As every member of the University of South Dakota football team stepped off two charter buses, they were greeted with a kind of red carpet reception from young fans.
It was clear, the Coyote players enjoyed the moment just as much as the youngsters.
“It’s very important to us. We want to try to turn this state red,” junior quarterback Kevin Earl said, before adding with a smile, “and less of the blue.”
The appearance of the entire team highlighted Saturday’s USD Howling Pack gathering along the marina in Yankton. A crowd of approximately 200 people spent the afternoon watching a boat parade on Lewis & Clark Lake, enjoying a tailgate meal and awaiting the arrival of the players.
Following their second practice of the day in Vermillion, the players arrived in two big charter buses to spend the next hour and a half with their younger fans — signing autographs, playing games, eating pizza and talking about football.
“That’s absolutely awesome. I love kids; love to be around them,” senior wide receiver Josh Vander Maten said. “It’s a great opportunity to be around them when they’re looking up to you, and be a great example.”
Head coach Joe Glenn addressed the crowd and pointed out that by the time his Coyotes take the field for the Aug. 30 season opener at Oregon, his squad will have squared off against each other 45 times in practices and scrimmages.
And so, understandably, getting away from football for a couple hours is necessary.
“This was by far a feel-good deal,” Glenn said later, before boarding a bus. “Our kids loved it, our coaches loved it, and it was just the shot we needed right now.
“It lets our kids know how much they’re loved.”
Branching out to towns across the region for events like Saturday’s has long has been a goal for the USD athletic department, athletic director David Herbster said.
“A long time ago when I got here, they coined the term ‘South Dakota’s Team,’” he said. “Well, it’s one thing to say it, it’s another thing to actually do it. If you want to talk the walk, you better walk the walk.”
One of four new Howling Pack chapters (the others are Rapid City, Sioux Falls and Vermillion), Yankton has “stepped up” in hosting two previous events at Minerva’s, which ultimately led to Saturday’s gathering, Herbster said.
“When everybody does a little bit, all of us have a good time, and we saw that today,” he said.
Prior to Saturday, the Yankton chapter of the Howling Pack had held two previous events in Yankton, but both times only coaches and administrators made the trip.
Bringing players over to Yankton was only a matter of time, Glenn said.
“This is a snowball going down a snowy hill. It’s gaining some ground, and picking up steam,” he said.
Jerry Pollard agreed.
The former Coyote player, who now lives in Yankton, said he couldn’t remember a time during his playing days when the entire team made such a trip.
“It’s great for Yankton and it’s great for everyone,” Pollard said.
For those players, though, they admitted to not really knowing what to expect once they got off the buses in Yankton.
“I wasn’t really sure what the turnout would be, but it was fun to see that people are excited about us this year,” Earl said.
And likewise, the players were excited to take their program to fans, Vander Maten said.
“Doing stuff like this is all about reaching out to the state and showing that USD cares,” he said. “And that we appreciate their support, and that we want more support.
“We love our fans and we want to be able to show it.”