NORMAL — Members of the 1999 Illinois State football team are more than a decade older than those who stand where they once stood.
Yet the bonds of success and alma mater have brought the two groups together like a twice-wrapped rubber band.
The 1999 Redbirds were undefeated conference champions and advanced to the semifinals of the national playoffs before falling to eventual champion Georgia Southern.
The current ISU team has taken it one gigantic step further and will face North Dakota State for the FCS national championship on Saturday in a noon kickoff at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas.
Coach Todd Berry's 1999 group has been one-upped and they couldn't be happier.
"We're rallying behind this team," said David Bull, a sophomore defensive lineman in 1999 and currently a supervisor in the brokerage department at Bloomington's Country Financial. "We want to see them take it home. We're a part of the program."
"Every member of that '99 team is proud," wide receiver Rickey Garrett said. "I got literally 1,000 texts during that New Hampshire (semifinal) game. We’re pumped up."
Garrett, who owns a business recruiting firm in Chicago, expects more than 30 players from the 1999 squad to be on hand in Frisco to watch the Redbirds shoot for glory. Offensive lineman Kevin Keenan looks for as many as 60 players from his era to make the trip.
Quarterback Dusty Burk has witnessed the Redbirds' rise from a closer proximity than most. The former University High School football coach is in his first year as assistant principal at Pontiac.
"It's been great. It seems like they are getting better each game," Burk said. "Talking to my old teammates and other alumni, they're so excited. It's awesome to be part of the program and see them be so successful. It's so special to play for the national championship. These guys deserve everything they've got."
Ex-Redbird defensive end Brett Papoccia, the sophomore football coach at Normal Community High School, has been able to attend a couple games this season at Hancock Stadium.
"Coach (Brock) Spack has done a great job. You could see the natural progression of things," said Papoccia. "You could tell at the beginning of the year they had quite a bit of talent. It was a matter of getting through the gauntlet of conference. I'm going (to Frisco) and everybody I've talked to is going."
If anyone can appreciate a fine coaching job, it’s another coach. Berry, the head coach at Louisiana-Monroe who left ISU after the '99 season to take over at Army, puts himself in that category.
"Brock has done an outstanding job. Every Sunday, I would check how they did (the day before)," Berry said. "Seeing the pictures of the (renovated in 2013) stadium, all the things I envisioned have come to fruition. I really thought great things could happen there."
Keenan and fellow offensive lineman Aaron Peterson made the trek to Durham, N.H., to see the Redbirds edge New Hampshire, 21-18.
Leaving from Wheaton, where he is a DuPage County sheriff's deputy, Keenan drove north into Canada to pick up Peterson in Oshawa, a suburb of Toronto.
"We took the trip across Canada and dropped down through Vermont," Keenan said. "It was 2,300 miles round trip and 187 gallons of gas. To see them win was like a flashback."
"It was a nine-hour drive from Toronto," said Peterson, an eighth-grade teacher. "It was phenomenal. It reminded me how excited we were when we beat Youngstown and won the conference. It brought me right back to that moment."
The day became even more special when Keenan and Peterson visited the victorious Redbird locker room to offer official congratulations from the '99 team.
"We told them we were the best team in ISU history until today and they went nuts," Keenan said. "To see the emotion and how excited everybody was was really incredible. The way Coach Spack embraced us made us feel special. I got goosebumps thinking about it two days after."
The 1999 ISU players feel zero jealousy that the current Redbirds accomplished a feat they could not.
"To be envious would be a falsity," said Bull, who is married to former ISU volleyball standout Kendra (Haselhorst) Bull. "We've always had a lot of pride in what we accomplished. This doesn't take away from what we did. It's more a sense of pride and continuation."
The 1999 Redbirds had a grittiness that allowed them to rally from behind to win close games similar to that of the 2014 group.
"It was truly one unit. We really hung out off the field and had relationships that 15 years later are really strong," Garrett said. "We all went to battle for each other. They have exactly what we have. They are definitely a second-half team."
ISU overcame the adversity of losing star quarterback Kevin Glenn in the sixth game and a key lineman in Peterson during the regular season finale to win two playoff games. Burk, a redshirt freshman at the time, stepped in for Glenn and completed an incredible 31 of 37 passes for 350 yards in a quarterfinal playoff victory over Hofstra.
"It was a test of us being a complete team from top to bottom," said Glenn, one of the top quarterbacks in Canadian Football League history who still plays north of the border. "Dusty did a hell of a job coming in at a young age. He played in some very big games and made some very big plays. And we had a pretty good veteran team."
Berry said 1999 holds many great memories for him.
"That group not only had good players but a resolute determination. They never quit," said Berry. "They had great character. I'm very fond and very proud of that group."
Many from that group will be in Frisco this weekend. What initially will be a reunion may turn into a celebration of what they did and what their successors did even better.