Photos special to Bison Illustrated
The importance of the Bison family hit home talking to Jeff and Amy McKinnon. Listening to their story the Friday of homecoming week at Herd and Horns – as detailed earlier in this magazine, and Jeff’s battle with multiple myeloma, a form of blood cancer – was a testament to the truths that serve as the bedrock of Bison Pride. One of the things Jeff mentioned was that his head coach, Rocky Hager, reached out after learning about the cancer diagnosis. If there were a Mount Rushmore for North Dakota State football, Rocky would be on it. It’s not because of the two national championships Hager won in undefeated seasons in 1988 and 1990, or the two more he won as an assistant coach in 1985 and 1986. No, it was the fiery and unapologetic way Rocky cared about NDSU and the Bison. He never shied away from that passion. The core of that passion was how much Hager cared for his players.
Jump online and google “Football America Documentary NDSU.” A ten-minute clip of TNT’s mid-1990s documentary on the North Dakota State versus University of North Dakota rivalry comes up. Seconds into the video, there’s an indelible image of snow fiercely howling across a frigid Dacotah Field. And then Hager’s voice. “It’s good Bison weather. Ask me where the perfect place to be buried would be, on Dacotah Field on the 50-yard line.” These days, Hager is the special teams coordinator and linebackers coach for The College of New Jersey, a Division III program in the Trenton suburb of Ewing, New Jersey. Hager was responsible for my twin brother, Justin, and myself being “hired” as ball boys for his football team in the 1990s. For four years, every home game, we paced the sidelines during Bison games at the Fargodome tossing game balls into the officials each play.
We were ball boys when McKinnon was a linebacker. McKinnon knew that because his friend and college teammate, Mikel Kallenbach, is from the same town as we are – Maddock, N.D. Life has a funny way of people crossing paths. Maybe things like that happen for a reason. The reason the Swany brothers are so heavily invested in and care about NDSU traces its roots to a meeting with Hager setup by Paul Tefft. The reason the McKinnons are so heavily invested in and care about NDSU traces its roots to Jeff being recruited by Hager. The reason the three of us are sitting at a sports bar called Herd & Horns is because of Hager.
When McKinnon told me that Rocky reached out and connected with him upon learning of his cancer diagnosis, it didn’t surprise me. You could hear the respect and love in McKinnon’s voice when talking about his head coach. While Hager hasn’t coached the Bison since 1996, his love for his former players and this program remains strong. Rocky will always be a Bison, and will always be a central figure to the program’s unparalleled success. You can’t tell the story of NDSU Football without a significant chapter on Rocky and what he means to this university. On a Monday morning in late September, with his team on a bye week, Rocky and I visited on the phone. We talked about McKinnon, his former players, and the Bison. “The ties are very strong from the Bison days, in particular when I get news that someone is going through a difficulty, mostly dealing with health,” said Hager explaining why he reached out to McKinnon.
It instantly brought to mind one of the truths that are accepted as a self-evident principle of Bison culture since it was brought here by Dennis “Izzy” Isrow when he arrived in 1963 from Adams State (Colorado) with Darrel Mudra. In a 2012 interview with Bison Illustrated, only months before his death, Isrow described Bison Pride. “It’s not one little word. It’s not one little thing. The things that are important, as a statement, are ‘Once a Bison, Always a Bison.’ Tradition. We don’t have to talk about tradition. We know what it is. Maybe somebody can’t explain it, but it has meaning to it. It’s part of your life.” The Bison Football Players Association rallying around the McKinnons. Hager calling Jeff to listen and offer his support. That is Bison Pride. That is Once a Bison, Always a Bison.
“Together, we are the Bison family. When one of us needs help, we respond. From the head coach on down.”
When analysts ponder how North Dakota State has won six of the last seven FCS national championships, fourteen total national championships and 34 conference titles, this is the answer. Isrow was right. It’s not easily defined or explained, but it’s there. Easton Stick and Nick DeLuca both talked about it after winning last year’s championship against James Madison. “It’s not just the past six or seven years,” said Stick. “It’s been going on for a long time. We’re all very fortunate to be at this place.” It’s been here going back to the days of Isrow, continuing through the days of Hager and thriving today under head coach Chris Klieman. Hearing the McKinnons talk about how this community and the Bison Family rallying to their support says everything you need to know about Bison Pride. That Bison Pride, that love, is behind every year stitched on the championship banners inside the Fargodome, and in every heart at the tailgating lots on game days. Amy described it as 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.”
Hager recruited Jeff to play for the Bison, and remembers sitting down with his parents in Wahpeton, North Dakota, and making a promise all the way back in 1992. “When I sat down with Jeff, and his mom and dad, and had a cup of coffee and a roll, I told mom and dad that I’d take care of him the same way I’d want my son taken care of,” said Hager. How many coaches would remember that promise 26 years later, thousands of miles removed, and make sure his former player knew that he was there when he was embarking on his toughest fight yet. “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 the 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.”
Together, we are the Bison Family. When one of us needs help, we respond. From the head coach on down. Whether it’s the McKinnons, or somebody else, we’re there for each other. And we’ll continue to be there for each other. Because Once a Bison, Always a Bison. That means something. It means everything. Everybody up for the kickoff, the march is on!