FARGO — When Fargo's Jeff McKinnon played for the Bison back in the early 1990s, he was a tough linebacker.
But when a cancer diagnosis sidelined him a year ago, North Dakota State University football players from across generations offered to help him and his family through those dark days with visits to his chemotherapy sessions, phone calls and hands-on help.
"After being diagnosed, within days, I had people delivering meals for me and my family, I had someone set up to come mow my lawn and clean the house," McKinnon said. "They seem like little things, but when you are going through treatment you feel so sick. Everybody from the Bison family was reaching out to me."
Everyone from players to former coaches came to help, McKinnon said, explaining that he had recently gotten a visit from former coach Rocky Hager, who wanted to check in.
The Bison Football Players Association started with just a few players offering to help Bison football families past and present who find themselves in crisis.
There's no shortage of stories of Bison from multiple generations coming through for fellow players. When former NDSU player Phil Ostlie of Moorhead died suddenly, current and former players came to help his young family move.
The players said the group really got its start during a closed practice in Frisco, Texas, where former players were invited to watch and give a pep talk to the NDSU team before the championship game. There are now more than 400 members.
"It is all about serving . . . we are not here for recognition, we're not here to fundraise — we are here to serve and serve others," said 1988 Bison running back Chad Stark.
The association has grown from a handful of players to hundreds scattered across the country, and social media keeps them all connected.
When former player Jake Baukol's wife, Wendy, passed away in March, the group stepped up to offer help with meals and more.
It's not just players from the 1980s like Stark and Tony Satter, but guys who played Bison football more than a half-century ago who are joining recent standout players from the '90s and even this decade.
Of the recent additions is running back Chase Morlock, who graduated in 2016, who says he's working to bring the on-field mentality of family into the community long after his playing days are done.
"Right when you get done, you kind of think it ends at the locker room and the last time you're walking out you're kind of like, 'Oh, crap, what the heck. What happens now?' " Morlock said. "But I don't think you truly experience the whole realm of Bison nation and Bison pride until you walk out and you start to experience it post-actual playing days."
Thirty years after graduating, Stark knows from experience just how different it is off the field.
"It is not about wins and losses at this stage," he said. "It is about being a good person and how you serve your brother."