Heading into Saturday’s playoff game against Nicholls State, UND wide receiver Travis Toivonen had racked up nearly 1,600 receiving yards over four seasons with the Fighting Hawks. He scored 15 touchdowns across 41 career games.
But for all the passes he’s caught, touchdowns he’s scored and tackles he’s broken, his parents are notching impressive stats, too.
The Toivonens, of Red Wing, Minn., say this weekend’s playoff game in Louisiana will put them past 66,000 miles of traveling to watch Travis play football. They’re just two members of a sprawling club of parents and relatives who have traveled impressive distances to be in the stands as their sons take the field.
The Fighting Hawks met Nicholls State in a 3 p.m. game Saturday in Thibodaux, La., in the first round of the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision playoffs. An online search shows it’s a 1,540-mile one-way trip from Grand Forks that requires about 23 hours of driving time.
Undeterred by the distance, many parents made the trip.
Doug Toivonen recalled a game early in their son’s career in New York when a teammate broke a leg. The coaching staff was there to help, but that teammate didn’t have any family at the game.
“And we just kind of told ourselves at that point that, unfortunately, with football being a sport that can lead to injuries, we wanted to make sure that one of us was there all the time, just in case something were to happen,” Doug said. “It’s kind of become a routine for us now.”
It’s easier for the Toivonens to count games they’ve missed than games they’ve attended, and the same is true for many other UND football families. The team’s parents hail from Wisconsin, Nebraska, Florida, California and more, but they’re glad to make the trip; they’re in the stands to support their sons, but they also take in the scenery and enjoy the camaraderie of tailgating.
Prior to this weekend, Katie Pinke, mother of junior tight end Hunter Pinke, rented an RV in Fargo and headed south.
“This time we’re doing something we’ve never done before,” she said.
As of Wednesday, she and her husband planned to spend Thanksgiving in Memphis, Tenn., and had armed their young daughters with maps to cross off states as they travel through them.
“The reason we do it is just the camaraderie, and it’s good for our boys to have the support,” she said. “We just have made really deep and fun friendships with the other parents. You get to see a lot of the country.”
Travel plans this weekend were a sudden development. The Fighting Hawks’ playoff game against Nicholls State was announced last Sunday, giving UND its second playoff appearance in the Division I era. Prior to the announcement, it wasn’t even certain UND would be selected to play in the postseason. After a 36-18 win over Southern Utah in the regular-season finale, players and fans didn’t know if the team’s season was over, or if it was headed into the playoffs.
Tracy Wanzek, father of senior wide receiver Noah Wanzek, said the selection announcement prompted a flurry of last-minute plans.
And some memories, too.
“I’d say right off the bat, the first thing is we’ve met some really nice people — other parents on the team and their families,” he said.
He recalled an early flight in his son’s playing career that filled up with UND fans.
“And we said, ‘Where are you guys going?’ ‘We’re going to the game!’ It was just fans, and those guys weren’t even parents. They were just fans who take in one or two away games a year.
“And I looked at my wife and said, ‘This is going to be fun.’”
Many of the parents reference a Facebook page, launched in 2015, that’s helped build a community for parents of UND players. Dan Rooney, the father of senior offensive lineman Patric Rooney — who administers the page — said there are numerous simple questions that don’t always have obvious answers.
New parents probably don’t know how to track the hotels in which the team stays during away games, or where they can tailgate to meet other football parents.
Parents traveling to this weekend’s playoff game were looking forward to the tailgating ahead, too. Pinke, who often coordinates the parents’ tailgating efforts, said Nicholls State parents had invited UND to tailgate with them — without having to worry about a dish to pass. UND parents, to thank them, were planning to bring items from their home states. Pinke said her family planned to bring North Dakota honey and Dot’s Pretzels.
“There is no question that our parents group is an extended family. We all know this is a really special time of life that has an ending, and a lot of people have embraced that, trying to go to as many tailgates and away games as we can,” Dan Rooney said. “I’m really going to miss it when it’s gone. There’s really nothing quite like it, in my experience.”