Outnumbered but undaunted, a dedicated alumnus makes memories at the FCS National Championship game.
By Bart Mihailovich
They say that fear brings people together. Not that I was ever fearful in the sense of being terrified, but it was certainly jarring — and a little unsettling — to stumble into a swirling sea of Bison fans. I do not exaggerate when I tell you there was neither a familiar face, nor a hint of Eagle red, anywhere to be seen in this sea of Bison green and yellow.
That’s what it was like on a cool January morning in Frisco, Texas, just outside of Toyota Stadium, two hours before the kickoff of the FCS National Championship between my beloved Eastern Eagles and the North Dakota State University Bison.
Task one: find friendly faces at the Eagle tailgate. An attempt to triage an onslaught of texts and DMs lead us to where we thought the unofficial pocket of Eag faithful were hanging out. We were wrong. Or were we? Could our tailgate have been overwhelmed by the mass of NDSU fans filling the stadium’s concourse?
Not likely, I thought. I had been paying attention to the Eagle message board and social media channels. I knew Eagle boosters had descended on Frisco. At that moment, however, I briefly second-guessed whether anyone had actually shown up — outside, at least, of the trio of my traveling companions: my wife, Sara ’07, and friends and fellow alumni Rich Dempsey ’05 and Daren Bosted ’06.
That’s when we were plucked out of the crowd by friendly faces who happened to be passing by. “You look lost,” they said. “Eagles fans? That’s the other side!” And so, like thirsty sojourners being steered toward an oasis in the desert, we circled the stadium until we were at last united with our people. And it was glorious.
Eagle fans did show up, my friends, and then some. And while our legion of red and white may not have equaled our rivals in number, I can confidently report that it far surpassed them in enthusiasm.
Between the brats and burgers there was much catching up to do. Having been part of the EWU community for many years, I am fortunate to have been able to nurture relationships that stretch beyond those with whom I went to classes. As a student, I spent much of my free time working with University Special Events, an organization that allowed me to meet and build lasting relationships with faculty members, deans, administrators and other personalities at the university. I felt like I saw them all in Frisco. Writing for The Easterner and interning for the Athletics Department also allowed me to meet many more EWU stalwarts; many of these old friends were also in Frisco. Finally, I spent six years serving on the EWU Alumni Association Board of Directors. You will perhaps not be surprised when I tell you that just about everyone I served with made an appearance. The FCS Championship was not just a football game: it was a reunion of epic proportions.
A little after kickoff, I felt something bounce off the back of my head. I turned around and saw Nadine Arévalo laughing, waving and yelling, “hi!” Eastern’s former first lady and her husband, President Emeritus Rodolfo Arévalo, were a few rows behind us. Seeing their smiling faces brought back a flood of memories from some of our favorite times in and around campus. Sara and I both worked University Special Events, and while there we got really close to the Arévalos — heck, we even invited them to our wedding.
When you choose a university to attend, you hope you’re doing more than signing up for an education; you anticipate becoming part a community, and making memories that will last a lifetime. I’m not saying a single event can or should define the success or failure of that proposition. But when it took me 20 minutes to make a bathroom run, all because I ran into so many people from so many different chapters of my EWU life, I felt like calling my parents to thank them again for helping me get to Eastern.
Looking back, I can’t believe there was a time in November when Sara and I debated making the trip. Like a lot of you I’m sure, after every playoff victory we went through the whole song and dance of asking ourselves, “If they keep winning, will we go? Should we go? Let’s just look at plane tickets now just to see how much it would be. Let’s talk to the grandparents and see if maybe they are free that weekend to watch the kids — just in case.”
And then, as soon as the Maine Bears were dispatched, there was no debate. We were going. Our Eags were going, so we were going. There are some experiences you just can’t miss. You do them whether you think you can or not. You do them when it means stretching the budget. You do them when it means taking that extra day off. I went to Frisco in 2011 when we beat the University of Delaware for our first FCS National Championship. So I tried to frame planning for this trip through the lens of that one. But besides the eight years which have crept by, there have been some major advancements in the world of EWU football, and campus life, that would make this trip unique.
At the most basic level, there are more of us fans now. We’ve had a decade’s worth of alumni classes who only know winning EWU Football. And not just winning, but dominance. Behind only NDSU, Eastern is the second most dominant FCS college football team of the last dozen years. With winning comes fanbase growth, as is evidenced by the Eags’ regular season home sellout streak, the explosion of pregame fanfare and the immensely increased exposure of EWU in the media.
This luxury of sustained success can sometimes breed a complacency that was unthinkable in 2011. “We’re actually not going to go this year because it’s bad timing for us, but we’ll head down next time they make it — probably next year.” That was a real conversation I had with an alum before heading to Frisco. Back during our first championship game experience, I remember thinking I had to go out of fear that it may never happen again.
Another change between 2011 and 2019 involves social media and email marketing. In advance of our trip, I knew almost everyone who was going and every possible pre- and post-game plan — this thanks to the university’s many social media channels and the digitization of the support system around EWU Athletics. In both the real and virtual worlds, it is really a great time to be an Eagle.
The flip side of these advances is a sense of “ownership” of winning. So even while knowing we were going up against a dominant, dynasty of a program, I don’t think I’m in the minority when I say I traveled to Frisco expecting a win. In 2011, it was just about being there. In 2019, it was about winning.
And then we lost. Not in epic fashion, not a loss that felt like it should have been a victory. Just a game in which the other team played a little better and got a few more breaks. Looking back, our defeat felt kind of weird. Almost anticlimactic.
Which made what happened next interesting. Everyone from the EWU section made their way down to the field and over to the Eastern sideline. Just twenty or so yards away, in the end zone, the NDSU faithful were celebrating their seventh championship in eight years. As it was in the pregame, by the same margin, we were a group of red surrounded by a sea of green and yellow. But it didn’t feel like we were outnumbered.
We walked around the sideline and thanked players and coaches. Old roommates and teammates took pictures, hugged and high fived. Even though their emotions were running high, as you would expect, the team and their coaches stuck around to interact with the traveling community of EWU fans. It was a surreal experience as we blocked out the on-field trophy presentation happening just a few steps away and simply enjoy the fact that a university and its football program could bring so many people into the Texas sunshine.
For us, the experience kept on giving as we made our way 40 miles south to an NFL playoff game scheduled between the hometown Dallas Cowboys and another beloved Washington team, the Seattle Seahawks. It was pretty evident from on-the-field conversations that a majority of EWU fans were heading down to complete the daily football doubleheader.
Though I’m not really an NFL fan, I couldn’t pass up the chance to join them. Walking through the labyrinth of AT&T Stadium wearing the same EWU gear I wore in Frisco felt like a badge of honor; especially when other EWU fans would shout, “Go Eags” (or even when NDSU fans would stop to talk about the game).
I don’t know how much different the experience would have been had we been able to pull out the victory. But I do know that I’m glad we didn’t talk ourselves out of going, and I can’t wait until we can go back again. Frisco is a great venue for the game; a beautiful stadium with great amenities that fully delivers on the unique qualities that make FCS football so special.
I’m also incredibly proud of our fanbase and community. These are the people who make the alumni game day experience what it’s really all about: a celebration of our collective college memories, and an affirmation of the bonds of friendship that run deeper than any one game or season.
I’ll close with just one more thought. Back in 2001, the student section at Woodward Field was on the opposite side of its current location at Roos Field. Attending my first Eagles game as a freshman, I remember it was hot, and the few of us who showed up were forced to shield our eyes from a relentlessly bright September sun. No one wore EWU gear, there was no gameday experience and, really, there just wasn’t much of anything at all to get excited about.
Fast forward to now, 18-years later. Soon another set of freshmen will be gathering beneath the September sun. For them, as for all of EWU’s alumni and friends, so much has changed: a football team now to be reckoned with, a university growing in reach and prestige, and an increasingly cohesive and enthusiastic Eastern community. All share in the confidence that comes with success; all can bask in the glow of a future has never been brighter. Go Eags!