Fervent fan creators take pride in helping build community around South Dakota State football

Jan. 7—FRISCO, Texas — Everything is bigger in Texas. That includes gatherings of South Dakota State football fans.

In hopes of seeing SDSU capture a second straight Football Championship Subdivision national championship on the first weekend of the New Year, Jackrabbit Nation descended on the northern Dallas suburb of Frisco by the thousands.

And at the center of that frenzied yellow and blue-clad faction stands the content-creation crew from Jackrabbit Illustrated, aka JI.

But really, the work undertaken by Matt Tollefson, who founded JI in 2017 as a recruiting blog, and team members Ben Pierson, Brendan Luedtke, Chad Meirose, Dallas Clarksean and Alex Kenkel (along with many more friends of the program) isn't limited to podcasting and blog posting. They're helping build and strengthen the community surrounding South Dakota State football.

"Our goal is to promote the Jackrabbits and educate our fan base," Tollefson said. "... Last year (January 2023) in Frisco, it was eye-opening. It was like, 'Oh my gosh. There are a lot of people who are reading and listening and really care.'"

"It's given fans an opportunity to feel really connected with us and with each other," Pierson added. "Having other fans be the ones providing content and allowing that interaction, I think, has given fans more comfort to open up about their passion for SDSU football."

JI's influence within the SDSU fan base is evident. During their weekly podcast recordings for three different shows, which are broadcast live on YouTube and various social media sites, they frequently have triple-digit live viewers. In the early days of JI, Tollefson remembers being ecstatic when a few hundred people clicked on his blog posts. Today, JI, which is a partner with the larger scope FCS Fans Nation Network, reaches thousands each week between blog posts and podcasts.

On Saturday at a local watering hole in the Frisco area, fan interaction was taken to the next level, as JI put on an in-person championship live show featuring guests from across the FCS coverage spectrum with several hundred of the same fans that would usually watch through a screen in attendance.

So while Clarksean, a second-generation former Jackrabbit player, jokes that "we're just a bunch of guys in our basements talking about football," Saturday's turnout serves as evidence that JI is much more. It's not just a content platform; it's an interactive community growing in lockstep with SDSU football's continued successes.

"We're not reporters, and we don't make anything doing this; we're just doing it because it's fun and we care," Clarksean said. "... And the support is overwhelming. It's crazy to see that connection and realize how many people we're actually reaching."

This fall, that reach was also used to significant effect in helping raise awareness for a nationwide fundraiser to combat childhood cancer, as three players representing South Dakota State football combined to receive more than $15,000 in donations toward the cause.

"It's been a wild, unbelievable ride to see this grow," Luedtke added. "It's truly humbling to see in person how many people do enjoy what we do, and it just makes you want to keep doing it."

Come Sunday at sunrise, the JI crew is hoping to raise the bar once again. Last season's national championship tailgate, hosted along with the Jackrabbit Former Players Association, drew an estimated 4,000-plus fans. This year, JI and company have prepared for even more, and also organized a championship watch party for those who weren't able to secure tickets to the game.

No matter the outcome of Sunday's FCS title tilt, JI will push on, continuing to inform and lead Jackrabbit fans and perhaps even recruiting some more along the way.

"It still feels super strange that (JI) blew up like it did, because seven years ago when I started the blog, I never imagined this," Tollefson said. "It feels like we're making a difference in our little corner of the world."