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Back to business for Bison football and it can't come soon enough for fans

Fargodome tailgating lots expected to return to near capacity in the season opener against the University of Albany.

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North Dakota State football players celebrate with fellow students after the 2019 FCS semifinal victory over Montana State at Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome. David Samson / The Forum
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FARGO — It’s been an unprecedented almost two years for the 1976 MCI bus, as if it had a mind of its own. If it did, the layoff must have been long and lonely.

The tailgating rig of the Fargo Beer Club sat at a garage near Pelican Lake in Minnesota since the end of the 2019 season, a distant relationship that none of its 20 owners were fond of, but had little choice with the shutdown from the pandemic.

But when Bob Sutton started the bus recently to prepare for its triumphant return to Fargo, it showed little hesitancy.

“She fired right up,” Sutton said. “There were a couple of issues to take care of, but I think it misses the excitement, too.”

The excitement will return to the west parking lots of the Fargodome on Saturday when the Bison host the University of Albany (N.Y.) at Gate City Bank Field. And most likely the game, as well.

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The Fargo Beer Club will drive its bus to the Fargodome tailgating lot for the first time since 2019. Submitted photo.

“I think the atmosphere especially for this first game is going to be through the roof,” said Bison senior defensive end Spencer Waege. “It was nice to be playing in the spring but everyone knew it wasn’t the same, especially for us on defense when it was third down. We expect the crowd to get into it and mess up the opponent’s offense and we didn’t have that in the spring.”

Tailgating was not allowed in the one fall game of 2020 and last spring’s five home games.

For that matter, attendance was limited in most of those games to half capacity and the crowd never even reached that. In the case of the Fargo Beer Club including social members, the group numbers around 50. Sutton said most opted out of attending spring football.

No longer.

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North Dakota State fans celebrate in a FCS semifinal victory over Montana State in 2019, the last time the Fargodome had a full capacity crowd. David Samson / The Forum.

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“We are 100% ready,” he said. “Everybody, and I mean everybody, I talk to is ready to get back to some normalcy and back to watching Bison football.”

Sutton bought the bus in 2008 and sold shares to the group a year later. Like so many buses and trailers in the tailgating section, it’s custom painted, in this case predominantly yellow with “Bison tailgater” and the club’s logo on the side.

It needed a minor brake tuneup and is now highway ready. The bus has been to the FCS national title game in Frisco, Texas, in three of NDSU’s eight appearances. During the season, it’s stored at a nearby plumbing and heating shop.

“It’s just like missing a segment of your life,” Sutton said. “It seemed like it took forever. It seemed like two or three years. Now we’re all champing at the bit. I think things will be back to normal after the first kickoff. The biggest topic of discussion has been how do I get my tickets? My age group isn’t the biggest electronic-age group.”

Game day preparations for the Fargo Beer Club are divided among the owners. A different set of around four people for every game are appointed to organize the food and cleanup. Sutton handles the assortment of beverages. There’s an “Iron Five” that gets up early, gets the bus, has breakfast and gets in line to enter the tailgating lot.

Certainly, they are not alone.

NDSU athletic director Matt Larsen said there was almost a 100% renewal in tailgating spots for this fall from the previous full capacity. It’s a strong indication that business will be back in a big way in pregame festivities.

The athletic department sold all of its available season tickets of 13,000, but it remains to be seen if the place that carries a capacity of 18,700 will be full. Single-game tickets were still available this week and the student turnout was unknown.

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“I can’t wait,” said Larsen, when asked if he remembers what a full dome was like. “Honestly, somebody asked me if it feels like a game week and it does. You feel the buzz around town. It’s something you miss. You hate to say you take things for granted, but last year, whether it was the fall game or the games in the spring, you missed the passion, the energy, so I’m looking forward to seeing it on Saturday.”

The Gold Star Marching Band, after mostly being silenced since 2019, will be unleashed with the full lot of instruments with one noticeable pregame exception: it won’t be walking and playing in the tailgating lot, instead will be parked across the street next to the dome.

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The North Dakota State Gold Star Band fires up fans in the tailgating lots in October, 2019. David Samson / The Forum

Still, it beats watching the game on the big screen in Festival Concert Hall like the band did when the Bison played Central Arkansas last fall.

“I missed this incredibly,” said Sigurd Johnson, director of athletic bands.

Like a head coach with freshmen starters, Saturday’s performance will come with some nerves. The NDSU band has two classes of freshmen who haven’t performed on the field at a game.

“But we’re all excited for it,” Johnson said. “We’re hoping for an electric atmosphere. It’s a cliche, but it’s true.”

Once fans are inside, Fargodome general manager Rob Sobolik said the public won’t notice much difference. There have been several behind-the-scenes improvements, such as in the catering area, digital menu boards and general cleaning.

The dome and its contractors need about 450-500 people in services to host a Bison football game. The City of Fargo requires employees to wear masks and the dome workers will be abiding by that stipulation.

NDSU, however, is making masks optional for fans and no proof of vaccination is required to enter the dome.

What is proven is the financial benefit of Bison football games to the city-owned facility. The Fargodome operated at a deficit in 2020 for the first time since it opened in 1993. A $3.7 million federal pandemic relief program aided by an insurance policy erased that.

“We haven’t really experienced life without NDSU in the fall,” Sobolik said. “Back to a normal regular season is significant for the Fargodome. The spring season helped some but it didn’t offset those events that did not happen in the first half of 2021.”

Related Topics: FOOTBALL
Jeff would like to dispel the notion he was around when Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, but he is on his third decade of reporting with Forum Communications. The son of a reporter and an English teacher, and the brother of a reporter, Jeff has worked at the Jamestown Sun, Bismarck Tribune and since 1990 The Forum, where he's covered North Dakota State athletics since 1995.
Jeff has covered all nine of NDSU's Division I FCS national football titles and has written three books: "Horns Up," "North Dakota Tough" and "Covid Kids." He is the radio host of "The Golf Show with Jeff Kolpack" April through August.
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