Kolpack: 50 years ago, one quarter vs. UND rescued Don Siverson's career
The North Dakota State senior quarterback rallied Bison in one of the more memorable games in the series in 1972
The North Dakota State football players in the Division I era in recent years are most likely oblivious to the story of their bus driver. When Don Siverson drives them to Grand Forks, Brookings, Vermillion or Minneapolis, it’s all about the then and now of FCS football.
But 50 years ago, one game between NDSU and the University of North Dakota will go down as one of the most memorable in the series in more ways than just a come-from-behind Bison win. Siverson was the NDSU quarterback enduring an inconsistent season by Bison QB standards.
The UND game was going the same way. The first three quarters were duly noted in a Sunday story in The Forum, where the opening paragraph of a story on Siverson started with this:
“Through most of North Dakota State University’s football battle with North Dakota here Saturday, Bison quarterback Don Siverson was trailing two UND cheerleaders and a tuba player in the Most Valuable Player voting.”
“That was true,” Siverson said with a laugh. “There was so much excitement, the heart of the story is about the rivalry. It was a different week.”
The story noted that Siverson consistently missed open receivers, and an underthrown pass to Bruce Reimers on a third-and-6 with just over seven minutes remaining appeared to follow the theme. At that point, NDSU was just 4 of 17 on third-down conversions.
But Reimers came back for the ball, grabbed it, and ran 52 yards for the touchdown. A two-point conversion pass from Siverson intended for a receiver in the end zone was tipped, but it fell into the hands of NDSU center Mike Evenson, who fell over the line and pulled the Bison to within 17-15.
The game winner came with 27 seconds remaining when Siverson, rolling out left for the first time all game, scored from five yards out.
They were five yards that perhaps made up for four years of hardship for a highly recruited quarterback from Casselton, N.D., who had recruiting attention from Murray Warmath at the University of Minnesota and Bob Devaney at Nebraska. Siverson’s statistics were such that he got high school All-American attention and everybody was recruiting him.
He chose NDSU but battled high expectations. Siverson, who was behind a standout quarterback like Mike Bentson and before that Terry Hanson, never won the starting job. It ultimately led him to leave school for the 1971 season.
Siverson didn’t see himself fitting into the NDSU depth chart.
With the Vietnam War a hot-button issue, and Siverson losing his student deferment for dropping out of school, he was eligible for the military draft. His number: 119. His draft area stopped at 111 that year.
“I escaped that thing but I didn’t really know what I wanted to do,” he said. “It was a turmoil time in history, toward the end of the Vietnam War, there were campus protests going on all the time. It was kind of a confusing time.”
One day, while working construction, a couple of Bison teammates came to a job site and asked Siverson to come back.
He agreed. Siverson went to head coach Ron Erhardt and said he’d pay his own way for spring semester, but if he won the starting quarterback job that he would get his scholarship back. Erhardt agreed.
He won the job. This being a quarterback from his senior year at unbeaten Central Cass until 1972 took a handful of snaps in a game the entire time.
Siverson watched the 1971 NDSU-UND game, in which the Sioux rolled the Bison 23-7. That was the expectation heading into the ‘72 game, also, with UND led by standout running back Mike Deutsch.
NDSU was a decided underdog at UND’s old Memorial Stadium.
“The sportswriters here and in Grand Forks and the television personnel gave us no chance,” Siverson said. “We’re going to get thumped.”
NDSU got a break when Deutsch, who scored both of UND’s touchdowns, hurt his back in the first half and didn’t return. The Bison trailed 17-7 after three quarters.
But the next 15 minutes turned Don Siverson’s NDSU career from mediocre to legendary. Siverson struggled at the drop-back passing game, and UND knew that. He couldn’t do the things that previous quarterbacks like Bentson could do.
Statistics will show that year Siverson completed 42% of his passes. They will show he averaged 0.9 yards per carry.
What they won’t show is he willed his way to helping his team finish 8-2. At Northern Iowa, it was 0-0 at halftime. NDSU won 42-0. At Montana State, he played with a separated shoulder that he hurt the week before against Northern Colorado, icing it whenever the Bison defense was on the field.
He was questioning himself if he could play at this level physically. But for 15 minutes on one Saturday afternoon in Grand Forks, there forever will be no questioning his role in Bison history.
He was the quarterback in one of the greatest NDSU rallies in the series with UND.
“At UND, our guys had a different look, a different feel,” said Siverson, who still routinely gets together with a group of old teammates. “Denny Isrow our head trainer said if you win this game I’m going to shave my head and put the score on my forehead. He did and it made newspapers across the country.”