How We Play Football in North Dakota

You don’t get through winters with an average temperature of 12.8° without being a certain kind of tough — the cracked-skin-dried-blood kind of tough. 

That toughness comes in handy in a place like North Dakota. You see, up there, jamming your numb fingers against someone’s ice-cold helmet happens every practice. Getting decked on the cement-like dirt is just how a play ends.

And here’s the thing: I love it.

Because in North Dakota, we don’t care for flash or dazzle. That’s not our game. We don’t do things the fanciest way. We do them the right way.

Going through the draft process, you find yourself answering a lot of the same questions over and over. I get it. This is basically a very long, very public job interview. But the question that seems to come up the most is one that almost makes me laugh at this point:

Carson, coming from North Dakota, are you worried about playing against tougher competition in the NFL?

There’s this belief that I’m at some sort of disadvantage coming into the league because of where I’m from. But if you get to know me, you’ll understand that being from North Dakota isn’t a disadvantage. Not even close. In fact, having been raised in North Dakota is probably one of my greatest strengths.

Let me tell you right now — football is football, no matter if it’s played in the Rose Bowl or on a dusty field in Bismarck. Those warm southern states may produce the most NFL talent, but there’s a special brand of football going on up north.

When I started out in the Bismarck youth football league, I was a running back. Now, I wasn’t a shifty, finesse running back. I was an up-the-gut, everyone-knows-where-the-ball-is-going, punch-you-in-the-mouth running back. Since I was a kid, I’ve had the mentality that if you’re going to tackle me … well, I’m going to make sure it hurts. I was pretty skinny — lanky even — but you can get away with that when you play hard and aren’t afraid of contact. And contact was always my favorite part of the game — still is. It was kind of funny, honestly. I was this crazy, string-bean kid trying to truck kids into the end zone. And a lot of the time, I did.

Growing up, everyone was always outside competing in just about every sport you can imagine. If I wasn’t the best at a sport I took that as a challenge. I was never scared of putting in the work to get better. And to keep me on my toes, I had the best motivation you could ask for: an older brother who was better than me at just about everything.

When I was a kid, I didn’t necessarily dream about winning Super Bowls or national championships. I wanted to beat Zach.

Baseball, football, checkers, number of plates consumed at a buffet — it did not matter what we were doing, everything was a competition. Zach was my benchmark. Knowing he was successful in baseball, football and hockey, and given that he’s three years older than me, I knew that if I could match up with him and even sometimes beat him, then I must be pretty darn good myself.

Granted, I didn’t beat him a whole lot.

But I never quit trying to replace him as our household’s best athlete, even if it meant begging him for rematches constantly. Some of my competitiveness is God-given — but a whole lot of it was developed during weekend wiffle ball games with big bro.

When I got to high school, my focus really turned to football. I always wanted to stay on the field, so I would change positions all the time. One day I would be at corner, another day I’d be returning kicks — wherever I was needed, I played. I saw the field a lot, but as a freshman, I wasn’t much to look at. I came in at 5′ 8″ and about 125 pounds (depending on what I ate for lunch that day). But playing all those different positions as a kid made me grasp the game so much better. The best way to understand the mentality of a safety is to play snaps there. When I eventually hit my growth spurt, they moved me to quarterback, and I stuck.

In North Dakota, people generally choose one of three favorite teams: the Broncos, the Packers or the Vikings.

That preference is usually inherited through your family, but whatever allegiance you do have, it’s taken pretty seriously. I grew up a Vikings fan. Jerseys, hats, posters on my wall — all of that. But despite that, I always loved watching Brett Favre. I just admired the way he played football. Nobody ever questioned how serious or competitive he was, and the way he showed off those qualities is what made me love him. The guy would get licked and then get back up, throw a 40-yard bomb and run around the field jumping and laughing like a little kid. He wasn’t out there to manage the game. He was a gunslinger. The guy flat out made plays. That’s the quarterback that I wanted to be.

Playing in high school taught me a lot, but it also had its fair share of disappointment. Every year, we made it to the semifinals of the state playoffs — and lost. Even worse, three out of the four years we lost to the same team, Fargo High.

There’s no love lost between the cities of Fargo and Bismarck, I can assure you that. Man, we wanted to beat those guys.

My senior year I really thought we had them, but they ended up scoring a touchdown with six seconds left in the game to go ahead by one. That’s still the most heartbreaking loss of my life.

In high school, I learned how to lead a team for the first time. And in college, I learned how to win championships.

North Dakota State football is a perfect representation of the grit and work ethic that makes where I’m from a special place.

Our offense might have reminded you a bit of Alabama or Stanford. We were going to start out running the ball, and then we were going to run it again, and then when you think we couldn’t possibly do it again, we were going to run some more. And when you’re sick of getting dirty with us, we’ll get heavy personnel and run with power and move you guys. We love to bring the boom. By the time we ran play-action and went over the top for a touchdown, your defense was just relieved they didn’t have to swap paint with us for one more play. Then, the next time we got the ball, we would show you completely different sets. We’d start slinging it around like Baylor. It was tough to defend.

The best way to learn how to win is to be around winners. There wasn’t one game at North Dakota State where the entire team did not prepare with the mentality that we’re going to win. Even if we were playing a power five school that had us completely outmatched on paper, we expected to win.

And we pretty much always did.

The positive results were almost entirely because of the work put in by guys before they ever set foot on the field. Probably 90% or more of the incoming freshmen at NDSU redshirt. And during that year, the staff makes it clear just how important it is for them to develop. We may be an FCS school, but our strength and conditioning program is as rigorous and productive as any other school in the country. And everyone buys into it. We approach it with that distinct North Dakotan mentality. We weren’t upset about not playing early, or waking up at 5 a.m. to lift. We were excited about getting bigger and better. Because we knew that when it was our team, we’d be ready.

By the time I took over the starting quarterback job as a junior, I was fully prepared. And I was done losing in the semifinals. My first year as a starter, we won our FCS playoff semifinal 35–3. My senior year we won in the semifinals 33–7. We won the championship both years, just like we expected.

So am I worried about whether I can have the same success at the next level? Of course not. I’m excited to show people exactly what I can do.

After competing at All-Star games and the combine, I know that I have much more in common with guys who played FBS football than I have differences. Heck, we even beat a few of their teams while I was in college. Like I said before, football is football. At North Dakota State, I was taught to recognize the same zone pressures, blitzes, stunts and twists as the other guys in the draft. Our offense would run the ball with no receivers and then spread it out wide with five guys. We did it all.

The speed will be an adjustment, but it is for everybody, whether you’re coming from the SEC or Division III. I’m as ready for it as I can possibly be.

But I still approach the game of football the same way I did when I was a 5′ 8″ beanstalk flying around the field in Bismarck. The difference now is that I’m 6′ 5″, 237 pounds, and have been carefully developed into one of the best football prospects in America.

So what do I say to all the people who wonder if I’m ready for the NFL?

I’ve been getting ready my whole life.