90-year-old former Bison player loves his teamFARGO — There were two footballs at practice. One was in pretty good shape and the other was like a pumpkin.
By: Jeff Kolpack, Forum Communications Co.
FARGO — There were two footballs at practice. One was in pretty good shape and the other was like a pumpkin.
The North Dakota State head coach at the time had vision problems, the result of a World War I incident. The players would take turns reading him the newspaper.
There was no such thing as a weight lifting room. Players often played both offense and defense. Victories were hard to come by in the 1940s, but halfback Ralph Johnson — despite the program’s inequities — mostly remembers having fun playing the game.
He’s still having fun watching the game.
Now 90 years old, there are perhaps not many more people who are better qualified to gauge the progress of Bison football. NDSU plays Sam Houston State (Texas) Jan. 7 in the Division I Football Championship Subdivision title game in Frisco, Texas.
“Just tremendous,” he said. “It’s a big leap from where we were. They are so much better coached. It has changed so much.”
Johnson, now living in south Fargo, played in 1940 and ‘41. World War II interrupted his college days for six years — he returned to NDSU in 1947 and graduated in ‘48.
He’s rarely missed a Bison game since, even traveling to McAllen, Texas, twice for Division II national championship games. His father, Roy Johnson, a former member of the Board of Higher Education, has his name on an NDSU dormitory and Ralph remembers going to Bison football games as a young kid.
He went to every Fargodome game this year, and this is how loud the semifinal game against Georgia Southern was: “It was so loud I had my hearing aids unhooked and I had my hands over my ears and you still couldn’t block it out,” Ralph said.
The win vaulted NDSU to the history books — the school’s first Division I team to make a football championship game. It’s a long way from the players reading the paper to head coach Robert Lowe.
“These guys will be remembered, no doubt about it,” Ralph said.
Kolpack is a sports reporter for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.