The strangest thing kept happening to me while I watched South Dakota State run all over North Dakota State on television in the national championship game on Sunday afternoon.
As the Jackrabbits steadily battered their northern rivals on the field, the cameras began to alternate crowd shots: Sometimes, Sad Bison in green and sometimes Jubilant Jacks in blue. It was a little depressing when they lingered on the green and gold shirts. I, however, got over it quickly.
But what kept feeling so odd was when the camera lingered on the impressive swaths of the crowd clad in Jackrabbit blue. I felt like I should know someone. I kind of felt like I should know everyone. We sat on the couch back in Brookings and texted our friends at the game and chided them for not making it on camera.
But the truth is, despite what my Facebook feed looked like on Monday, I only know a tiny fraction of the fans who can say they were there in Frisco, Texas, on the day the Jacks won their first football national title.
Our little prairie college is no more.
SDSU is a national football powerhouse, now, and that was on full display Sunday as the Jacks dismantled NDSU on the field — and effectively ended their truly impressive dynasty.
But growing up in Brookings in the 1980s and 90s, South Dakota State always felt like our own little secret — particularly as a playground in the summers. I remember going to Jacks games and playing Kill the Carrier with my friends behind the north end zone at Coughlin Alumni while the field action played out right in front of us. I remember spending summer afternoons with my dad kicking a soccer ball around on the lawn behind the Campanile.
It's been wonderful watching from afar as SDSU has transformed itself. It was a bold decision to move to the Division I ranks in 2004 — one I recall being met with more than a little cynicism. But it was the right choice — truly, the only choice if the school and the town were going to continue to grow. And what a ride it has been since then.
I remember watching in 2009 when the Jacks women’s basketball team gave Baylor everything they could handle on their home court before losing on a buzzer-beater in the second round of the NCAAs. My buddies and I were in Minneapolis for the last real WCHA Final Five in 2013, but we stopped our hockey weekend to pile into an Irish pub and watch Nate Wolters and the Jacks men’ hoops team stick with a helluva Michigan squad for a long time before bowing out in the opener. And everyone I know was watching two years ago when the football team seemed to have made it to the summit, only to fall short to a furious comeback at the hands of Sam Houston State.
Time and again, in the nearly 20 years since the school made a leap of faith, the Jacks players and coaches — across all sports — have showed they belonged with the best in the nation. And just as the teams themselves justified that belief, so, too, have the fans and supporters whose ranks have grown with the college and with its continued success.
And all that culminated Sunday in a sea of blue overwhelming the pictures of the national championship game. On the field and in the stands. Coach Stig and the players gave that crowd everything to cheer for, and cheer they did. From my vantage point on the couch it looked like the Jackrabbit Faithful traveled to Texas to get a sunburn and beat North Dakota — and they were already sunburnt.
I expected to feel a little wistful, still holding on to a little bit of my small summer playground, at least in my mind. After all, my parents met at SDSU and my dad and stepmom both ran the food service there at different points, and I was forever popping into Medary Commons or the Union for lunch. I taught composition there in grad school, in a chalk-dusty old classroom in the back of The Barn. I used to wake up to the Pride of the Dakotas Marching Band tuning up in the field behind my house.
But I didn’t feel like I was losing something. Not at all. Instead I just felt overwhelming pride. I’m proud that people here aren’t afraid to make bold choices. I’m proud we support our teams so fiercely. And I’m proud the whole country got to see the results of all the grit and vision it took over so many years to get to this point.
And then I watched Coach Stig and his players get their well-deserved moment in the Texas sun. The fans stormed the field and confetti fell everywhere. I listened to Stig tell the interviewer that he respected the Bison, that he loved his team. That his dad taught him on the farm to work hard, to be a good person and that good things would happen.
Kids might not be able to play football at Jacks games, anymore, and I surely won’t know half the people in the stands. But I can still go kick a ball around behind the Campanile if I want to. And now the whole country knows exactly what SDSU and Brookings are all about. Work hard, be bold, stay after it. Good things happen. I could not have said it any better than your dad, Coach, or showed it any better than your team.
Josh Linehan is the Register’s managing editor and welcomes comments at [email protected]