BALFOUR, N.D. — It was in 1995 when Ralph Volson, growing weary of working for other companies, decided to go on his own in the construction business. It was a humbling beginning and that first year wasn’t good for the balance sheet.

He figured he cleared maybe $6,000. It added up to not-much-per-hour, but at least they were his pennies.

Floods in north central North Dakota in 1996 and 1997 brought more business and RV Enterprises was on its way to success. Today, he has a couple of shops on the family’s 20-acre country living space near Balfour and two years ago opened a modern, monstrous shop just off Highway 52 near Drake, N.D.

Ralph took nothing and made it into more than something. He has around 300 pieces of construction equipment in all shapes, sizes and uses that dot the surrounding, vast landscape.

“He showed an example of what you can do with hard work,” said Tanner Volson, his son. “Growing up, my mom and dad worked really hard to build the business. Dad would put in long hours, mom would do the paperwork and it showed that with determination you can build anything if you put your mind to it. They’ve been great examples for me and my brothers. It’s hard to put into words exactly how they did it.”

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In a way, Tanner’s football career has followed a similar path. Tuesday, the former North Dakota State offensive lineman got on a plane at 8:30 a.m. in Minot, N.D., and flew to Los Angeles to begin training camp with the Los Angeles Chargers.

He went from a nothing college prospect as a youngster playing 9-man football at Drake-Anamoose High School and by his senior year had a Division I offer with NDSU. That thought still blows him away.

It blows everybody away in the community because football was an afterthought growing up.

“The toughest kids I know don’t play football or basketball, they’re too busy working on the farm,” Tanner said. “They don’t have time to sacrifice and go play a sport and that’s the way it is. Football is just a sport around here, it’s not like many places where it’s a way of life.”

Ralphy and Wendy Volson did their best so their kids could play, however. Cordell Volson will be a junior at NDSU this fall and is expected to be a major contributor on the offensive line. Tanner is 6-foot-4 and 310 pounds. Cordell is 6-6, 311.

They get their height from Wendy’s side of the family. They get their determination from their upbringing.

“My parents started this a few years before I was born so it’s been a constant grind trying to start that up,” Tanner said. “It took a lot out of them coming from nothing to where they are now.”

Former North Dakota State offensive lineman Tanner Volson worked out this summer at his old high school weight room at Drake-Anamoose High School. Jeff Kolpack / The Forum
Former North Dakota State offensive lineman Tanner Volson worked out this summer at his old high school weight room at Drake-Anamoose High School. Jeff Kolpack / The Forum

The Volsons carry a Balfour address, but Drake gets almost all of their attention. That’s where the high school is and that’s where the Volson brothers became college prospects.

The Drake school still has photos of old Balfour High School on a hallway wall. Balfour, population 28, has seen better days. Empty lots and rundown houses are the norm. A vacant bank and community hall is about all that remains at once was a main street.

A Lutheran church built in 1906 still appears active. Balfour High School is a majestic site of what once was. The three-story brick school that was a beauty in its day has a partially-collapsed roof and blown-out windows.

The kids just aren’t there anymore. Drake-Anamoose played in a newly formed 6-man football division last fall and will do so again this year. For about three weeks this summer, Tanner went to the school and worked out in the small weight room, but it’s big enough to have everything an NFL player needs.

It’s been a busy summer. Tanner and his wife, Kristin Reinowski, were married in June with a reception for around 800 guests held at RV Enterprises. Kristin is a fifth-grade teacher in Anamoose. They’ve been together since Tanner’s sophomore year in high school, where she is tied for the school single-game basketball record for rebounds in one game with 17.

That accomplishment is on a board in the school hallway. Several feet away, Tanner has an 8-by-10 framed photo listing his college accomplishments, but that’s about it. That’s the way the Volson family likes it. They have no need to advertise that their oldest of four boys is in an NFL camp.

He signed as a free agent after the NFL Draft in April. He’ll be reunited on the practice field this week with former NDSU quarterback Easton Stick, who was the Chargers’ fifth round draft pick.

Volson is one of three centers on the L.A. depth chart and will most likely have to beat one of the other two out. At least he has something nobody around Drake figured he would do: have a shot at making an NFL roster.

“We have a saying around here: stay humble and kind,” Wendy said. “People know it. We don’t need to talk about it.”

There’s no need to talk about Tanner winning the Rimington Trophy that goes to the best center in the FCS. He was a consensus first team all-American in a Bison career that began in virtual anonymity.

“He had some doubters in high school that told him there was no way he would play Division I ball,” Wendy said.

He redshirted his first year and was a backup his first two seasons. About those doubters? Wendy admits to being “angry and upset” about it.

“I was wondering myself,” she said, “but I always kind of knew he could do it. When he got to college, it was tough at first coming from 9-man and he struggled.”

But she also saw Tanner as a sixth-grader get into a payloader and pull a stuck sprayer out of a field. If not at school, he was helping Ralph with anything and everything in the construction business. That included shoveling, picking rocks or running equipment.

There was never a time for a nap, nor did Tanner ever ask for one, Wendy said. Nobody in the family would trade the lifestyle for the world.

“It’s unbeatable,” Tanner said. “Just the way you’re raised here, the freedom is unbelievable to have. It is a piece of heaven up here.”