NDSU football's D.J. McNorton continues to strengthen bond with his mother, even after her death
Sometime between this morning and the 3:07 p.m. kickoff against South Dakota State, Darren McNorton Jr. will go somewhere by himself and have an internal discussion with his mother. It's been the game day ritual this season and whatever is said in those private moments will remain private.
It's the best tribute the North Dakota State running back can give Tonya McNorton, who died in July after a nearly year-long battle with pancreatic cancer. It was a period of time when D.J. kept the pain mostly to himself.
But that's D.J. He's quiet. He's respectful.
"I'm the type of person that I keep stuff in, try to hold it and not show a lot of people," he said. "A lot of people didn't know for a long time, but it finally got to me and I cried a few times. I just couldn't really deal with it."
It didn't help that Reggie Moore, the former Bison assistant who recruited McNorton, had left for UCLA. Terry Samuel, another Bison assistant who McNorton grew close to, also left for a similar position at Central Michigan.
The one assistant consistency was running backs coach Tim Polasek.
"He came to the apartment a couple of times and opened up," Polasek said. "Just being there for the guys is one of our No. 1 jobs anyway. Our relationship probably helped him get through it and helped me understand D.J. McNorton better, too."
D.J.'s father was an all-around athlete. Tonya McNorton played volleyball and ran track growing up and it carried over to her children. Nikki McNorton is a standout volleyball player at Blinn College (Texas) and last week she led her team to a region championship for the fifth-ranked junior college team in the country.
Nikki said her mother got to see her and D.J. go on to college and that has helped ease the pain for the kids.
"I don't think we let it get to us as much as other people," she said. "We both know my mom wanted the best for us. She wanted us to keep going and don't stop no matter what."
Tonya was able to see D.J. play one game when NDSU traveled to Sam Houston State last season. It wasn't D.J.'s best night - he had 1 yard on four carries while playing behind starter Pat Paschall.
But this season has been his to shine. He needs 58 yards today to top 1,000 for the season.
He threatened the single-game school record with 250 yards against the University of South Dakota and he's currently fifth in the Missouri Valley Football Conference in rushing.
That's the same player who last year played linebacker one game because the Bison were depleted due to injuries. He's played wide receiver because of a lack of depth and production there.
He began last spring in a battle for the No. 1 job with Matt Voigtlander and Mike Sigers. Meanwhile, his mother's illness was taking a toll on his schoolwork, Polasek said.
The funeral was over the summer and Polasek and head coach Craig Bohl flew to Houston to attend.
D.J. returned to Fargo a different person then he was in the spring.
"In the classroom, he's probably doing the best work he's ever done here," Polasek said.
Same goes for on the field.
There will be a full Fargodome today and a large television audience with Fox Sports North and Comcast SportsNet Chicago. One spirit will not need a ticket.
"As much as she could, she was always there and I miss that part of it," D.J. said. "But at the same time, I look at it on a positive note. Now she can see everything. She's got front row seats at every game now."