FRISCO, Texas — Much like the season, nothing about the FCS championship game was normal. It was, after all, a Sunday afternoon in May. Teams and fans who survived a season postponed until spring and unrelenting COVID protocols were tested by a downpour and a 75-minute lightning delay.
But a thrilling championship game broke out, with a finish that included an 85-yard touchdown run by South Dakota State’s Isaiah Davis followed by a 65-yard drive orchestrated by Sam Houston State’s Eric Schmid to lead the Bearkats to a 23-21 win over the Jackrabbits to claim the school’s first national title.
It was the type of finish that the sport’s administrators could only dream of when they originally decided to delay the FCS season, hoping that the promise of a COVID vaccine could return some sense of normalcy. In a fortunate twist, the game arrived the same week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention eased the mask mandate for those who have been fully vaccinated.
It led to an atmosphere that felt like college football was indeed returning to normal.
On Saturday night, dozens of Frisco hotels were sold out and bars and restaurants were packed with fans, including a hefty contingent of South Dakota State die-hards who made the trek to Texas after the school sold out its allotment of tickets in just one day.
“It was a sea of blue and gold everywhere I went,” said Tim Goldammer, who drove 14 hours from Minnesota to get here. “It was nothing but Jackrabbits, people hooting and hollering and yelling, ‘Go Jacks!’ It was just a good environment for football.”
In late April, the NCAA announced an expansion of its attendance policies to allow 50% capacity. An announced crowd of 7,840 braved the weather conditions, with both schools looking for the first national championship in school history.
“We can get wet. We can get cold,” Goldammer said, wearing blue-and-gold striped overalls in an outfit he described as “an homage to the barnyard.” “If this was in South Dakota, it would’ve turned into snow at some point today, but we’d still be here. The whole crew would have showed up. Me and my 3,500 best friends from SDSU would have come to see the Jacks play today.”
The fans came to play, as well. During the lightning delay, rowdy fans packed covered areas inside the stadium. In the south end zone, they mixed inside a bar and a party started.
Outside, there were still signs that the full college atmosphere hasn’t quite returned. There were no bands or cheerleaders, and halftime was cut to three minutes to make up for time lost to the weather delay.
That was probably just fine with Sam Houston. The Bearkats played the entire season without their own locker room, which was being renovated in what was once expected to be the offseason. Coaches met in the press box and in a bank building, and players washed their own jerseys.
Still, coach K.C. Keeler said he appreciated his athletic director’s decision to press on once the NCAA said a national title would be awarded after the spring season.
“When I made the decision, it was pretty lonely for me because I didn’t know if I did the right thing,” Sam Houston athletic director Bobby Williams told the team after its semifinal win over James Madison. “You proved that it was the right thing.”
The Bearkats proved it again with Schmid’s 10-yard touchdown strike to Ife Adeyi with 16 seconds remaining to ultimately win the game.
Mark Schmid, a high school coach in the Houston area and Eric’s father, said the alternate schedule was “a blessing” as he was able to attend Eric’s games without juggling his own coaching duties.
“I’m not pulled in two different directions, so I’ve been able to come and watch my son and the Bearkats play,” he said. “My wife and I have been able to travel together, and get to have a normal experience as the parent of a college athlete.”
Finnian Patton, the father of Sam Houston right tackle D’Ary Patton and Caeveon Patton, a defensive lineman at Texas State, which played in the fall, considered it a bonus to have multiple children playing over an extended calendar.
“It’s great, because it’s continuous football,” he said.
The “continuous football” part is a balancing act for the coaches, who still have to contend with a fall season looming. Both Keeler and South Dakota State coach John Stiegelmeier said they had eased up on physical practices in hopes of allowing players to preserve their bodies for the fall season. Still, Stiegelmeier said his quarterback, freshman Mark Gronowski, had a “pretty serious injury” that needed to be evaluated, and Keeler said Schmid took such a pounding that he’s not sure Schmid would have been able to play next week if they had another game.
But both were appreciative of getting to this point after going through months of practice without any opportunities to play. When they did, the teams provided a classic finish. Keeler earned his place in history, passing former Youngstown State coach Jim Tressel for the most victories in FCS playoff history (24) and becoming the first coach to win an FCS title at two different schools.
To beat SDSU, Keeler thought the Bearkats would need to spread the ball to the perimeter. The rain and slippery field made that extremely difficult. But he dared his team to work through it.
“You need to go through so many different things in a football game, in a football season, and this is just one of them we’re going to go through,” he told his players before the game. “If we truly are the best team in the country, bring it on.”
The Bearkats ended their marathon with comeback victories over what they thought were the three toughest teams in the country: North Dakota State, James Madison and the Jackrabbits.
“It’s really a special group when you consider this thing started in June and we had no idea when this thing would ever end,” Keeler said. “When you win a national championship, it is immortality. That’s what we were chasing. We were chasing immortality.”
As the players celebrated on the field, fireworks exploded over the stadium. The longest season in the history of college football ended with a bang. And football appeared to be back.