It started in November 2017.
Earlier, actually. There were whispers about an on-campus football stadium for Northern State University even before then. But where would it fit? And how would it be paid for?
The base answer came at Northern Night in November 2017. That’s when the university announced, during its annual fundraiser, its Educational Impact Campaign, a $45 million drive to pay for, among other things, a regional sports complex that included Dacotah Bank Stadium.
Ultimately, the capital campaign raised more than $60 million, which has also helped pay for a new South Dakota School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, soccer field, football practice field and Koehler Hall of Fame Softball Field.
But Saturday night was all about football.
That’s when Dacotah Bank Stadium opened near the intersection of South State Street and 15th Avenue Southeast, the site of the old, dated school for the blind that was razed to make way for the sports complex.
South Dakota Board of Regents member Jim Thares of Aberdeen asked the capacity crowd what it thought of the stadium he said was 100 years in the making. The 5,867 fans in attendance roared in response.
Tailgating outside the new facility started at 3 p.m.
The gates opened at 5 p.m., an hour and change in advance of kickoff. Before the game began, there was an appropriate buildup.
- 5:45 p.m.: The Wolves starting lineup was introduced.
- 5:52 p.m.: Northern players ran out on the field from a tunnel in the north end zone as the band played “Up, Northern Wolves,” the school song.
- 5:55 p.m.: The band played “God Bless America,” a tribute on the 20th anniversary of 9/11.
- 5:57 p.m.: From the Thares Field, the band played the national anthem.
- 5:59 p.m.: A Blackhawk helicopter flew over the stadium.
- 6 p.m.: Southwest Minnesota State won the coin toss an elected to receive the ball.
A few minutes later, the Mustangs hopped on the football near midfield. The first play at Dacotah Bank Stadium was an onside kick, but the Wolves couldn’t recover.
Still, the moment was the culmination of a lot of dreaming, planning and fundraising.
Northern State overcame a sluggish start for 30-13 win. But even before fans were allowed in the stadium for the first time, the party had begun. People gathered around the stadium on a pleasant day, sipping drinks, eating, playing games and checking out the new digs.
“It’s an absolutely thrilling day for the community and the college,” Aberdeen Mayor Travis Schaunaman said before the game.
Northern State President Neal Schnoor called the stadium the campus capstone, a premier facility with an unparalleled game day experience.
“It caps off 10 years of development,” he said.
While the stadium is a place for Northern’s home football games, Schnoor said, there will be opportunities for the university to host activities like concerts and other events. The first high school game will be played at Dacotah Bank Stadium between Ipswich and Herreid/Selby on Sept. 24 at 7 p.m.
Players’ families become fast friends
Hours before the game started, in the Barnett Center Parking lot, families of Northern football players became fast friends.
That was the case with families from Joliet, Ill., and Los Angeles who met in Aberdeen Friday evening and parked next to each other for tailgating.
Four members of Northern’s football team went to Joliet Catholic Academy. The school has won 14 state football titles, one proud parent said.
John Kasper’s son, Anthony, is a freshman for the Wolves.
“To see everyone out here, it’s nice. Unbelievable,” he said.
Kasper one of many from Joliet who traveled to Aberdeen to cheer on the Joliet Catholic crew. Rhonda Berry calls it the “JCA family.” Of the four graduates, two were in uniform to play Saturday.
Berry said it was fun to be a part of the celebration.
“It’s totally exciting just getting out,” she said. “I can’t wait to get into the stadium.”
Rene Mendoza traveled from Los Angeles to watch his son, Esteban, one of three recruits from his home community who ended up at Northern. It’s an opportunity Rene Mendoza said was both surprising and exciting.
Sarah and Jay Braun visited from Bismarck, N.D., with their family to cheer on their son, Seth, who was recruited in 2017 when the stadium was still something close to a dream.
“It’s exciting to be at the opening day,” Sarah Braun said.
“We watched the building process,” Jay Braun said. “The big thing is there’s no letdown.”
He said he’s heard comments from NCAA Division I recruits who have said Dacotah Bank Stadium is the best they’ve seen, with NFL-caliber locker rooms. He also praised Northern for creating a space where players can unwind and decompress.
Korey and Gene Bertram of Colome were watching their son, Beau. Being in Aberdeen for the home opener was exciting, Korey Bertraam said.
“We’ve watched it go up,” she said of the stadium. “It’s fun to see.”
Southwest State scores first points in Dacotah Bank Stadium
Southwest Minnesota State scored the first points with an early touchdown. But the Wolves responded quickly with a 70-yard bomb from Hunter Trautman to Dewaylon Ingram at 6:23 p.m., and Wolves’ fans celebrated appropriately.
Northern led the rest of the way. When Payton Eue kicked a 29-yard field goal for the final points with 5:08 to play in the game, some fans headed for the exits. It was 8:13 p.m.
Dean Brudwick of Mankato, Minn., was one of the folks who walked out of the stadium happy. His grandson Ryan Schlichte is a graduate assistant and quarterback coach for the Wolves.
“That was a good game,” Brudwick said. “It’s good to see people out again. We were excited to come here and watch.”
He said he and his wife have been to a lot of stadiums, but “nobody compares” to Dacotah Bank.
Northern State football coach Mike Schmidt also enjoyed his evening. It was his first home game after being hired in fall 2019 before the 2020 season was wiped out by COVID-19.
“What a day for Aberdeen and Northern State. I mean, that was quite an opening and the community was unbelievable. The crowd was unbelievable,” he said.
“It’s a lot of work and a lot of time coming, and you just can’t say enough for all of the people who made this happen. I’m just happy we could get a win, and it would’ve been a tough opening day had we got a loss,” Schmidt said.
All 4,500 seats were sold as other fans stood, or sat on the berm surrounding the stadium. Many chatted with each other, commenting on the nice surroundings and stadium features.
‘Thank you isn’t enough’
From the weather to the turnout to the result, the opening night was a success, said Justin Fraase, Northern State’s vice president of enrollment, communications and marketing.
“Saying thank you isn’t enough,” he said after the game, referencing the host of university, stadium and other personnel who helped throughout the day, many behind the scenes. The community and fans also deserve thanks, he said, as do the people who had the vision, plans and funds to make the stadium a reality.
There were minor issues, Fraase said, including some audio concerns, backed up concession lines and a learning curve with electronic ticketing. But nothing serious.
University officials and staff will meet with community leaders and police Monday to discuss how things went and how they can be improved, he said.
“We get to do it four more times this year, and then again moving forward,” said Fraase, who has been at Northern State for five years.
Saturday was a good day for the university.
“It’s surreal to finally have this happen,” Fraase said.