FARGO — Before every game, when the North Dakota State football players are about to go back into the locker room after pregame warmups, nose guard Aaron Steidl and linebacker Levi Jordheim remind each other of the long road both took to get here. It’s a joke of sorts, but then again it isn’t.
“We don’t belong here.”
“We belong somewhere else.”
They’ve been saying those lines to each other since they were backups as redshirt freshmen, seemingly a long way from the starting lineup. On Saturday, before the Bison take on Southern Illinois at Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome, they’ll remind each other again that they came to NDSU as unheralded walk-ons in the fall of 2014.
“It’s always a good reminder to have in our heads,” Steidl said. “It became a pregame routine. We tell each other you don’t belong here, go to an NAIA school somewhere else. You belong in the other team’s bleachers, something like that. It’s kind of a tease to remember where you came from and don’t forget your roots.”
Jordheim came from Dickinson, N.D., a two-team all-state player who didn’t get a lot of college looks. Steidl came from Alexandria, Minn., with his best resume builder being a two-time all-conference choice.
Adding spice to their story: both are team captains this season.
“I didn’t expect that, but my teammates thought that of me and I think the world of them,” Jordheim said. “In the grand scheme of things, I knew this is where I wanted to be, but I didn’t know if I was going to get there. Just taking each step, each day -- the little things at a time -- and getting here has been really rewarding for me.”
It took until his fifth year, but Jordheim reached the starting lineup this season. He’s fourth on the team in tackles with 45. He withstood nagging injuries and playing behind talented linebackers for three years.
“He’s been through everything,” Steidl said. “One thing about Levi, he’s never ever quit. He’s always given his hardest. He’s always studied harder than anybody else. He’s not a guy who’s going to play video games and waste time. He’s going to watch film for four hours. He’s going to take notes.”
Steidl was more of an instant hit, playing meaningful repetitions as a redshirt freshman. The SIU game will be his 40th straight start. Both players will be part of 24 seniors who will be introduced individually before the game.
“Holy cow, been here for five years, I’m the old grandpa,” Steidl said. “I was here when Carson Wentz got announced. When Brian Schaetz, Joe Haeg, Kyle Emanuel, all those guys, got announced.”
Steidl made an immediate impression as a true freshman, being appointed a weight room leader by head coach Chris Klieman. He came in with some expertise having set weightlifting records at Jefferson High School in Alexandria.
“After that happened, I realized being a walk-on that I can have an influence somewhere in this program,” Steidl said. “I remember being so excited. I mean, in my class, nobody barely knew me -- I knew them for two weeks. Part of it I think is I always had that energy, kind of the crazy guy, and always yelling. I remember yelling and cheering guys on, and smacking them in the back.”
Both players credit NDSU’s system of not playing favorites to scholarship players when they come in as freshmen as a key to walk-ons having success. It was probably an easy guess that players like quarterback Easton Stick, safety Robbie Grimsley or cornerback Jalen Allison were targeted scholarship recruits.
“But no one knows because everyone is treated equal when they get here,” Jordheim said. “Some of the life lessons you learn here being in this program for five years are incredible.”
Lessons that Jordheim and Steidl remind each other of before every game.
“How we should be done playing and working somewhere,” Jordheim said. “It’s a tradition thing we have. It’s fun.”