Of all the words spoken in the history of North Dakota State, one speech stands above the rest. Much like the Gettysburg Address occupies its own pantheon in our national consciousness, defining the meaning of the idea that is America, Mike Whetstone’s speech to the Bison football team on the eve of the 1988 national championship game is the declaration on what it means to be a Bison.
In December 1988, Whetstone, only five years removed from his playing days as an All-American offensive lineman for NDSU, was in a Fargo hospital, dying from cancer. Facing the end of his days here on earth, Whetstone was visited by the late Denis “Izzy” Isrow. Isrow was the team’s legendary athletic trainer, arriving with Darrell Mudra in 1963, and served in that capacity when Whetstone’s senior class won the school’s fourth national championship in 1983. Isrow was the first to use the phrases “Bison Pride” and “Once a Bison, always a Bison.” The father of Bison Pride watched as one of his players summed up, briefly, and beautifully, what Bison Pride meant to him.
In a September 2007 article for the Winona Daily News, Jim Kohner told the story behind the speech, 320-words that live on in every Bison that has ever played, that ever will play. When Isrow arrived, despite staring down his own mortality, Whetstone told Isrow they had to get the players more upbeat for the championship game. “He started telling me all this stuff about Bison Pride, and I told him he should talk to the players,” said Isrow, describing the moment to Kohner.
Kohner goes on to explain that after Isrow left the hospital, he called then head coach Rocky Hager, telling Hager to take a tape recorder and go visit Whetstone. Hager did, recounting the experience. “We had a struggle in our quarterfinal game and we were going up against Sacramento State in the semifinals,” Hager said. “I got (the recording) from him and I felt it was too emotional for us at that point. I chose to take it along and played it the Friday night before the national championship game.”
Whetstone’s words made an immediate impact on Hager. “The things that he talked about were the importance of being part of a team, about not being cocky, and about having respect for your opponents. The first time I listened to it, I cried my eyes out. The second, third and fourth time I played it, I cried my eyes out. Mike was getting down there. It was one of the last things he could do.”
What a powerful message. Just pause to think about it for a minute. If your time was that limited, death drawing ever near, what would you want to talk about? Whetstone chose to deliver a message to his team; a message about Bison Pride. That message, Whetstone’s speech, along with his photo, are displayed on a plaque in the Bison locker room at the FargoDome. The speech is reprinted here in its entirety:
“Sometimes the amazing thing is I don’t know what Bison Pride is myself, anyone who has been a Bison or will be a Bison will someday relate to what I’m saying. To me, Bison Pride is not necessarily running around, being rah, rah, and jumping up and down. It’s more of a feeling you have knowing that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. No one person is Bison Pride. It takes 48 tough bastards if you’re in the playoffs and it takes 75 tough bastards during the regular season. It takes the players and coaches working together for a common good.
Deep down, Bison Pride is the love we have for each other. I have noticed over the years that my true friends, my true life, everything revolves around Bison players and Bison people. I have friends outside of football, but, for the most part, everything comes back to football, Bison football.
The amazing thing that I have found in the last six months since discovering cancer is that people who have rallied around me the most are the Bison players and Bison alumni. I had former players come down to Rochester to visit me in the hospital – they traveled 300 miles just to visit me. I had friends from high school who were 20 miles away, and they didn’t visit me. They just called on the phone.
I guess to me that is what Bison Pride is all about, everybody looking out for each other. The strength of the Herd is in the Bison and the strength of the Bison is in the Herd. Bison Pride is knowing that everybody is looking out for everyone else.
I want every Bison that’s ever been involved in the program to know I love them. Kick some butt this weekend. We can’t let those California people think they’re better than us.
Go out there and get ‘em, guys.”
NDSU went on to beat Portland State 35-21 for their seventh national championship, the fourth title in six years, in what would be known as “The Decade of the Bison.” During the game, the Bison wore pieces of tape with the words “Stone” or “MW” on their uniforms as a tribute to Whetstone. After the game, in an interview with The Register-Guard, a Eugene, Ore., newspaper, senior wide receiver Jeff Johnson described the tribute. “Everyone really cares for him a lot and wanted to show him how much we love him.” Three days after the victory, Whetstone fell to cancer. He was only 28 years old.
Whetstone’s words are his legacy to the program and the university he cared for so much. They have stood the test of time, and continue to inspire generations of players, long after the speech. In 272 words, Lincoln set forth, for the ages, as one writer has described it, “the authoritative expression of the American spirit.” So too, in 320 words, did Whetstone set forth, for the ages, the authoritative expression of Bison Pride. “It was a tremendous motivational speech,” Isrow told Kohner. “We all said the same thing afterward – he stayed alive long enough to be part of this championship team.”
Everyone up for the kickoff, the march is on.[/text_output]