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They like us, they really like us: A day unlike any other in Fargo

by Mike McFeely

I have been a card-carrying member of the Fargo-Moorhead media for 25 years and I've covered North Dakota State athletics for nearly two decades. Which, above all else, makes me old. But it also gives me a fairly broad perspective on the goings-on in our town.

So let me sum up Sept. 21, 2013, thusly:

I've never seen anything quite like it.

ESPN's highly watched "College GameDay" show set up shop and broadcast worldwide from downtown Fargo, which had people rolling out of bed at 4 a.m. to get a front-row seat. Later, almost as an afterthought, the Bison crushed Delaware State 51-0 in front of a tired sellout crowd that mostly bolted the Fargodome by the fourth quarter.

In between was an odd confluence of unabashed civic pride and pathetic groveling that may never be matched again, even if ESPN comes back like it all but promised to do. (And why wouldn't they? Goodness gracious, we did whatever they wanted us to do with a smile on our face and an apology because we didn't think what we did lived up to ESPN's standards.)

My overwhelming summation of the day, to borrow a line from Sally Field: They like us. They really like us.

Which, of course, is sort of how we react to any positive national publicity here on the frozen tundra. If a big-time outlet comes to town and doesn't report on the Red River spilling out of its banks or an Arctic cold front driving the temperature to 30-below with 40 mph winds, well, we're tickled pink.

You don't want to make fun of us? Oh. That's different. Then by all means let us roll out the red carpet and smother you in smiles and friendliness. 

And the part that blows away the big-timers when they come here? The smiles and friendliness are real. You like us? Then we like you more. So let us do whatever it takes to make you happy, times 10. And we'll be happier making you happy than you'll be happy being happy.

Make sense? No, it doesn't to us either. Except that's what we do. We can't help it. Can I buy you a cup of coffee? Or close a few streets for you? Whatever you need. Just ask.

ESPN came here not because we're nice or because downtown Fargo has been revitalized or because our economy is booming. The Worldwide Leader came here because NDSU's football team has been kicking ass and taking names the last few years. Our time on the national stage was wholly dependent on Brock Jensen and Grant Olson and Marcus Williams -- hometowns located in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Minnesota, respectively -- winning football games. 

And, really, our margin for a weeklong pat on the head from Chris Fowler, Kirk Herbstreit, Desmond Howard and Lee Corso was even more fleeting than that: An ESPN producer said earlier in the week that if the Bison had lost to Kansas State a couple of weeks ago, GameDay would have located somewhere else, anywhere else than Fargo, N.D.

So if Jensen hadn't led the Bison on the greatest drive in NDSU's storied football history -- 18 plays, 80 yards, 8 1/2 minutes for the winning TD against K-State -- today would've been just another pleasant autumn Saturday when the Bison pistol-whipped a horribly overmatched team and our community lived in flyover Division I-AA anonymity. 

We owe a round of applause to coach Craig Bohl and his mighty Bison, and I say that without a hint of sarcasm or irony. The growth of NDSU football the past several years -- despite a few highly-publicized missteps along the way (insert your petition-signing joke here or your Best Buy punchline there) -- has been remarkable. In 2002, the Division II Bison under Bob Babich were manhandled at the Fargodome by a mediocre Augustana College team. Eleven years later, NDSU and Fargo-Moorhead are the darlings of the national sports media.

Supporters of the University of North Dakota, detractors of NDSU and just generally cranky people who will find fault in anything might be pooh-poohing today's events as an over-hyped celebration of an arrogant football program or the misguided glorification of athletics in a world that has much larger problems than worrying about whether Samantha Ponder does her schtick in downtown Fargo or near the Fargodome. But those people are mostly unhappy anyway, unable to appreciate success or celebration -- or even just plain fun -- because of a bias or self-loathing.

I've criticized NDSU as much as anybody in this town for the last 20 years, and I sat back this morning and watched several thousand people cheer and laugh and yell and act silly ... and thoroughly enjoyed it. Tomorrow may bring a different feeling. A player may be arrested or the university president may do something remarkably arrogant or the coach may fail to properly punish one of his charges who ran afoul of the law. If that happens, then we need to react properly. If NDSU deserves to get ripped, it deserves to get ripped. There should be no blind boot-licking.

But for now, enjoy what happened Saturday. It was part community celebration, part shameless groveling, part kegger party, part pathetic insecurity, part chest-thumping, part psychiatrist's couch, part street dance.

It was also well-deserved.

Mostly, it was just damn fun.

For one day, we got to be the place where everybody else wanted to be. For one day, we were cool. For one day, others were envious of us.

They like us. They really like us. I can live with that.

Here is a tremendous video put together by NDSU Athletics that sums up the giddiness of the day perfectly:

 (Mike McFeely is a talk-show host on KFGO-AM in Fargo, N.D. He can be reached at mike.mcfeely@mwcradio.com. Follow him on Twitter @MikeMcFeelyKFGO.)