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Bison Game Day: The man behind the $15 million football gift

Tom Blattner, NDSU's $15 million man and cancer survivor, is all about upbeat attitude with his former Bison housemates.

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North Dakota State graduate Tom Blattner's experience as a college student living with four Bison football players has translated into his giving back to the program. Jeff Kolpack / The Forum

FARGO — The big, white tailgating tent just west of Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome was starting to fill up with Bison football fans, a group that over the years has been a rock with their loyalty. Tom Blattner, in his simple yellow Bison sweatshirt on a cold day, was just one of the guys.

Back in his college days at North Dakota State, he once was one of five guys in a rented house near campus. The other four were football players: Monte Kubas, Kyle Carlson, Joe Toth and Chad Pundsack.

There was something about the construction management major, non-athlete that appealed to the other four. Blattner brought a sense of perspective and regular-student humility after long days of practice and football meetings.

Pundsack had seen that his entire life; the two families from the nearby towns of Albany and Avon along I-94 in central Minnesota were friends for generations.

“Nicest, down-to-earth guy you’ll ever know,” Pundsack said. “He’s always been that way. He grew up in a prestigious family in our area but money has never gotten to him. Very giving.”

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  • Bison bludgeon Buccaneers as NDSU advances to 10th FCS semifinal North Dakota State advanced to the FCS semifinals for the 10th time in 11 seasons.

Very giving is an understatement. Last week, NDSU announced a $15 million pledge from the WE B Giving Foundation that essentially completed fundraising for the $50 million Nodak Insurance Company Football Performance Complex.
It’s the largest gift in NDSU athletic department history and it came from a private foundation established by Tom and his wife, Dawn.

Who is Tom Blattner?

He’s part of a fourth generational construction company, D.H. Blattner & Sons, that traces its roots to building railroads and interstate highways. Seeing a downturn in that business, it made the switch to renewable energy and formed Blattner Energy not long after Tom graduated from NDSU.

Not a family who passes the baton from one generation to the other without sweat equity, Tom and Dawn spent a lot of time living out of an RV driving from one project to another. They lived in Washington, Texas, Oklahoma, Iowa and Montana. Their son, Will, was born in Washington.

“You were in a place for like six, nine months, you picked up, drove across the country and went to the next project,” Tom said.

Carlson said he’s heard stories of Tom being high up in the wind towers on a project.

“That would be scary, that wouldn’t be my job,” Carlson said. “I don’t think he was given anything other than the opportunity from his dad. He’s such a good person. You would never know he’s a rich guy. Walking by, he’s one of us and a good-hearted person that I’m proud of.”

This year, the company is projected to build one-third of all wind projects in the country, according to the Star Tribune newspaper. It has over 450 wind and solar projects in its portfolio. A private company that does not publicly disclose revenues, the Star Tribune reported a growth in revenue after the move to wind energy of approximately $125 million in 2001, $622 million in 2008 to $1.35 billion in 2015.

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In September, Quanta Services out of Houston announced it was acquiring Blattner Energy in a $2.7 billion merger deal that would keep the current management structure of Blattner in place. Power Engineering reported the combined revenue of both companies is more than $13 billion.

For NDSU and its large indoor football practice facility, timing is everything.

“I think it’s unique to have somebody that had no real tie directly to NDSU athletics at NDSU to be that passionate about it,” Kubas said. “You look at him, the guy could be digging ditches or something. Those are the best people. No one would guess it, nobody would. That’s the way he carries himself, it’s not like ‘I just sold a company for a billion or whatever.’ You never, ever get that vibe from him.”

The vibe to WE B Giving is more than a name, too. It started with a fun way to name hunting property the family bought as a generational thing. At first they called it WE B Farming and later transformed it to WE B Hunting.

“And then we thought, we need to form a foundation so we can give the blessings we’ve been given with others,” Tom said. “It took us a while. What should we call this thing? We’re going through all sorts of names and all of a sudden my wife and I look at each other and say, ‘We’re idiots. We have the perfect name.’”

That would be WE B Giving, with the first two letters an ode to their children Will and Ellie and the “B” for Blattner. Tom Blattner was part of the original few who gave primary donations to get the indoor football project to the first phase.

This one put it over the top. Talk to Tom about what pushes his buttons with the program and the subject of winning doesn’t come up. That despite NDSU claiming eight Division I FCS national titles in the last 10 years.

He’ll point to former head coaches Craig Bohl and Chris Klieman and current head coach Matt Entz “doing it the right way.” Blattner Energy hires employees the way NDSU recruits football players, he said.

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“You’re not reading about the kids in the paper,” said Tom, in reference to articles of players in trouble. “That’s every day of the week for me. The fastest way out the door is when we start reading about kids in the paper. The foundation is built on character. Without that, nothing else matters.”

It’s gone both ways.

WE B Beating Cancer.

In 2016, Tom Blattner was diagnosed with colon cancer, a journey that included at least two families: his own and his former Bison football housemates. Through it all, he said remaining upbeat was a major part of recovery.

“I remember the night he called me,” Pundsack said. “He was in tears. He reached out to a couple of people right away, updated us on what was going on. Honestly, I think part of his love for Bison football is he has people he can reach out to and help him through the process. There was big support from NDSU people checking in on him, keeping him positive.”

That support included players not only around Pundsack’s class but those who played with his older brother, Dick Pundsack in the 1980s, as well. In typical reciprocating fashion, Tom Blattner has contributed to the Bison Football Players Association, the group that helps former players in need, even though he wasn’t a player.

“We had a little bit of a fight on our hands with that,” Tom said. “A lot of my friends like Chad would always say, 'Why are you always smiling and laughing?' And I always say, 'What else are you going to do?' I don’t want to drag other people down, I want to build them up. I’m all right and I’m going to be all right. We’ve been blessed, being able to share that with others is a great thing. My wife and I enjoy life. Having cancer really opened my eyes, too. Every day is a gift, enjoy it.”

Certainly, NDSU players will be enjoying his latest gift for generations to come. And to think it all started at a couple of dorm rooms and a rented house south of campus. Four football players and Tom.

Related Topics: FCS FOOTBALLCHRIS KLIEMAN
Jeff would like to dispel the notion he was around when Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, but he is on his third decade of reporting with Forum Communications. The son of a reporter and an English teacher, and the brother of a reporter, Jeff has worked at the Jamestown Sun, Bismarck Tribune and since 1990 The Forum, where he's covered North Dakota State athletics since 1995.
Jeff has covered all nine of NDSU's Division I FCS national football titles and has written three books: "Horns Up," "North Dakota Tough" and "Covid Kids." He is the radio host of "The Golf Show with Jeff Kolpack" April through August.
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