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Football player in team photo

James Tilton '61, seen here in the front row wearing No. 28 for the 1958 "B" football team, went on to have a distinguished career working as an agriculture professor at North Dakota State University. (Photo courtesy of the Dr. Jo Ann Rayfield Archives at Illinois State University)

Former Redbird football player left lasting legacy at North Dakota State

North Dakota State losing an FCS playoff game at home this decade has been about as common as a flying pig. It’s only happened once as the currently undefeated and top-seeded Bison have rattled off seven national championships since 2010, including a victory over Illinois State in the 2015 title game.

Man holding award

Redbird alumnus James Tilton was inducted into the North Dakota Agriculture Hall of Fame in 2017.

On Saturday, the Redbirds will try to dethrone the champs as they battle it out with the Bison in a quarterfinal game set for 11 a.m. in Fargo, North Dakota. And as for that pig? It turns out both schools have ties to a highly decorated swine and agriculture expert who will be closely watching the game.  

James Tilton ’61 will be in the Fargodome to see the school that shaped him face the school that’s defined him. 

Tilton, who played on the Redbirds “B” team football squad in 1957 and 1958, is a retired animal and range science professor who taught at North Dakota State for 37 years. A 2017 inductee into the North Dakota Agriculture Hall of Fame, Titlton led courses in reproductive physiology, endocrinology, and swine production, publishing over 100 articles and traveling the globe to discuss management of swine herds. 

Tilton and his wife, Judy, whom he met while she was a secretary in the Department of Agriculture at Illinois State, will be watching Saturday’s game closely. As a Fargo resident for more than five decades, he’ll have on more green and yellow than red and white. But he also knows his alma mater is a strong opponent.

“My wife and I are very avid football people, and we certainly support the NDSU Bison here, and that’s the way our leanings will be this weekend, but I recognize the fact that they are two really good programs,” Tilton said.

Tilton played on both sides of the ball as a guard and linebacker for the Redbirds junior varsity squads in his two seasons at Illinois State. Under coach Warren Crews, the 1958 B-team squad went 1-3 on the year with the lone win coming against Illinois Wesleyan, a 39-14 Redbirds victory.

Tilton decided to focus heavily on academics and research once he realized he was too small to go much further in his football career.  

“I wanted to do well in agriculture, and so I pretty much shifted over (from football) and did a lot of things,” Tilton said.

Tilton, according to the 1961 issue of The Index, also became a student leader. He credits former Department of Agriculture Chair Harvey Woods for seeing something in him as a student. 

Starting in his junior year, Tilton spent Saturdays working on the farm owned by Woods, who was department chair from 1957–1970.

“All the time he promoted the idea that I was a strong enough student that I should go to graduate school and go on to teaching and research,” Tilton said. 

After obtaining his Ph.D. from Oklahoma State University, Tilton accepted a teaching position at North Dakota State in 1965. He spent the rest of his career leaving a legacy on campus.

Tilton helped grow the physiology department at the school from 18 faculty members to 28 by the time of his retirement in 2003. Along with receiving numerous teaching awards, Tilton also developed the North Dakota Livestock Alliance, served on the North Dakota Pork Producers Council, developed the curriculum for North Dakota State’s equine studies program, and even co-wrote the original bylaws of the Bison Athletic Hall of Fame Selection Committee. 

The Tiltons believe their proudest accomplishment was raising four highly successful children. The couple has returned to Illinois many times over the years to visit family in Bloomington and Decatur. They also had a pair of nephews graduate from Illinois State. 

While Tilton’s work since his undergraduate days has taken him all over the world—Australia, Europe, and Asia— the Redbird turned Bison will have his attention where many supporters of the two schools will have theirs on Saturday. 

Quarterfinal matchup

When: 11 a.m., December 14
Where: Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome in Fargo, North Dakota
Tickets: Tickets can be purchased through the North Dakota State ticket office and on the secondary market.
Watch: ESPN
Listen: WJBC AM 1230, 93.7 FM, and TuneIn

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