Bison Game Day: Celebrating the nostalgic quest of NDSU athletes from both sports – InForum

FARGO — Somewhere along the way, back when Bill Clinton was president and combining a camera into a phone became a thing, the North Dakota State dual-sport athlete has started to dry up like Lake Agassiz back then. On Friday, Marques Johnson was inducted into the Bison Athletic Hall of Fame and with that went a historic induction of sorts.

He may be among the latest in a line of dual-sport athletes at school to be welcomed for more than one sport.

This is the world of NCAA Division I athletics.

When NDSU hosts Youngstown State on Saturday in the 1 p.m. return game at Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome, Johnson will be featured at halftime for all his accomplishments. Considering he’s made it in two sports, this may be the Cliffs Notes version.

Johnson may have been the guy on the mic on Friday, but he, Allen Burrell and Jared Essler; bow down.

You were double the problem for other schools.

Off-season conditioning programs, authorized hours coaches can have with their off-season athletes, and the continued emphasis on specialization are among the reasons.

“You’re seeing less and less multi-sport athletes,” Hall of Fame bison track and field coach Don Larson said. “Nowadays in sports like football, what, you’re hired to get fired? Unfortunately, it’s ‘just winning, baby’, but that’s our society. It’s about winning. We don’t keep saying it’s just a game, but is it really?

Johnson, Burrell and Essler were the quintessential prototype of two-sport athletes, beginners in both football and athletics, who were very good at both in the early 2000s.

It’s as rare in Division I athletics these days as Bigfoot sightings.

At NDSU, there was occasional fumbling in another sport. Basketball player Dexter Werner throws the javelin. Michael Tveidt did the same athletic combo in the high jump.

But no one has done it to the level of Johnson, Essler and Burrell. Johnson was recruited from Milwaukee Vincent High School as a redshirt football player in 2001.

He had instant success in his first year as a redshirt with 37 receptions in 2002, the last year Bob Babich was the head coach. When Craig Bohl was hired in 2003 and the athletic department began a five-year transition to Division I athletics, Bohl wasn’t hot on any of his players participating in football and athletics.

“It was a bit of a tussle, things like that,” Larson said. “In Craig’s defense, he sat down and had a meeting. They grew up playing multiple sports and just couldn’t live with 12 competitions a year. Craig graciously allowed them to do that.

Larson had built-in comfort zones in the Division II years. Former football coach Rocky Hager is the grandfather of his daughter Kelsey. Assistant football coaches Kevin Donnalley and Shane Hodenfield played football and ran track in college. If there was a dual-sport athlete MVP, look no further than Arden Beachy, who in the early 1990s was the quarterback for the football team and did the decathlon on the track.

Essler, whose wife Kinsey (Coles) Essler was also inducted into the Hall of Fame as a track sprinter, remembers in particular that Babich came to his house on a recruiting visit, saying that at the hen he was a football player at the University of Pittsburgh, all four members of a relay team were football players.

“It was his personal perspective and he loved it,” Essler said. “I was okay with that.”

But Babich left for the NFL after Essler’s third year at NDSU. Bohl, unlike Babich, didn’t have much of an athletic kid mix with the Nebraska football program, where he previously coached.

“To be honest, we kind of butted heads, right away,” Essler said. “There wasn’t a lot of trust between Coach Larson and Coach Bohl at the beginning, but we found common ground. I thank Coach Bohl for allowing us to finish what we have been recruited, the promises that were made and he honored that. Once he started getting his own guys in there, we saw that it started to die.

Johnson said if he had to make a choice at this point in his career, he would choose track.

“He wasn’t used to two-sport athletes,” Johnson said of Bohl. “He expected me to be in spring training because we were on a football scholarship. I think he realized that we weren’t just trying to get out of spring football and we were actually excelling on the track.

Johnson, Essler, Burrell and Reece Vega excelled to the point that it took 18 years before their 3-minute, 7.75-second 1,600-meter relay record was broken last spring by the quartet of Adrian Harris, Jacob Levin, Jacob Rodin and Cody Roder, who picked up their speed all the way to the NCAA Division I Outdoor Championships.

These four broke the record three times in the span of a month with Vega as the NDSU sprints and hurdles coach.

“Reece is doing a good job and these guys were flying,” Essler said. “It was cool to see that happen.”

The dual-sport experience didn’t stop after college for Johnson, either. He played four years in professional indoor football, playing for Omaha Beef of the United Indoor Football League in 2007. He spent 2008 with the Milwaukee Bonecrushers and the next two years with the Wisconsin Wolfpack. He was an all-league first-team selection at wide receiver in 2010.

“Football is a bit dangerous and I wasn’t making a lot of money doing that stuff,” Johnson said. “So the next thing was, you know, I can still do track. I can still move.

Former North Dakota State football player Marques Johnson has achieved the highest level in the United States Track & Field Masters Program.

Photo submitted

So it was on to the United States Track & Field Masters program, reaching the 100 meter semi-finals at the 2018 World Masters Athletics Championships in Malaga, Spain in the men’s 35-39 category.

A year later, in that same competition and in the same age group, he ran the third leg of the winning team in the 800 meter relay in Torun, Poland. Individually, he finished eighth in the 60 meters.

He is a 12-time All-American Masters in United States Track and Field.

“The hard part now is finding the time to practice,” Johnson said. “Once you get to world competitions and even US competitions, it’s a really good competition. Some of the guys in my age group are still running under 11 seconds in the 100 and that’s very impressive for men in their late 40s. For me, it’s the challenge to see how fast I can still run at my age and just have fun.

Johnson lives in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, located just south of Milwaukee, and works for FedEx Corporation. He stays in touch with former teammates, especially Bison players of his time from the Milwaukee area like Keontay Jackson, Lamar Gordon and Mike Sheppard.

Johnson appeared in three Bison national title games in Frisco, Texas, one of many players carrying the torch to bring a Division II program to Division I FCS level in a short time. And he did it in two sports.

It’s a concept that current head coach Matt Entz isn’t opposed to. It would definitely take the right athlete, able to balance the schedule both in school and in everything else, he said.

When Entz was a player at Wayne State, Neb., a Division II school, specialization wasn’t as big an issue as it is today in middle school and high school.

“I think you see fewer and fewer kids at the high school level playing multiple sports,” he said. “First, the requirements for most sports are 365 days a year. And the minute you turn one off and you jump into another and you succeed – and that doesn’t mean you can’t, but I just think body wear and preparation, all the things what we do from a physical point of view, I don’t know if the children still want to do that.

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