From the Herald vault: Kleinsasser catch against Bison remains lasting memory
Editor's note: This story originally ran in the Herald in September 2015.
Looking back, UND running back Phillip Moore, the school’s all-time leading rusher with 5,467 yards, remembers his 1998 team mostly using tight end Jim Kleinsasser in the screen game.
“You didn’t get to see that speed that much,” said Moore, who was a standout at Grand Forks Central High School. “Usually, he caught screens and carried guys on his back. That was an awesome sight.”
That all changed on Oct. 17, 1998, at the Fargodome in the rivalry between UND and NDSU when Jim Kleinsasser caught a touchdown pass that is still one of the most memorable moments in program history.
#UNDFB125 Moments: The 1998 39-25 win at NDSU will forever be known as, “The Jimmy Kleinsasser Game” pic.twitter.com/68XwRntJX3— North Dakota Football (@UNDfootball) September 3, 2019
With the game tied at 25 with 14:31 left, UND quarterback Sean Greenwaldt hit Kleinsasser, a 282-pound tight end, at the UND 35 and Kleinsasser outran the Bison secondary for a 77-yard score. UND went on to win 39-25.
“We never recovered from that play,” NDSU coach Bob Babich said after the game. “Kleinsasser made a lot of money tonight. I’ll guarantee you that.”
Babich turned out to be right. Kleinsasser, who was already garnering considerable NFL interest, was drafted in the second round of the 1999 NFL draft by the Minnesota Vikings.
The Carrington, N.D., native played 13 seasons with the Vikings before retiring in 2011.
“Jimmy was a big guy and probably should have went Division I,” Moore said. “You clock times at the beginning of the year, and he ran like a 4.5 (seconds) 40 (yard dash). You don’t know how fast that is until you see that play. To see him pull away from DBs was crazy.”
The soft-spoken Kleinsasser remains humble about the play even 17 years later.
“We had done a lot of splitting me out and moving me around,” he said. “One of those things, I just got a seam on that slant and was pretty wide open with a lot of area to get rolling. That was pretty much it.”
The 1998 matchup turned out to be a big one for Kleinsasser, Moore and Greenwaldt.
Greenwaldt was 15-for-23 passing for 251 yards. Kleinsasser caught eight passes for 169 yards and three touchdowns. Moore rushed for 205 yards on 35 carries, becoming the North Central Conference’s career rushing leader in the process.
“From my memory, we ran that play (to Kleinsasser) quite a bit throughout the year in practice,” said Greenwaldt, who now lives near Los Angeles. “Phil and Jim were our focal points. As soon as Jim caught it, I saw it would be a gainer. I didn’t expect a touchdown. It was crazy.”
Kleinsasser, who said he’s enjoying his retirement in the Minneapolis area, said the UND-NDSU matchup was one he looked forward to every year.
“The whole year kind of depended on whether you beat NDSU or lost to NDSU,” Kleinsasser said. “It definitely captures the whole state. All of your friends and relatives were watching two really great programs going at it.”
Greenwaldt, a Moorhead native, echoed the importance of the single NDSU matchup on UND’s season.
“You didn’t want to be 0-12, but if you were 1-11 and beat the Bison it was a success,” Greenwaldt said. “You could go 11-1, but that one loss better not be to the Bison.”
Kleinsasser said he didn’t attend any UND-NDSU matchups before he was a player. Usually, he listened to the games on a tractor while on his family farm in an area known as Hawks Nest, a butte a few miles southwest of Carrington.
Once on campus, Kleinsasser grew to enjoy Bison game week.
“It put you on hyper-focus,” Kleinsasser said. “I wouldn’t say there was a hatred, but it was a can’t-lose mentality. This one was a have-to. There was urgency. It was playoff atmosphere.”
Both Moore and Kleinsasser expressed their disappointment in the rivalry’s halt since 2003.
“I think it’s a shame that it has taken this long to get it done,” Kleinsasser said. “I wish it was annual. Hopefully, down the road it will be revisited and have that.”
Moore hopes the rivalry can regain some of the steam that might have been lost in the dead period.
“I think with the move to Division I and the name change, I think we lost some of that tradition of what it meant to be a football player at UND,” Moore said. “We lost our identity, in a way. This is a step in the right direction to gain that identity for the alums and the program.”
Greenwaldt, Moore and Kleinsasser all plan to keep tabs on Saturday’s game in Fargo, although none will be able to attend.
“I won’t be able to make because I have a 5-year-old soccer game to coach,” Kleinsasser said. “I can’t break a commitment to him. I’ve been blessed with two boys and there are a lot of people who don’t get that opportunity. I’m having a blast (in retirement). If there’s one thing God put me on this Earth to be it’s a dad, so I’m extremely lucky and don’t take it for granted.”