It was a way of life for teenager Karson Schoening, who would wake up just before 2 a.m. at his farmhouse south of Rolla, N.D., to do his job. Winter was still hanging around and the temperature near the Canadian border had the tendency to dip below zero.
It would take about 20 minutes for Schoening to put on enough winter gear to walk out to the barnyard and make sure the cows were OK. It was calving season and with 50 head of cows at the time, it was all about the livelihood for the Schoenings.
“You have to know your role and the farm comes first,” Karson said. “It’s what pays the bills so you have to get that done.”
Calving season was done in shifts with Karson, his brother Weston and his father Ryan Schoening. If one of the boys had the midnight watch, the other would take the 2 a.m. slot. Ryan, who has worked for the North Dakota Highway Department for the last 19 years in addition to farming, usually began his day at 5 a.m.
If there was an issue in the middle of the night, one of the boys would wake up dad. Newborn calves don’t last long on the cold ground.
Cows are not small, either. Neither is Karson, the 6-foot-5, 303-pound starting center for the North Dakota State football team.
“You can’t be scared of them,” he said. “The younger ones you can bully around a little bit but you definitely have to be tough enough to go out there and do it.”
Schoening is the latest in a line of Bison offensive linemen from rural North Dakota, most from the north central region. Starting right tackle Cordell Volson carries a Balfour, N.D., address.
Schoening took over at center for Tanner Volson, Cordell’s older brother. The starting right guard for NDSU’s 15-0 team last year was Luke Bacon, from Granville, N.D. If you’ve read one small-town story, you’ve read them all.
But each is a big part of the Bison success.
“The lifestyles they’ve all grown up in, it’s tough-nose, time-is-no-issue,” said offensive line coach AJ Blazek. “You look at our practice times; we’re earlier than some people. You don’t hear boo from the kids, it’s like sleeping in for some of them.”
It took four years, but the junior Schoening finally reached prime time in the NDSU lineup. That’s another trait that sometimes goes unnoticed: The Bison attract players who think nothing of grinding in virtual anonymity for years.
In the Rolla area, Schoening is a big deal. He was a man amongst boys leading North Prairie High School to a runner-up finish in the 2015 North Dakota 9-man championship game. It was the only year Schoening played 9-man ball after North Prairie moved down from 11-man after his junior season.
For Schoening, that year was a blast in that two fewer players on the field meant most teams couldn’t double team him when he played defense. In high school, football represented a privilege from school and work.
Players would routinely get up early and lift weights before class started. During harvest, the farm kids would go to practice and, in the case of Schoening, head straight to the field when they got home.
The family farm consisted of about 1,600 acres of crop land. Schoening would do his homework in the field until the sun went down.
“Then go home, finish homework and start it all over again the next day,” he said. “There were nights when it would last until midnight but mom tried really hard to get us out of the field so we could get some sleep and be ready for school the next day. But if it were up to my dad, I think we would have been out there until the job was done.”
These are tough days for Ryan Schoening. The weather has been brutal and he and Weston still have 800 acres of beans in the ground. On Wednesday, there was still about 30 inches of snow from last week’s blizzard, but at least it was melting.
Like many farmers in the state, he doesn’t know if he’ll be able to get back into the field. It makes Saturday afternoons at Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome all the more important in terms of mental positivity.
“Unbelievable,” Ryan said. “It gives me a chance to forget about the rain and snow and on Saturday for a day, a day and a half, it keeps my mind off it.”
The farm has grown to 2,000 acres with 90 head of cattle. Ryan’s job with the highway department is busier in the winter, so it makes the two occupations doable. But on days he was plowing snow, the boys would do the chores.
“They knew at an early age that they had to help me if we were going to do this,” Ryan said. “They knew they had chores and they never complained.”
This week, heading into a home game Saturday against Missouri State, there are no complaints with his son. There was some question if Schoening would be capable of replacing the All-American Tanner Volson, who made it to the final cut this year with the Los Angeles Chargers. He saw limited time behind Volson last year and NDSU head coach Matt Entz said there’s a concern “with any new body.”
“As coaches, we are worry warts and we’re always crossing our fingers hoping guys step up,” Entz said. “With Karson’s background, the toughness factor was never in doubt. It was from a mental standpoint. Can he make the decisions, can he I.D. things quick enough so we can get the ball moving?”
Blazek said the desire was there. Schoening dropped eight pounds in order to gain some mobility.
“He cleaned up his body fat,” Blazek said. “He wasn’t a sloppy guy by any means but he was a 90 percent guy. He’s a 100 percent guy now with everything he’s doing in life and football.”
Schoening was named the Missouri Valley Football Conference Offensive Lineman of the Week after his performance in the 46-14 win over Northern Iowa. He played in all 69 snaps grading out at 94 percent with zero missed assignments.
UNI came into the game sixth in the FCS in quarterback sacks, but rarely got close to Bison quarterback Trey Lance. It was the second straight impressive performance by the NDSU offensive line against a noted defense on a top 10-ranked team.
One week earlier, NDSU manhandled Illinois State 37-3 on the road.
“A 6-6, 330-pound noseguard last week and he did a really good job,” Entz said. “This week, the (Jared) Brinkman kid, a 500-pound bencher.”
When news of the player of the week honor hit the folks in Rolla, Ryan’s cell phone blew up with messages. If he could use a regular diversion from the wet weather, so could many others in the area, also.
“There’s a lot of pride in this town,” Ryan said. “I’m living my dream through him.”