FARGO, N.D. (AP) — Former North Dakota State football players who have contributed to the school’s dynasty over the course of more than seven decades have found a way to relive their glory days — and it’s not just by telling old stories over beers.
The 3-year-old Bison Football Players Association has been raising thousands of dollars to donate to worthy causes such as families of deceased players, a Christmas toy drive and even for the recovery of a player from their in-state rivals who suffered a life-changing injury.
Formed originally as a way to locate former players, the nonprofit has grown to 450 people with about the only thing resembling a membership drive being an almost annual trip to Frisco, Texas to watch the Bison play for the Football Championship Subdivision title.
“It has given us a unified voice,” said players association president Sean Fredricks, an all-American linebacker in the mid-1990s and 2014 Bison Hall of Fame inductee. “We couldn’t stop it now if we wanted to.”
The group was formed following the 2015 death at age 40 of Carey Crimmins, a North Dakota State lineman in the late 1990s. Several former Bison attended the funeral, which happened the same weekend that the team took a rare loss punctuated by a broken hand suffered by quarterback Carson Wentz.
“Everybody just felt awful about everything,” Fredricks said. “Carey had a huge family and a longtime girlfriend and we were trying to figure out how to find people to throw some money in and help them out. There had to be a better way.”
After scrambling to find email addresses to solicit donations for the Crimmins family, another former player, Anthony LaVoy, suggested they form an association separate from the school or booster club that would act as a support group. The Bison organization, which has players representing a combined 15 national titles at the FCS and Division II levels, got its blueprint from a football players association at Michigan State.
Each member pays a onetime fee of $100, but most of the fundraising is done as needed and basically consists of members passing a hat. They have provided money for the family of Phil Ostlie, who died unexpectedly in 2018 at age 55; for Jeff McKinnon, who was diagnosed with cancer in 2018; for the family of 2018 FCS championship game MVP Darrius Shepherd after his father died; and for a Toys for Tots campaign that raised more than $12,000 before Christmas.
Their philanthropy even extends to the state’s other FCS team.
Fredricks said the association plans to donate to the family of Hunter Pinke, who just finished his junior season at the University of North Dakota. Pinke, from Wishek, North Dakota, severed his spinal cord in a Dec. 27 skiing accident and is paralyzed below the waist.
“We had a discussion on whether that was going to upset people and we just said, who cares?” Fredricks said. “It’s the right thing to do.”
Chad Stark, a star Bison running back who ran roughshod over the University of North Dakota in the Division II days and who sits on the association’s 15-member board of directors, has already donated $500 on his own, according to Pinke’s GoFundMe page.
Bubba Schweigert, the University of North Dakota coach, said the association’s move shows compassion and an understanding of the career of a college football player, no matter which uniform they wear.
“For these guys to put aside a rivalry and do this, I just think is an awesome display of caring and concern for a young person who is faced with some challenges moving forward in his life,” Schweigert said.
Fredricks quickly added with a chuckle that the group immediately shot down an idea to invite former University of North Dakota players to their tailgate party before the two teams play in Fargo next season.
The Bison group has about $40,000 in the bank, which Fredricks said “is about all we really want.” Much of that money goes toward buying helmets as mementos for departing seniors, including last year’s class of about 25 players. The next step is the formation of a mentoring program to help graduates find jobs or internships.
North Dakota State athletic director Matt Larsen endorses the group and said the football program depends on former players to pass on the history and tradition to current athletes.
“Our current players and our recruits see what it means to be a Bison football player.,” Larsen said. “There’s more to it than just the four or five years you’re here. It’s not just about wins and losses, it’s about a brotherhood and family that’s going to take care of you well beyond your years at North Dakota State.”
One of those traditions includes the communion of past and present the day before the FCS title game, which this year will feature the 15-0 Bison against 14-1 James Madison. The Bison players from the 1950s through last year, discernible by their green and yellow lanyards, will attend practice the day before Saturday’s game and one of them will deliver a pep talk.
Fredricks was selected to give the emotional message one year and had to fight off the shakes.
“That’s the most nervous I’ve ever been while speaking,” said Fredricks, who does his share of public speaking as an attorney. “That’s because this matters to us.”
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