They call it a tunnel, but it's really a bridge.
When the Bulldogs take the field Saturday night against UNLV for homecoming, they'll run through a tunnel formed by former players. Last year, 200 Bulldogs alumni made up that tunnel. This year, 300 are expected.
Down in that tunnel, Paris Gaines will look to his left and see Alan Harper. He'll look to his right and see Devon Banks. They'll look back at him, hear the roaring crowd and be transported to 2001, the last time they played together.
"I'll feel so proud and so blessed standing next to my teammates and next to guys who graduated in the '80s, the '70s, and the decades before that," said Gaines, a former 1,000-yard rusher.
"Whether we graduated in 2001 or '81, the one thing that connects us is we all put that helmet on."
That's what makes the tunnel more like a bridge, one that spans generations of players and joins them to the program and to Fresno State.
For an instant, time just vanishes.
"It's one of those moments words can't describe," said Lance Dueker, a linebacker from 1989-1991. "You're filled with chills and excitement. Brought me back 25 years."
But our bridge doesn't stop there, in the past. It also extends to current players, the guys wearing helmets and pads.
So when the 2013 Bulldogs see hundreds of jacked-up alums on the field during pregame, it's a jolt of realization that they're part of something bigger. Bigger than themselves, and bigger than the team.
Defensive end Nikko Motta, who grew up in Sanger as a Fresno State fan, understands this better than most.
Thinking about last year's tunnel, Motta recalled an encounter with his high school athletic director, ex-Bulldog Jesse Hardwick.
"Afterward he came up and loved me, smacked me on the head and was all fired up," Motta said. "That was pretty special for me. …
"Those are the guys who started this tradition. It didn't just happen. We didn't magically become good. We're just continuing what they built."
Pride and tradition are a huge part of college football, elements that can't be measured on a stat sheet. Especially to former players. The feeling of being part of something means more to them than any yards, tackles or touchdowns.
For many years at Fresno State, this bridge was out. Or at least in dire need of repair. But things have been mended, thanks in large part to a determined ex-Bulldog.
In some ways, Kevin Jordan was the ideal repairman because his career straddled Fresno State's two most recent eras. The lineman was recruited by Jim Sweeney and played for Pat Hill.
Jordan, who graduated in 2000, spent a couple of seasons on NFL rosters until multiple knee surgeries cut short his career. He returned to Fresno in 2007 to found Keeping Youth Journeying Onward, a nonprofit that operates six group homes for at-risk youths.
Back in town, Jordan kept running into ex-teammates and other former Bulldogs, and many of them shared the same complaint. They felt disconnected.
"A lot of guys just didn't feel welcome," Jordan said. "In their eyes, Fresno State was looking for money instead of just welcoming them back."
While Fresno State has honored star players and standout teams, there had never been an effective effort to include all former Bulldogs, whether they were All-Americans or walk-ons that barely saw the field.
That isn't to say no former players stayed involved. Dueker and business partner Jeff Thiesen of Thiesen Dueker Financial Consulting Group are as plugged in as any ex-'Dogs. In the '90s, they started a football alumni network that has since morphed into Club Red, now part of the Bulldog Foundation. But Dueker understands the underlying sentiment.
"When Pat Hill came in, he changed so much of what Coach Sweeney did," Dueker said. "Not in a malicious way. He was just trying to move the program forward, but a lot of guys maybe felt alienated by that. They felt a little bit less welcome."
Enter Tim DeRuyter, who replaced Hill following the 2011 season and instantly embraced all Bulldogs traditions, no matter the era.
Jordan sensed the opportunity for a fresh start, so after he and DeRuyter got to know each other (KYJO hired 11 current players in 2012 to work as summer youth counselors), he approached the coach about a plan to engage the alumni. For DeRuyter, it was a "No, duh" moment.
"I've been here 20 months — I didn't build this program," he said. "It's those players who played here over the decades that built it, and for them to feel some ownership in it and be able to be recognized and have a connection with the current guys is just a great situation. I commend Kevin and the guys he's working with for getting this going."
This is about more than back-slapping and reminiscing. Fresno State benefits, too.
Take the case of Juan Bautista, a former walk-on who went on to medical school.
Now Dr. Bautista is back practicing in his hometown. But he wasn't involved in his alma mater until last year's homecoming. In the months since, he started donating money to the BDF and gave a presentation to Fresno State's sophomore male athletes about sexual health.
"I'd go to games, but I didn't know anyone there," he said. "Now my Bulldog pride is back in a big way."
That's why Bautista and dozens of ex-Bulldogs will gather tonight at the Duncan Building and lead current players to a 7 p.m. pep rally at Bulldog Boulevard.
That's why so many are participating in Saturday's BBQ Cookoff from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at O'Neill Park. And that's why you'll see so many of them on the field during pregame, forming that alumni tunnel.
It's all part of Bring It Home Weekend, a second-year tradition that already feels as comfortable as old slippers.
"It doesn't matter who the coach is, because coaches come and go," Jordan said. "But the one thing you can't change is that we were all Bulldogs.
"So it's up to us to keep tradition going. Nobody else."
The columnist can be reached at (559) 441-6218, email@example.com or @MarekTheBee on Twitter.