Grand Forks, N. Dak. is the kind of place where you feel comfortable in raveled grammar and a sloppy sweater. Even the scenery is predictable, reminiscent of vintage cartoon backgrounds in which the same tree reappears every few seconds. But for a few hours last Saturday, Grand Forks was the volatile center of its constellation, proving that a Big Game is a Big Game whether it is on artificial turf or just plain dirt.
North Dakota was playing South Dakota, and from the sound and the fury you might have suspected ole Jesse and the rest of the James gang had detoured through on the way home from the Great Northfield Minnesota raid. Every potato and sugar-beet farmer, every electioneering politician out to strip-mine a vote and every alumnus with an ego painted in his school colors had nestled into cozy Memorial Stadium to whoop, holler and revel in the catharsis.
South Dakota won the game 37-24 and with it the Sitting Bull Trophy, perhaps an inconsequential prize to the national press, but a garland of laurel to the participants.
Both the NCAA College Division schools are in the North Central Conference, an admittedly obscure although highly competitive amalgamation that has ushered its share of players into the professional ranks and justified the need for computer scouting. And the players, although generally smaller if not necessarily quicker than the behemoths laboring in better-known football boiler rooms, refuse to look wistfully at the contrails of major college football. "We played Minnesota this year and I thought North Dakota State hit harder," said Flanker Ron Gustafson of North Dakota's Sioux.
Unless you majored in geography, the Dakotas are a hard place to draw a bead on. Most Americans have heard of them and believe in their existence, but are content with secondhand accounts of this rigorous country and climate. And they are intimidating; by September the land turns gray and bleak and for much of the year the sun appears covered, as if with a lampshade. Consequently, it is startling to note the presence of 13 players from Florida on the South Dakota roster.
They were recruited through Bill O'Hara, a Miami teacher, and Joe Robbie, the owner of the Miami Dolphins and a South Dakota grad. Since the school does not pay to fly in recruits, most never see it until they enroll. Good thing. The first sleet fell on Oct. 6 this year. "I don't even know if they realize where they're going," says Joe Salem, the South Dakota coach. "But, you know, none of them leave."
Dwight Duncombe is one of those Floridians and the best player on the team. He is a split end but acts more like a Russian folk dancer; when he catches a touchdown pass he usually performs a victory cartwheel and back flip. His recruitment was typically bizarre. It seems another South Dakota player was working one summer as a skycap at the Miami airport, where he met a contemporary who said he was an out-of-work linebacker presently employed at an all-night grocery store. The ensuing conversation led the linebacker to Salem's office. He brought along a friend. The friend was Duncombe. But Duncombe's grades were too low for a scholarship, so Salem called the youngster's father for advice.
"Your father says for you to stay here," Salem told Duncombe.
"Oh, no," Duncombe said.
But he did and it turned out to be a happy marriage. Duncombe learned to wear heavy clothing, and going into the North Dakota game he had opportunity to perform his backflips 16 times this year. Against North Dakota he scored three times in the second half, although only two counted. A 67-yard punt return was called back because of a clipping penalty at the one-yard line.