Photo By Hillary Ehlen
There aren’t a lot of Bison over the course of history that we know by a nickname. Sure, people called Ben Woodside “Woody”, but that’s a play on his last name. Carson, Brock, Easton, those are guys that have achieved a first name basis with Bison fans, but they aren’t really locked in with a nickname.
Craig “Iron Head” Hayward. “The Gravedigger” Gilbert Brown. Raghib “Rocket” Ismail. Red Grange was the “Galloping Ghost.” It’s not always the best college football players that end up known by a nickname, but the most legendary ones. If there’s one thing that James Hendricks is at North Dakota State, it’s legendary.
James Hendricks was a multiple sport athlete growing up in Bemidji Minnesota. Troy Hendricks, James’ father, was the coach at Bemidji High School after a successful career of his own at Minnesota State Moorhead, ending with an NFL opportunity with the Seahawks.
“I love football. My dad, he obviously played in college, got a chance in the pros a little bit with the Seahawks, but we were a football family. It’s what we did. Way back in the day I could always remember backyard football games. Primarily he got into coaching again when I was in 7th grade, my brother was a sophomore. He played quarterback for those three years before I played quarterback for three years. I was around it so much. I was around the game; I was watching film as a 7th grader. It was just my passion and it grew, and it became my passion really fast when I was in the 7th grade,” Hendricks told Bison Illustrated.
The young QB had a stellar athletic career at Bemidji, but the timing wasn’t great for coming to North Dakota State. Hendricks was a part of the high school class of 2015. In 2014, North Dakota State received a commitment from the most decorated high school quarterback in their history: Easton Stick. Stick chose North Dakota State over some major offers, and in the process sent a big-time message that NDSU was going to be his program sooner rather than later.
The Bison weren’t looking that hard for a quarterback in 2015, and high-profile quarterbacks weren’t giving them much of a look, either.
“I remember the first day, my dad said coach Hedberg had given him a call. I think it was just when they became apart of the staff after Bohl left and Klieman brought in a new staff. He just said, you know, Hedberg gave him a call and said he’s interested in getting me up there for a junior day and kinda had communication with coach Hedberg from then on through my senior year,” Hendricks explains. “I was primarily getting talked to by NSIC schools and I had turned some away right away. I told Bemidji State just from being from a small town I didn’t want to be stuck in Bemidji my whole life, I wanted to get out. That’s why I was primarily looking at Moorhead State, Duluth and a little bit of St. Cloud State, a little bit of Mankato and quickly that kind of dwindled down to Duluth.”
In a sort it’s-a-small-world scenario, Hendricks was actually recruited to Duluth by two current Bison coaches. NDSU running backs coach Dan Larson was the offensive coordinator, and Noah Pauley his receivers coach.
“Yeah and I loved the staff. We got two of them now that were on that staff. Got their past two OC’s, but they were both recruiting me. That was kind of the running joke this year that all three of us ended up in a better place. Coach Larson was the OC and coach Pauley was the receiver’s coach. He ended his playing career not too long before that. So I really like that staff and the communication with NDSU as the recruiting went on, I wasn’t really getting talked to too seriously by NDSU and maybe that is just because obviously, they’re busy, but I was by Duluth. I committed to them pretty early and I was like, ‘this is the place I wanna go, I want to be done with the recruiting process’. Duluth is an awesome area and it’s a really good program,” Hendricks said.
“Right when I did that Coach Hedberg gave me a call and he was like, ‘we were gonna offer you in the future’ and I was like, well darn it I should’ve waited maybe or wish I would’ve been told. I allowed them to keep communication. Some things went how they did with guys committing other places and that really allowed me a spot in the quarterback room at NDSU and they offered me and I came on a visit here and I immediately switched my commitment just because I knew,” he said. “My host was a guy from Bemidji but really my host was Easton. I really got to know him over that visit. I got to know Hedberg, Klieman and the staff, and just kinda was around the guys and was just like, you know this is the place I want to be. It’s a no-brainer. From then on, it was kinda, all the rest was history.”
Hendricks then decommitted from Duluth and chose to be a Bison. Breaking his commitment wasn’t easy or fun.
“I know I felt horrible right away just because I had a really good relationship with coach Wiese. I thought he was an unbelievable guy. I was really excited to play for him. He’s still the head coach there. But no, it’s a really unfortunate situation because you kind of grow relationships with these guys and then you gotta say goodbye to one of them and probably won’t ever talk to him again. It was really exciting at the same time just because I knew that I was kind of living out a dream,” Hendricks said. “I remember leaving junior day from NDSU and saying, ‘you know it would be really cool to play there’. I don’t know if I’m going to get that opportunity. I just remember that day being, ‘wow this place is really cool’ and knowing I was committing to playing football there was, I mean here now but, it was a crazy feeling. I was kind of living out a dream.”
Hendricks then walked into a heckuva quarterback room. Carson Wentz was eventually drafted number two overall by the Philadelphia Eagles and is now a perennial NFL MVP candidate. Cole Davis is now the Director of Development at Wentz’s Audience of One Foundation. Easton Stick (should have won) was a finalist for the Walter Payton Award and ultimately became a mid-round pick of the Los Angeles Chargers.“I had known Easton from my visit and I was really excited because I knew he was an unbelievable dude, great to hang out with. I was anticipating, you know, I knew this group was pretty special and the first day of the summer, I remember throwing with him after one of our running workouts and I was like, ‘this Carson dude is different’. Just watching him throw it I was like, holy cow. So it was right from there I knew this group was ridiculously good and talented, but they were better people than anybody I’ve met,” Hendricks said of the quarterback room. “They were just unbelievable leaders, that came from Carson and he had kind of showed Cole and Easton the ropes already and he was doing that to me as well and I just knew that Cole and Easton were great people too and they were gonna battle it out for the backup spot. It was a really good room to be in and I think that’s where most of my growth as a man and as a person came from those first two years in that room just because of how good of people those three were and obviously coach Hedberg. It comes from the top. There was a lot of growth those first two years of me being in that room.”
Hendricks was then sent where most true freshman quarterbacks are sent: to the scout team. There’s no red don’t-hit-me jersey for the QB on that squad, either.
“No and I was getting hit. Ty [Brooks], and me, and Demaris Purifoy, and I remember Marquise [Bridges]. We were just grinding and that was what scout team is and you grow a lot and you get a lot tougher during that year. The first time I really got to play quarterback as an NDSU quarterback, not scout, was spring ball. I knew that I had the ability to compete for a backup spot. Just because Easton had gone 8-0, we knew that Easton would be the starter. I also knew that Cole Davis was a really good football player and I knew If I needed to play quarterback, I was gonna have to beat him out at backup,” Hendricks said.
“Going into fall camp, the next fall camp I didn’t really get an opportunity to compete. Cole was obviously head and shoulders above me and was a really good player and I went into fall camp making a stupid decision, got injured, wasn’t really able to compete during that fall camp. I really kind of lost trust from some coaches and players actually because I went into fall camp injured, doing something I shouldn’t. That second year was a really tough year because you had to be a third-string quarterback which isn’t easy unless you’re content with doing that, but I have always been a guy that played so it was definitely tough. I had constant conversations that whole second year with my parents, just saying, ‘what do I want to do?’ Do you want to be a backup until your senior year and possibly start for that one year? Do you want to transfer, and that was never really an option for me, but I knew that it could come to that or do I want to switch positions? By the end of that year, it came to be that it was obvious that I wanted to stay in the program, and it was obvious that I just didn’t want to stay in the program just as a backup,” he said. “I wanted to help the program move forward in a position that I can play. I went into coach Klieman’s office after the James Madison loss and we kind of both had safety in mind and we came out of that meeting with an agreement that we were going to do that for spring ball and the rest is history. I moved and I switched positions and tried to learn that as best I could”
That conversation with Chris Klieman ended up being the most important conversation of Hendricks’ career, and a key one in the history of North Dakota State football as well. Hendricks was moved to the defensive side of the ball. Specifically, he was moved to the safety room with All-Americans Tre Dempsey and Robbie Grimsley.
“That room was very talented. I’ll tell you what, coach Klanderman is probably one of the smartest dudes I’ve ever met. I learned so much from him. Most of what I know on defense came from coach Klanderman, I mean, that guy was brilliant. But yeah, I was being led by Tre and Robbie, I know Jaxon Brown was in that room, Eric Bachmeier. It was kind of us five, and I just got in there and, you know, if I was really gonna switch positions and do it I was gonna need to use my football IQ as an advantage because I was always able to learn things pretty fast,” Hendricks said. “I tried to pick Robbie’s mind more than anybody’s just because I knew I was going to strong safety and that’s where he had started for two years already so, picked his mind, met with coach Klanderman and it was just a really talented room with those three really. Robbie and Tre are two of NDSU’s best ever safeties and to be able to learn from them definitely helped me in the end of my career and coach Klanderman was obviously a big part of that too cause he was a brilliant football coach and that’s why he’s now at Kansas State.”
You see, part of the “legend” of Jimmy Football isn’t just that he made big plays, it’s that he played all over. James Hendricks is one of the smartest, most versatile players in NDSU football history. Not only did Hendricks learn multiple defensive spots, he also served as the team’s emergency third quarterback. We asked him how many spots he understood at least half of the playbook at, and the answer was astonishing:
“I think I could play quarterback; I think I could play receiver. I could do what I needed to do at running back but I’m probably not going to be good at running the ball, but no pretty much just those two on offense and I think I did play four positions on defense, probably three actually, but I think I could play where Jabril [Cox] plays. So both outside backers and both safeties,” he said.NDSU safeties coach and defensive coordinator Dave Braun couldn’t have been more impressed with Hendricks when arriving on campus after the transition between current Kansas State coach Chris Klieman and current NDSU head man Matthew Entz.
“You know, the first interaction with him was probably my second day on the job. He came up to the offices. I think he was visiting with coach Hedberg, catching up and just small talk. We got a chance to run into each other in the office and you could immediately tell that he was just, the way that he carried himself. A natural leader, passionate about the game of football and I think it was two days later, you know, he came back up to the office and he and I literally just pulled up cutups from the previous season and sat down. It wasn’t install, it wasn’t anything. We were just talking football. We were talking about how the offense was attacking us in this formation, and in this picture what we were trying to do. I just started asking him questions, I said, ‘James how have we played this coverage in the past? What communication goes on pre-snap? What do you like about it? What do you not like about it?’. You know, I felt like I was sitting in a room with a colleague just talking football, it was awesome,” Braun recalls.
“He and I did that a few times over the course of February and early March before spring ball. I did that with Tutsie, I did that with Josh Hayes, I did that with a lot of guys in the back half. Just trying to, more than anything else, acquaint myself with what they were comfortable with and James was such an awesome, awesome individual to do that with and I mean just, humble, knowledgeable, opinionated, and I want that out of him,” Braun said. “I mean, he does so much background work and extra study that he should be opinionated on things and the dialogue that he and I had and the ability to share throughout spring ball, throughout fall camp, throughout the season is something that, you know, I’ve told you this before but, that’s teaching, that’s coaching, that’s the highest level when you’re able to have dialogue with your players, and there’s a give and take. Man did James ever provide that; it was awesome.”
James Hendricks: backup quarterback, All-American safety, part-time linebacker, special teamer and… two-point conversion specialist?“That was awesome! No, it was a little disappointing that we were like, 50 percent. Probably because a couple of them were on me, but no that was fun. I knew going into the season they said they were doing “gate” and that I was going to be the guy and I’m like, alright, this is awesome. Knowing NDSU they’ll probably pull it and never do it by the time we get to game one. Coach Entz and coach Blazek said we’re gonna do it because, it is true, if we face a team that does swinging gate, we practice against that,” Hendricks said. “I can’t even imagine preparing for what we did this year because even in games when we didn’t run a fake we practiced “the gate” with probably six different looks and you gotta prepare for all those looks. Knowing that we did it at SDSU in the closest game of the year and unfortunately got stopped, but like, teams knew we weren’t afraid to do it in big games.”
North Dakota State specifically put in a “swinging gate” two-point play package to maximize Hendricks’ abilities and give opposing coaches fits. Besides getting an additional point after the touchdown, Entz, Hendricks and AJ Blazek were focused on taking up the opponent’s practice time matching NDSU’s complex looks after scoring.
“I know a coach from USD and when that game came around we talked and he was like, ‘Can you guys stop doing the swinging gate? It’s actually really annoying that we have to prepare for it’. That just goes to show that teams are a little bit stressed out about it and that was what the coaches had in mind. That was the goal and I think we accomplished it,” he said.
James Hendricks was a great player. A great player. That doesn’t make him a legend. That didn’t make him “Jimmy Football.” What made Jimmy Football Jimmy Football was everything that he did. Everything. Defense, offense, special teams. QB, Free safety, Strong Safety, Will linebacker. Interceptions, forced fumbles, big-time tackles, two-point conversion runs and throws. He did everything, and doing everything made him a legend.
Every great legend needs an ending, though, and Hendricks’ ending was that no bad fiction writer would even attempt.
“It was honestly something I won’t forget. You can’t even wish for your career to end like that. That was just ridiculous. I can’t even, I literally asked like, “why me”. This is the best ending anyone could ever ask for. I just felt so fortunate.”
The ending we’re talking about, of course, was at the 2019 FCS Championship game (played in early 2020). Trey Lance may have won the Outstanding Player of the Game award, but the game was defined by Jimmy Football.
First came the fake field goal:
“Yeah, you know, the field goal was interesting because I didn’t know if it was going to be a two-point play or a fake field goal. I didn’t even know when Trey threw that third and eight and it was incomplete, you know I was looking at Coach Entz and Coach Blazek and seeing what they were going to do and Coach Entz was just like, “Let’s do it”, and I was like, “alright, let’s go”. My whole time running out there I was trying to listen to their sideline, trying to listen to their players because I had never held a field goal this year. I held like every extra point, but I didn’t hold a field goal. I was worried they would be like, “six is in”, or get out of their look, or “watch the fake”. They might have been keyed into it, but they weren’t alerting it so right when I realized I’m like, alright we’re gonna score, I mean, at least get the first down. These guys blocked it better than I could’ve ever imagined, and I didn’t really have to do much.”
Hendricks ran, almost untouched into the end zone. His touchdown extended NDSU’s lead to 21-10, a much different game situation than a 37-yard field goal attempt would (or might not) have.
After Trey Lance ran in an improbable 44-yard touchdown on third-and-forever, the game seemed to be out of James Madison’s reach. North Dakota State held a 28-13 advantage with 14:50 left in the fourth quarter.
The Dukes would not go quietly into that good night. Riley Stapleton, long a Bison tormentor, caught a five-yard touchdown from Ben DiNucci and cut the lead to 28-20 with 6:55 to play. James Madison then stopped a Lance run on fourth-and-short, giving themselves one more shot at the tie.
After a few fourth down conversions and a few penalties, JMU had the ball inside the NDSU 10-yard-line with less than a minute to go. Enter Hendricks:
“You know, we felt really strongly in just studying these guys. They didn’t have a two-point play all season long. So you’re trying to find the personality of the coordinator. It was one of those deals, I felt, go full-circle I felt really convicted that if they got into a two-point play situation that they were going to run exactly what they ran. Obviously, it wasn’t a two-point play, but, you know, critical down, eight seconds left, they needed to score. In that case, we would, you know, if we knew that play was coming, we would not have been in the call that we were. But the internal conflict I had, you know, on the sideline; there are eight seconds left, they’ve got a timeout. There on the three-yard line. You know, they can run the ball and call a timeout if they don’t score. In a perfect world, we would’ve played some vision defense to be good against the pick, but if they run the ball. If they run the ball with some downhill power, downhill inside zone most likely that back is going to fall forward and score six,” Braun said. “The decision I made… we’re gonna bring six, we are going to play zero coverage, and if they run a pick, we are going to force them to earn it and execute. I’ll be the first one to say it, playing zero against what they ran was not the perfect call, but we were at least going to force those guys to execute. If they did happen to score, you know, then they got to execute on a two-point play as well and we weren’t going to let them run the football in that situation.”
“The second that they lined up, our staff knew what was coming, our players knew what was coming. We had seen it previous to the game, studying those guys over the course of the entire season. Their splits and the spacing of those receivers to the field told you what was coming and to James Hendrick’s credit. Dang it, he knew exactly what was coming too,” Braun said. “He absolutely abandoned his man, but again to me, and I think that’s where some of my growth has been exponential in the last five years of coaching is, you know, I’m going to coach guys if he made that decision in practice I’m going to coach him and say, ‘hey you know that’s not where you’re supposed to do, correct?’, and he’s going to say, ‘yeah coach, but he’s not throwing it there.’ You know, I think I’ve continued to find a way as a coach to let guys be instinctual and coach them to play with conviction and go make a big play. Rather than coach with a fear that they’ll get yelled at from their coach because they didn’t do exactly how we told them to do it. Again, that is James Hendricks making an unbelievable play. It was awesome.”
“They did it the first drive on a third and three and we literally practiced against this like, ten times a practice. We knew they did this in third and shorts and we were so prepared for it. I was so mad at myself for earlier in the game. It was the first drive. It was a third and three and I was late to recognize it and it was exactly how we practiced it. The two guys stacked, one guy was going to motion, and I was too busy communicating, and before I knew it, they had snapped it and I was late to it and it was a first down. I was like, ‘c’mon I knew that was coming’, we practiced against it enough. We saw it on the last drive when they threw the shovel, a little addition they added onto it. They hadn’t done that all year. They did a little shovel pass here and got the first down; I think it was on a fourth down,” Hendricks recalls.
“When I saw it happening on the last play, I went like this to ‘Quise (Marquise Bridges), but he was too busy looking at his man because the call we were in you’re supposed to run with your man in motion. You’re not supposed to do swaps or anything. No switching your man for another. I was trying to tell him to stop or to tell him, I got it, but he didn’t see it. So, I just kind of got depth and waited and it was kind of a split-second decision right. What am I going to do? I saw exactly what play it was, my guy really picked ‘Quise hard, which allowed me to kind of not cover him because he kind of took himself out of the play,” he said. “I just kind of went over the top and luckily he put some air on it, because ‘Quise undercut it so he had to put air on it and the rest is history. I remember sliding, literally, I slid thinking the time had run out and I look and right as I’m like this, I look up and there are two seconds left. I’m like, you’ve got to be kidding me, but the celebration was awesome. I think there were guys on me for a while. Got up, hugged coach Braun right away, and then went to hug coach Entz.”
“When Trey took the knee. I didn’t run to the stage; I took my time. I was going to take it all in before I knew it fans were rushing onto the field. The coolest part was my brother and two of my cousins that I’m really close with, they ran to me right away. I got to embrace them before anybody else. That’s something I’ll never forget. Then when you get on stage it’s just like, you always remember the stage and hugging all the seniors that are leaving. I’ll remember hugging Easton, and Dan Marlette, and those guys last year. Just doing it with like, (Nick) DeLuca, and those guys the year before, and Cole Davis, but this one was so different,” Hendricks said. “Just because it was so, like, I was hugging coach Entz first, and coach Braun, and their wives and, you know, just really realizing where we came from just because this was a long year. You know, going to my roommates, and my senior class that was such a surreal feeling knowing that we did it, and ended on top. There’s literally, people say it all the time, but there is no better feeling I can say now than ending your career as a champion.”
Coach Braun remembers Hendricks fondly:
“I just wanted him to be reminded or to remember, you know, at his core who he is and what makes him so special. What he brings to the table, you know, if I’m talking to the GM of Kansas City Chiefs I’m gonna tell him, his 40 times, his pro-agility, his vert, those are all things I know you need to look at and evaluate, but if that’s all you’re looking at when it comes to James Hendricks you’re missing the boat; you’re missing what makes him special,” Braun said. “What makes that young man so special and so productive is that when the pads go on and you are playing real football there are ten other guys on the field that know they can count on James to do his job, get aligned. He makes everyone around him better, and his football IQ, and just overall instincts and savvy are some of the best I’ve…I don’t want to say some of the best, they are the best I’ve ever seen; the best I’ve ever been around. James simply makes his football team better. Period.”
Hendricks might not have had NDSU Hall of Fame numbers or started all four years. He wasn’t a multiple-time All American. Honestly, it can be argued that playing alongside Robbie Grimsley and Michael Tutsie, he was never even the most gifted safety on the field.
He is though, a legend. The Legend of Jimmy Football.