It was mid-November, back in 1997. The Maddock A.S. Gibbens FFA Chapter was on our way back home from the National FFA Convention in Kansas City, Missouri, the former longtime home of the organization’s national convention. It just so happened that North Dakota State was playing the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, a few miles off I-29, while we were passing through.
Prior to the convention, our FFA advisor, Dennis Wutzke, might have tipped off two of his sophomores that bled the FFA’s blue and yellow, and NDSU’s green and yellow, that on the return trip, if we stayed in Vermillion, we could go to the Bison game. That explains why yours truly and my twin brother, Justin, now a development officer with NDSU’s College of Agriculture, had our “Thundering Herd” Bison flag with the iconic snorty logo on that trip. We used to tape this iconic flag to the railing in front of our first row seats at the Fargodome around the 15-yard line on the home sideline from the inaugural season at the Dome in 1993 through 1996 when we moved back a few rows.
The game was a must-win for the Bison. The Herd entered the contest against USD with a 6-2 record in the North Central Conference (8-2 overall). For the record, this was Bob Babich’s first year as head coach, when NDSU beat the University of North Dakota at Memorial Stadium in Grand Forks in the infamous “Bob’s Got Balls Game,” where Babich boldly opened the second half with an onside kick that NDSU recovered en route to a smashing 31-10 win. The Bison stumbled the following weekend in Brookings and needed to win their last three games for even a shot at the Division II playoffs.
The FFA group from Maddock sat in the old bleachers at the Dakota Dome, right by USD’s band and well inebriated student section, consisting of a collective sad sack of diehard ‘Yotes fans. At the time, a couple of naïve boys from Maddock didn’t fully understand or appreciate the ways of the world, or college football tailgating. Nor did we understand that rifling off sarcastic remarks and insults with a group of drunk college students, who spent all afternoon at Main Street Pub in downtown Vermillion, was not as funny to them as it was to us.
A trombone player for USD opened his spit valve on Justin’s head after a particularly caustic remark from the Swanson brothers. Wutzke kept a close eye on us, but probably figured it was a good lesson in humility as we tempered our remarks as the game wore on—although he did help us make a primitive flag pole from some PVC piping, or a broom handle we took from our motel, for the game.
For much of the game, though, it didn’t matter all that much. USD took a lead and was in cruise control midway through the fourth quarter as NDSU’s playoff hopes were slipping into the cold South Dakota night. While I couldn’t find any box scores on the game on NDSU or USD’s website, if memory serves correct—and it should because I was too young to tailgate for the game, like I’d do with the Six Flags group in the grass fields outside the Dakota Dome some 17 years later (“Swany, you want a beer. No, it’s too early. We got IPAs. Pass one up.”)—the Bison trailed by two touchdowns, something like 21-7, and took possession with about 7:30 left in the game. The Bison offense was stagnant most of the night, and there wasn’t reason to suspect they were on the brink of an offensive explosion.
This is where things got interesting, and the night took a turn for the legendary on the Swany brother’s road to Bison fandom glory. Then quarterback Kevin Feeney marched the Herd down the field and scored to bring the Bison within a touchdown and overtime. The Thundering Herd flag started seeing its first prolonged action of the night. We waved it like a pirate flag unabashed, damn the torpedoes full speed ahead, in the enemy’s midst. Remember, this was a must-win. If the Bison lost, they’d have no shot at the playoffs.
I don’t remember specifically if it was an onside kick or the Bison defense that got a stop and the ball back to the offense, that set the stage. Nonetheless, with only a handful of minutes on the clock, the Bison went to work. With around a minute left in the game, NDSU tied the game 21–21, setting up overtime. The Swany brothers amplified our efforts in the face of the USD student section and band onslaught, waiving our Thundering Herd flag high and mightily, with the snorty logo omnipresent in the ‘Yotes fans mugs.
USD got the ball first in the extra session. Again, if memory serves correct, the ‘Yotes managed to move the ball inside NDSU’s two-yard line with a first-and goal. It looked like they’d punch ahead by a touchdown. But then they didn’t. The Bison defense, which included Maddock native Mikel Kallenbach at safety, kept USD out of the end zone. They lined up for the equivalent of a two-foot putt field goal, but the kicker pushed it wide. The Bison were now an overtime score away from the playoffs. Much like USD, NDSU moved the ball to the doorstep of the end zone, but couldn’t get the game-winning touchdown. And, like the ‘Yotes only moments earlier, lined up for a chip shot field goal. Unlike USD, the Bison kicker snuck the game-winner just inside the left upright.
Pandemonium. At least for the Swany brothers and the Bison sideline. Without any discussion or debate, Justin and I stormed the field and started proudly waving that Thundering Herd flag. Not one of our smarter decisions, sure, but what were we supposed to do, just sit there? Before you could make an option pitch to the trailing tailback, we were literally on the turf, surrounded by angry USD students reeking of cheap schnapps who tried grabbing us, and our flag. Uh oh. Someone get the ice packs, the odds were not in our favor.
It looked like along with the Bison victory, the two loudest NDSU fans inside the Dakota Dome that night were about to receive a good, and arguably deserved, lesson in Vermillion justice. That is until our FFA advisor, the aforementioned Dennis Wutzke suddenly emerged in the middle of the fray and put the fear of Jesus into those USD students. I mean he cowered them, getting in their faces so fast they had that deer in the headlights look, it was full-on shock and awe.
Maybe it was Wutzke’s allegiance or fandom to NDSU. Or, maybe it was not wanting to deal with the headache of taking two of his more boisterous students on the way home from the National FFA Convention to the local hospital after getting mauled.
That Thundering Herd flag now proudly hangs in my garage, almost three decades after Justin and I pooled our money together and went halfsies on it sometime back in the early 1990s at the Varity Mart. Every time I see that flag, I chuckle thinking about the time it almost led to the Swany brothers getting into a fight on the Dakota Dome turf in Vermillion, only to be saved by our FFA advisor.
Maybe one day we’ll learn our lesson.
Everybody up for the kickoff, the march is on!