A year ago Saturday, the Alerus Center was barren and the UND football team’s fall season was suspended as COVID-19 cases continued to rise dramatically.

This Saturday, though, was a much different story: thousands of tailgaters packed the center’s parking lot, blaring music, drinking, eating barbecue, and playing lawn games as they waited for the Fighting Hawks to play Drake inside at the annual Potato Bowl, a Grand Forks tradition that spans decades.

"We're gonna win," Gary Warner said as fans began to stream into the center. "We're gonna blow 'em out."

Andy Lafferty helps pack up before gametime during tailgating outside of the Alerus Center Saturday, September 18, 2021. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
Andy Lafferty helps pack up before gametime during tailgating outside of the Alerus Center Saturday, September 18, 2021. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

The bowl was canceled outright last year, and this year it returned with a handful of changes. UND sports administrators predicted that attendance at this year's bowl would top 2019's. Last fall was one of the few in which Warner, 56, hadn’t tailgated a UND football game since the first of his daughters attended the university in the early 2000s.

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Related: 4,000 hot dogs replace french fries at Potato Bowl

“We like UND, we like Bubba,” Warner said, referring to eight-year head coach Bubba Schweigert. “The best hire ever...He’s kind of changed the mentality of the team, I think.”

His friends, Mark Mezydlo and Tom Kerzman, agreed. All were wearing #89 UND jerseys, the number of star wide receiver Garett Maag, a senior whose parents they said they befriended at a tailgate when Maag was an underclassman.

“He’s one of the best players out there,” Warner said.

Tailgaters celebrate UND's first home game,  the 55th annual Potato Bowl, Saturday, September 18, 2021. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
Tailgaters celebrate UND's first home game, the 55th annual Potato Bowl, Saturday, September 18, 2021. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Typically, the three have a much larger setup than the folding chairs and beers they were sporting on Saturday, but they toned it down this weekend because they were short on manpower: a fourth friend was at a family birthday party in Bismarck.

Normally they’d have grills, a fryer, a tent and so on. They said they’d have everything up and running for the Hawks’ game against the NDSU Bison, their intrastate rivals, two weeks later.

“Come back in two weeks,” Mezydlo said.

‘It’s a happy day’

And earlier in the day, a 108-entry parade strutted its way through downtown Grand Forks: United Way workers dressed as superheroes, marching bands and cheerleaders from Crookston, UND, and both of Grand Forks’ public high schools, a pet grooming business with a specialized truck shaped like a dog’s head, and a man wearing a Trump 2024 “Take America Back” flag as a cape who didn’t seem to be attached to a particular float.

The UND Pride of the North Marching Band perform during Saturday's Potato Bowl parade in downtown Grand Forks. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
The UND Pride of the North Marching Band perform during Saturday's Potato Bowl parade in downtown Grand Forks. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Three generations of Wynne watched the parade from a spot near the intersection of Third and DeMers. Lucas Wynne, 31, said he’d been going to the parade since he was a kid. He liked to see the Shriners’ antics -- they tooled around in cars, joined at the rear, that they steered from both front seats -- and his mom, Jenifer Wynne, said she liked to hear the marching bands play. Levi Wynne, Lucas’ infant son, watched from a stroller.

Cindy Dahl shows her Norwegian pride as she marches with the Sons of Norway Lodge float  during Saturday's Potato Bowl parade in downtown Grand Forks. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
Cindy Dahl shows her Norwegian pride as she marches with the Sons of Norway Lodge float during Saturday's Potato Bowl parade in downtown Grand Forks. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Further up DeMers, Jim Haller said the parade reminded him of a kinder and gentler time.

“Things weren’t so chaotic,” he told the Herald. “Nowadays the world seems so upside down, the COVID thing, and everybody’s talking bad about each other.”

UND President Andrew Armacost and First Lady Kathy Armacost greet parade-goers at Saturday's Potato Bowl parade in downtown Grand Forks. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
UND President Andrew Armacost and First Lady Kathy Armacost greet parade-goers at Saturday's Potato Bowl parade in downtown Grand Forks. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Nearby, Judy McGrath said the parade conjured memories of playing for the Larimore High School marching band.

“And just watching the kids and dogs...cheering everybody else on.” McGrath said of the parade’s appeal. “It’s a happy day.”

Parade watchers line the streets for Saturday's Potato Bowl parade on DeMers Avenue in downtown Grand Forks. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
Parade watchers line the streets for Saturday's Potato Bowl parade on DeMers Avenue in downtown Grand Forks. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald