Tom VanVoorhis had won two national championships in his football playing days at North Dakota State University. Since the day he was old enough to dream about it, A.J. wanted to experience the same.
“I’ve been chasing him my whole life,” A.J. VanVoorhis admitted last week. “I look up to him more than anybody else in the world. I know how proud he is about what he accomplished as a player, but I wanted to feel that for myself.”
A.J., who graduated from Champlin Park in 2009, got there Jan. 5 when NDSU repeated as the Division I FCS national champions by cruising to a 39-13 victory over Sam Houston State.
Afterwards, with the field flooded in celebration, the two sought out only each other.
“When I finally found him, I looked at him and the first thing he said was ‘we did it,’” said Tom VanVoorhis. “It was the first time I looked at him and saw the emotions take him over. And then, of course as a Dad, it kind of takes you over. To see tears of joy coming out of him was pretty cool.”
A.J. had a similar description of the moment. He cried. So did Tom. But he also wanted to make sure his father understood something else.
“It was an ‘I gotcha moment’ for me,” said A.J. “He won two championships as a player, and now so have I. I’ve been waiting a long time to say that.”
For his part, Tom had made sure to remind A.J. and his teammates as much.
One instance in particular stands out. A.J. and two teammates had returned to his Champlin home after their freshmen season, when the Bison failed to qualify for the playoffs. A.J. had grabbed one of Tom’s T-shirts from when he was a national title winner.
It read ‘champs’ on the front.
“I said notice on that shirt it says ‘champs,’ not ‘chumps,’” Tom said. “Now, whenever I see them, they remind me. They aren’t chumps. They are champs.”
And they are going to try and do it again a year from now.
In winning a second straight title this season, NDSU became only the third school to ever repeat as national champion. Just one team has won three straight – Appalachian State from 2005-07 – and A.J. needs another ring to officially pull even with Dad.
Tom was a graduate assistant coach at NDSU when the Bison won the 1986 national championship, and A.J., who wears the same No. 29 Tom wore as a player, is well aware.
“One more to go,” he said. “I’ve got one more year. I’m going to be a senior, and I want a third ring. We’ve already started to go back to work, getting ready for next year. It’s funny. You try to soak this in and enjoy it, but in reality, we were back in the gym the next week getting ourselves prepared for next season.”
That dedication is also why the finality of a title has so much meaning. As Tom understood then, and A.J. now, college football is a year-round pursuit.
It is also why the end-goal can appear so far off. Should NDSU advance all the way into next year’s championship game, a full 11 months will have passed between now and then.
But for A.J., the wait has been worth it twice. Why not one more try?
“We put in I don’t know how many hours,” A.J. said. “We work hard through the winter. We are double-repping in the spring and the fall. We are working out in the summer. At the end of it all, when you are on the field and the crowd is rushing the field, it is a really special moment because you can look in each other’s eyes and you can just tell – this is why we are doing this. All those times you want to be done, this is why you keep going. We push each other. It takes everybody. But when you are done, this is why we do this. It’s a heck of a culmination.”
Contact Nick Clark at [email protected]