dakota since he graduated in 1996, Jerome Cheatham said.
“It’s going to be special for a number of reasons,” James Cheatham said. “I haven’t been back and then to go back to this game and I’m going back with my brother so there’s going to be a lot of trash talking among us and whoever is around us. So, yeah, it’ll feel like another game to whoever’s around us in the stands.”