Thursday, December 29, 2005


1 December 2002

When I come across a high school football field during the off season I always think about the ghosts that dwell there—the ghosts born from glorious victories and heartbreaking defeats. Often I find myself pausing to hear the faint cheers and moans from seasons past echoing off of the mountains in the distance. Sometimes I find myself reliving a play of my past—where I actually re-run that same route on the same location of the field just as it happened way back when.

During these visits, I sometimes see the field as an abandoned relic while other times it is the stage that has been set for a late-season playoff game where winter’s hand is introduced as a major element in the outcome of an upcoming contest. Regardless, sooner or later all gridirons are abandoned until the next season.

In the course of a year I’ve been fascinated with a gridiron’s diet of activity—a few great feasts and then a long famine until the next season commences. The feasts are seven days (at best) consisting of the rich autumn settings provided by Friday nights or Saturday afternoons. The famines that follow are clearly defined by the long, cold winters without a single event. Even the practice field sees more activity during the season although it is bland in comparison to the savory offerings of game day.

The off-seasons only bring the occasional lone visitor like myself stopping in to rekindle a memory or two from the previous or past seasons much like an individual stopping in at a church during the middle of the weekday because they feel as though Sunday won’t come soon enough. And certainly many of these gridirons set in the more scenic areas of Wyoming and Montana could be thought of as sanctuaries or alters to the game. If Notre Dame Stadium is the St. Peter’s of gridiron football, then any of the fields in towns like Alberton, Custer or Highwood are the little wayside chapels found in the wilderness.

This morning while walking the field in Powell, I considered the lifelong memories fields like this have provided over the years. Like a graveyard, it seems so abandoned—so forgotten and overlooked despite the space it takes up. How can something so instrumental—so focused upon in a community during any given autumn weekend become so abolished in appearance? Given all the memories generated at such a facility, it seems realistic that those who consider themselves retired from the game would feel obligated to drop in on a gridiron in their retirement—kind of like a brotherhood to the game or maintaining a vigil for a sick loved one in the hospital.

On this cold, early December day—with another season just completed—I stood in the south end zone of Powell’s gridiron (as a former player myself) listening for the thundering cleats, the popping of shoulder pads, the cheers of the home crowd or the commanding cries of a quarterback and wondering if my visit has made any difference in this gridiron’s seemingly inanimate but sometimes glorious existence. I imagine all the other fields I’ve been to on those glorious game days and what they are like now, so much further away and beyond my reach they seem—how would I see them in their winter solitude?

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Stanford's Hospitality

Game Pains
Originally uploaded by mdt1960.
In the eight years that I’ve been shooting small town high school football in Wyoming and Montana, I’ve never felt there was any intentional hostility directed towards me as a result of photographing a football game. I suppose the element of danger is always there such as an out of control running back getting bumped out of bounds in a shooter’s direction. While in the college and pro ranks many sports-related photographers are hated for their “stalking” of various individuals or getting a little too close with their equipment to someone who has come unglued in the heat of the game. But in my mind, these kind of dramas would never unfold during a football contest in small town America. And for the most part I would be correct with the exception of one particular game in Stanford, Montana this past season.

I’d been meaning to photograph a game at Stanford for years when passing through the small community on my way to towns like Centerville, Geraldine, and games further north and west. I’d even stayed overnight at a local motel on a couple of occasions and ate my breakfast at the Wolves Den restaurant. The Stanford gridiron was no stranger to me either as I had stopped by a few times to look at the angles that might present themselves during any future home game. So finally in 2005, I decided to travel to Stanford when they hosted one of the two semi-final games in Montana Class C eight-man football. I was looking forward to the event.

Earlier in the season, I had overheard several Drummond fans praising Stanford’s hospitality at last year’s title game despite Drummond thumping the Wolves on their home field. Upon my arrival with family in tow for the 2005 semifinal game, the generous hospitality I had heard about appeared to be intact. We were told while paying admission that there was a tent set up by the school and they were serving free chili and brownies inside. The only thing that was unpleasant at that point was the steady cold wind blowing out of the north and west, but things would turn ugly for me by the second quarter.

As expected, the Drummond Trojans came to town and wasted no time in informing the Stanford Wolves football team and fans that the visitors’ undefeated record would remain intact on that day. By the end of the first quarter, it seemed pretty hopeless for Stanford and when Drummond scored two more times in the second quarter, the festive feeling of the day started to wane with the Stanford fans—albeit to different degrees.

During this second quarter, one of the Wolves starters came off the field and collapsed on the sidelines where I happened to be shooting—it didn’t seem serious as no one was attending him, but undoubtedly he was experiencing some pain.

Knowing pain and injuries are part of the game, I directed the camera at the injured player and tripped the shutter a couple of times. As I remember it now, I felt good about the images because the background was decent and from my angle his face couldn’t be seen nor his jersey number detected. Yet, a handful of soured Stanford fans behind me didn’t see it that way nor did one of their assistant coaches.

The first words I heard were something like, “Hey, you don’t need to take his picture.” I’m not sure if it came first from the fans behind me or the coach on the sidelines. Regardless, I addressed the coach first and told him that what I was shooting was part of the game. Simple as that.

“It’s part of the game, coach.”

I certainly wasn’t attempting to get the players full-blown anguish and pain by sticking the camera in his face. Nevertheless, that didn’t matter to the hecklers behind me who ratcheted up their banter another notch.

One yahoo in particular said, “How’d you like that camera shoved down your throat,” along with something like, “Keep it up and we’ll run your ass out of town,” from another.
I was slightly amused and surprised—definitely rattled at this point.

“Wow, a modern day lynch mob right here in Stanford, Montana,” I thought to myself.

I stood up, walked over to the goon who had threatened me and simply said, “Is that right?”

I made sure I was far enough from the fence line that he wouldn’t reach over in an attempt to smack me or take a swipe at the camera. Despite my perseverance to convince him that it was all part of the game—not just the action on the gridiron, he must have only seen me as an obnoxious paparazzi shooter. Insults continued to fly from him and his cronies. Finally, I was fed up with them and stepped back from the crowd and said, “As a matter of fact, you’re part of the game as well," and began to peel off a couple frames of Stanford’s peanut gallery.

The remainder of the game, I was very cognizant of those around me, especially when I left the sidelines, but no one bothered me after the second quarter encounter nor did anyone attempt to “run me out of town.”

Undoubtedly, this adventure in hostility illustrates that all it takes is a couple of bad apples to ruin one’s experience. Yet, I know this should not be grounds to generalize an entire community like Stanford.

In my home town of Powell, Wyoming, everyone around here talks about how friendly everyone is in town—as if there is no other town like it when it comes to such friendliness. And they say it with so much conviction and in such a way that you would rain on their parade if you were to challenge their claim. So, you let it go. Yet, this happens everywhere, doesn’t it? Every town—especially the small ones—believe they are slightly above the rest when it comes to warmth and friendliness.

But the truth is—for the most part—all of these small towns are warm and friendly; and in each of them probably lurks a few individuals that are capable of disproving such claims single-handedly. Like Powell, Wyoming, surely the good folks in Stanford, Montana think of their small community as warm and friendly, including the tough-talking peanut gallery at the football game.

Stanford Peanut Gallery

Stanford A-holes
Originally uploaded by mdt1960.
The Peanut Gallery at Stanford. After pointing the camera at an injuried Stanford player on the sidelines, this is the group who told me I had no business taking his picture. The guy with the cute white gloves asked me if I'd like to have the camera rammed down my throat. A modern day lynch mob of sorts. Please don't consider these clowns as typical Stanford folks.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Six-Man World Peace

Lima-Belfry Prayer
Originally uploaded by mdt1960.
Sunday 13 October 2002

When I woke up this morning to my clock-radio and the news about the car bomb blast in Bali that claimed over 180 lives, the first thing that went through my mind wasn’t the innocent people that were lost, and it wasn’t about what is so wrong with this world. Rather, I thought about the innocence and euphoria of yesterday—standing on the sidelines in the scenic surroundings of Lima, Montana, watching a classic small town, high school, six-man football game between the Lima Bears and the Belfry Bats. I considered how much better off the world would be if everyone in it could have joined me in Lima somehow without loosing that small town atmosphere of the day.

Funny as it may sound, but there are days like today when I truly believe that the deliverer of world peace is a six-man or eight-man football game nestled in some by-passed Montana town like Lima, Centerville or Rosebud.

Perhaps all I’m talking about here are the simple joyous moments one can sense in these small town football games. For example, even after their team was soundly defeated by Belfry yesterday, the home town crowd of Lima (pop. 242) applauded when the game ended. I suspect they weren’t simply applauding for their team, but on a sub-conscience level perhaps they were acknowledging this magical event they had just witnessed—set on a glorious, warm autumn afternoon with the Beaverhead Mountains of the Continental Divide serving as a backdrop to the gridiron.

And if that didn’t give one hope for some kind of universal harmony then perhaps it was the two teams kneeling together midfield after the game, giving thanks for the day and its injury-free outcome. Upon the completion of a victorious match, the Belfry players always invite their defeated opponents to kneel with them in the middle of the field to offer up thanks. On the surface it appears this act is nothing more than a gesture of good sportsmanship, but after the news of this morning I’m certain there is something much deeper there. Sometimes the players from the other team are a bit puzzled at first, but once they understand, the look of defeat leaves their faces and for that moment under the bright Montana sky, in the stillness and near silence, a single voice rises above this gathering of opposing teams, and all is right with the world.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Plato's Theory of Forms and Six-Man Football

Flag Girl & Broncs
Originally uploaded by mdt1960.
One of Plato’s more notable observations of our world has to do with his theory of forms or ideas. Bertrand Russell discussed this in his History of Western Philosophy with the following:
Here Plato explains that, whenever a number of individuals have a common name, they have also a common “idea” or “form.” For instance, though there are many beds, there is only one “idea” or “form” of a bed. Just as a reflection of a bed in a mirror is only apparent and not “real,” so the various particular beds are unreal, being only copies of the “idea,” which is the one real bed, and is made by God. Of this one bed, made by God, there can be knowledge, but in respect of the many beds made by carpenters there can be only opinion. The philosopher, as such, will be interested only in the one ideal bed, not in the many beds found in the sensible world. He will have a certain indifference to ordinary mundane affairs: “how can he who has magnificence of mind and is the spectator of all time and all existence, think much of human life?”

Take this quote and substitute references to the game of football for “bed” and this is how it might read:
…There are many games of football, but there is only one form of a football game. Just as a televised broadcast of a football game is only apparent and not “real,” so the various games that are played at any given time are unreal, being only copies of the “idea of the game,” which is the one real football game, and is made by God. Of this game of football, made by God, there can be knowledge, but in respect of the many games of football composed of the multitude of players, coaches, and referees there can only be opinion. The philosopher, as such, will be interested only in the one ideal football game, not in the many games that can be found in the sensible world. He will have a certain indifference to ordinary mundane contests: “How can he who has magnificence of mind and is the spectator of all football and all existence, think much of pre-game hype and post-game drama?”

Plato would have loved six-man high school football.

This stripped-down version of football results in a game centered around the basic elements—dare I say “form”—of the game: solid tackling, good ball-handling, proper execution of play, and speed. These fundamental elements are often overlooked or hidden behind all the extraneous and more attention-demanding material that can accompany a game—especially at the professional level. Therefore we can concur that football is always purest and thus closest to its form if the various elements of “fluff” are eliminated such as the instant replay, marching bands, the clever athlete-endorsed commercials, the play-by-play analysis of John Madden, cheerleaders, trivial statistics, the computerized and oversized scoreboards, the gigantic stadiums, and yes, five players from each team. This is football’s form.

Sunday, November 27, 2005


Idle Hysham
Originally uploaded by mdt1960.
On some evenings I run the track at night over at the high school nearby. It’s usually one of those occasions when I haven’t found or made the time to work out during the daylight hours—a common occurance during the shortened days of the winter months. Seldom is anyone present during these odd hours.

As I make my way around the 400 meter oval in what is typically a 1600 or 3200 meter run, my mind can drift almost anywhere. Rarely will I consider the quality of my workout—rather I just hope for it to end quickly.

As I shuffle down the backstretch in my painfully slow pace, my rescue from the tedium comes in the form of a flicker of light above me—just above me. From the corner of my eye a flash will catch my attention. This light is nothing more than a reflection coming from the smooth surface of the stadium floodlights aimed at the gridiron. The reflection’s source is likely one of the nearby security lights of the school or streetlights beyond the fence.

Despite the easy and logical explanation, I’m transported during that instant to some game in the past. Other times I visualize the flicker above as the start of another Friday night football game—where once the lights come up to full power, the fans start making their way to the stands, the teams take to the field for their pre-game warm-ups, and before long the referees are blowing their whistles to beckon the opening kickoff of another game. I suppose during that frozen moment in time these uneventful evening runs become my Field of Dreams.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Sheridan's Valor

Sheridan Stops Mason
Originally uploaded by mdt1960.
The Northern Rocky Mountains dominate the horizon in every direction around towns like Sheridan, Montana. It's probable that such backdrops motivated the territory's settlers to come up with this naming of America's fourth largest state. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, 659 people call Sheridan home. I haven't walked the streets there, but I've seen their high school football team play twice in as many weeks. If you plopped me down in the middle of town and removed my blindfold, I wouldn't know where I was, but I'd recognize the Sheridan football team in their practice uniforms on any given gridiron.

My introduction to the Sheridan Panthers came last week when I saw them play in the first round of the Class C Eight-Man playoffs at undefeated Alberton. As they assembled on the field in Alberton for warm ups, I thought of them as lucky to even be in the playoffs. Early in the regular season they lost to a mediocre team from Noxon, and then in the last game of the year, they were pummeled by undefeated Drummond. Turns out they were the only team to tally any kind of score against Drummond during the entire season—a meager, single touchdown.

In last year's playoffs, Sheridan faced an undefeated and colossal team from Harlowton, beating them in the first round and finally bowing out in the semi-finals to the eventual state champs from Scobey.
By the end of last week's game with Alberton, I could see they were a gutsy team with plenty of heart. Many people like myself didn't believe in them, but they clearly believed in themselves as they smothered Alberton's hopes for a state title, providing the only blemish to their near-perfect season. As ironic as it may be, but Harlowton came to know Sheridan in the same way last year—maybe it has something to do with towns that end with "t-o-n."

Like many distinguished teams I've seen in the past, Sheridan does not make a memorable first impression. I recall my introduction to another notable team from Cokeville—title holders of the Wyoming Class 1A three years running; I thought they were a junior varsity team. Six-Man powerhouse Geraldine also seemed very average at first glance. So, here was this team from Sheridan—few in numbers, and not one guy on the team weighed over 200 pounds. In fact, most of the starting players were within 20 pounds of each other. I reckoned they were all capable of playing in each other's positions. They were the most homogenized team I'd ever seen.

I wasn't very keen in travelling the 300-plus miles to Big Sandy for their quarterfinal playoffs game against Sheridan. However, of all the games that Saturday, Big Sandy was the only field I hadn't visited, and I felt compelled to get another Montana Class C location listed in my football travels.
Nevertheless, it was hard to get excited to see two teams play that I'd seen in the recent past—Sheridan just the week before at Alberton and earlier in the year I'd seen the undefeated Pioneers of Big Sandy play in one of their many lopsided victories at Heart Butte. The Pioneers were impressive, but it was difficult to gauge the depth of their talent against a team that was no match for them.

If I were attending for the sheer rush of a game's excitement, I probably would have opted for the battle of undefeateds between Drummond and Belt over Big Sandy's contest with Sheridan. And this is what I have to deal with almost every week: my ongoing, internal struggles in deciding where I should go vs. where I want to go when it comes to small town high school football.

Over the past seven years while chasing down the varied small town high school football games, I've often come to these crossroads regarding game selections. Time and again it seems like the game I choose is influenced by some kind of project objective, but is often the least appealing while the most attractive game has more promise of excitement or possibly more at stake in its outcome. Yet, I've never walked away disappointed from any of the games I chose with my head rather than my heart. Usually something unfolds that I never could have predicted, thus justifying my decision.

This past week's game between Big Sandy and Sheridan was no exception. Although Big Sandy's victory was no surprise, I came away from the game completely won over by the scrappy team from Sheridan. They provided the finest display of tackling and defensive pursuit I'd seen in years. Big Sandy possessed at least three starters that were clearly larger than any of Sheridan's players, yet the Panther defense was relentless and ferocious in their gang tackling and laser-guided hits on the Pioneer ball carriers. Apparently no one told them that Big Sandy was a larger team. I imagine the undefeated Pioneers never felt more beaten following any of their previous victories.

When the final seconds ticked away on the game clock in Big Sandy, the scoreboard displayed 32-14 in favor of the Pioneers, but in my opinion, Sheridan was the better team pound for pound. Perhaps they only lacked that one stellar member on their team that would give them an edge, but none could be exploited as a weak link in their chain of play. They were a solidified and complete eight-man team. Their downfall on that Saturday for the most part came from offensive misques and turnovers.

In true small town football fashion, Big Sandy's coach Scot Chauvet made a point to visit the somber huddle of Sheridan players after the game and spoke graciously about what a class act they brought to the game. He told them how he prepared his team for Sheridan during the previous week, warning the Pioneers of Sheridan's big-hearted playing style. He also conveyed to the defeated squad that they had no reason to hang their heads low—they had played a great game.
At the other end of the field, the Big Sandy celebration was growing, and it was clear Coach Chauvet was expected to be there. So, off he went after his brief but profound speech. I wish he would have stayed longer—long enough to look each Sheridan player squarely in the eye as he spoke because his words rang so true. In his hurried state, I could only hope the coach's comments were interpreted as forthright and sincere rather than a passing and polite gesture.

Sometime next summer, I think I'll wander over to Sheridan and have a look around for an hour or two. I can't imagine such a visit will clear up or explain any particulars regarding the 2003 Panther football team, but at least I'll feel like I have some authority when I speak of their playoff valor. (—November 2003)

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Highwood's New Lights

Ekalaka Lights
Originally uploaded by mdt1960.
The night Highwood hosted Geraldine in the annual six-man battle of Chouteau County, I found myself driving in from Great Falls. I had been to Rocky Boy earlier that day for another six-man game and with ample time on hand, I decided to check into my hotel room in nearby Great Falls.

After freshening up a bit in my room, I headed for Highwood—a short 30 mile trek. The darkness was rapidly taking over the grayness from that rainy day and by the time I reached the outskirts of Great Falls, my Mazda rocketship was heading into one of the darkest sectors of the universe. The rain fell steadily on that messy night—reminescent of my youth in the cold and dank winters of Northeast Ohio. Conditions seemed to deteriorate the farther I drove from Great Falls. Fog settled in thick patches along the route—some so heavy, it seem as though I was driving blind.

Through my peripheral vision, I remember detecting a faint light in the black abyss surrounding me as I focused on the road ahead. When I looked in the source's direction, I saw nothing—as if a glowing spaceship attempted to stay hidden in the netherworld before me. But the soft light became stronger despite the thick fog as the road drew me nearer to Highwood.

Had I been a stranger to these surroundings, I would have thought something fantastic was unfolding up ahead—something the world would read about in the newspapers the next day. And though I knew its source, a mysterious quality radiated from the new gridiron lights at Highwood. Like the star that guided wise men to Bethlehem, these lights formed a single beacon guiding all fans of the game to this gridiron shrine of six-man football.

Many other games were played that same night all over Montana, but Highwood's newly lit gridiron proved the most brilliant of all diamonds laying on the state's bed of black velvet.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Almost Augusta

Practice Field
Originally uploaded by mdt1960.
We first heard about it from the woman at the coffee shop in Townsend, Montana. After gathering up our bedding from camping in our car, we stopped at the combination copy and coffee shop for a hot cup of joe. She inquired about the plans we had for our Saturday and upon hearing we were off to see a six-man football game in Augusta, she recounted the grim story from Augusta she had read in yesterday's paper. From her recollection, a coach up there killed himself after a heated argument with his wife that included a stand-off with the local law enforcement authorities. She didn't know for sure if he was the head football coach, but she was confident he was a football coach.

Following our visit, I purchased a copy of the Great Falls Tribune to see if there was anything more about the tragedy especially if it had any bearing on the scheduled game that day. I wasn't about to drive any farther for a football game that was canceled. All kinds of thoughts went through my mind. How could something this tragic happen in one of the communities where six-man football dwelled? The innocence of small town high school football in Augusta would undoubtedly be shattered by such a tragedy. Then I considered if I still wanted to travel to the strickened community wielding my camera and looking like a member of the paparazzi. Inevitably I would be written off as a vulture who simply came to record the disheartened faces and shattered lives of a community attending their football game where the departed coach was to direct his team.

As it turned out, there were follow up stories in the day's newspaper. Yes, it was the head coach. He and his wife did have a heated, late night argument that resulted in violence. At sometime around two in the morning on Thursday, she went to a neighbor's home to call the police. After several attempts to make contact with the coach, the police finally entered the home around 11:00 a.m. only to discover his body with a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Despite the Augusta schools being closed on Thursday because of the suicide, the decision had been made to go ahead with the upcoming game against Rocky Boy.

Under these new and unusual circumstances, I pondered whether a visit to Augusta was appropriate. On one hand, I'd been told it was one of the more scenic areas of Montana and if that was the case I was eager to photograph a game there. Yet, a part of me thought it might be best to leave this community to their grief in the context of their last home football game—outsiders like myself probably wouldn't be appreciated.

Nevertheless, we headed for Augusta.

Shortly after our arrival, I decided against photographing the game. In addition to the unusual circumstances resulting from the suicide, I found the football field surrounded by the clutter of residential and commercial buildings—preventing me from capturing any clean shots that might include the scenic landscape beyond the town's perimeter. However, I noticed the practice field behind the school and walked on over to find it in the setting that I had hoped for regarding the game field.

The local community started to trickle in for the day's game as we drove away. I felt the stars were pulling me away from Augusta—at least this time around. Luckily I recalled an alternative to salvage the day—a late-starting game in Alberton at 3:00. So, we made a beeline for Missoula and beyond—arriving 20 minutes before the start of the Class C eight-man playoff game between Alberton and Sheridan.

Postscript: Augusta 95, Rocky Boy 0

Monday, February 28, 2005

The Dynamics of Co-op

The Ryegate Contingency
Originally uploaded by mdt1960.

At some point along the way of my attending small town high school football games throughout Montana and Wyoming, I became acquainted with the concept of cooperative football. Football co-ops exist all over Montana and occur when two or more schools get together to form a football team—often for the reason that neither school is capable of fielding a complete team on its own. Most co-ops are between two or three different schools and it’s not unusual for a school to co-op with one school for football and another school (or no other) for basketball. Some school co-ops cover the entire year, merging two systems for all team sports.

Explaining the mechanics of high school co-ops often resembles a dizzying discussion on astronomy and the laws that govern heavenly bodies and galaxies. Here are a few to consider: During the football season, the towns of Bridger and Fromberg, Montana, combine to form an eight-man football team, but are foes when basketball season comes around. The same is true of Blue Sky and Kremlin-Gildford high schools located on Montana’s Highline—except they only have enough between them to make up a six-man football team. Broadview and Lavina co-op for all their sports while Reed Point fields their own six-man football team but co-ops with Rapelje for basketball. Rapelje, in turn, co-ops with Ryegate for six-man football.

Needless to say, it’s challenging to keep track of who’s playing with who and who’s playing against who. And there isn’t a year that goes by that doesn’t have some new co-op added or deleted from the smaller classes of Montana high school football.

As with most football co-ops, usually only one of the schools will host practices and games, which means that the players from the other school are the ones who have to absorb the extra miles that are required to travel between the two camps. Nevertheless, many of these co-op programs make good sense as they are typically between two schools that aren’t very far from one another and are usually connected by a smooth highway.

Of course, as in the study of astronomy, there are always exceptions to high school co-ops in Montana.

The towns of Custer and Melstone, make up one of the best six-man football teams in the state of Montana. However, their success has not come easy—at least not for the kids from Melstone. Custer and Melstone are separated by 40 miles of dirt road which means after school during the football season, the Melstone students are ferried to Custer in Chevy Suburbans and quad-cab pick-ups by volunteer parents for football practice and then brought home afterwards. Usually the parents take turns driving the entire contingency in one vehicle for each round trip.

When I drove this stretch of dirt road one day, it took me just over an hour to complete. I’m sure some of the parent drivers from Melstone can do it under an hour on most days. And although it’s not a painfully bumpy road, it’s still a dirt road that takes approximately an hour to travel each way… everyday. There’s more than a fair share of washboard and boulders enroute that are likely responsible for excessive and premature repair work to any car or truck that ventures over the road on a regular basis.

Relief for the Melstone bunch comes on Thursdays when the head football coach travels over the dirt from Custer to take the Melstone players through a light workout before their games on Friday night or Saturday. At the same time, assistant coaches in Custer work with the bunch that attend school there. Nonetheless, the Melstone players still have to make the trip back to Custer for friday night home games or to catch the bus on Saturday morning for a road game in the afternoon. It’s probably safe to say that none of the players travel to Custer on Sundays.

Rapelje and Ryegate are two other Montana communities that share a six-man football team between their schools and like Custer and Melstone, they are also separated by an extended amount of miles over a dirt road. In constrast to the dirt road between Custer and Melstone, which is fairly straight and uneventful to travel, the road between Rapelje and Ryegate twists and turns in several locations and includes a steep climb over the 30-something-mile route from Ryegate to Rapelje. While this would be a memorable road trip for football players from any school back East, this is just part of daily life for kids from Ryegate who travel the road to Rapelje for football practices and games.

Unlike folks in Melstone, the school system in Ryegate has maintained a special school bus that makes the daily round trip to Rapelje carrying football players and volleyball players. The first thing you notice about the “Rapelje Express” is its chopped length compared to regular school buses. It also has air brakes allowing it to perform safely when coming off the steep grade into the Big Coulee area. It manages a whopping four miles to every gallon of gasoline burned up in its daily assignment.

John Spizziri is one of two drivers that handles the yellow beast and its unique cargo. The countless trips undoubtedly make for one seasoned driver and bus. On one occasion, I left Ryegate in my little Mazda 626 ten minutes before the Express departed so I could set up my camera and photograph it traversing over the badlands of the Big Coulee area. Once I was perched up on the steep cliffs of Coulee Hill, I was surprised to see the modern, yellow stage coach already at the foot of the hill—I hadn’t even unloaded my camera gear. I scrambled to get a few shots off, but ended up having to do it again on another day with an even greater head start. I have yet to make the trip in under an hour, but Spizziri has it down to 47 minutes barring no bad weather.

Midway through the football season of 2004, I left my car in Ryegate and boarded the express with the team and driver. I was thinking they would have some profound observations that I’d never thought of regarding their daily trip, but like most high school kids, they stay pretty busy socializing on the bus, listening to their portable CD players or just laying across one of the bench seats for a short nap. And once in their midst, they have a way of making it all feel commonplace for anyone who thinks otherwise.

Perhaps the Ryegate football players consider the extra traveling required to play football as another abstract equation to the simple life of Montana’s rural settings. Nevertheless, I drove back to my home that evening thinking it was all pretty darn special. Perhaps when they are old and gray and entertaining grandchildren, they’ll recount those ordinary bus rides between Ryegate and Rapelje with sweet, extraordinary affection—colorizing the long journeys they made everyday in the same light as their favorite game memories.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

A Sense of North

The Ryegate Contingency
Originally uploaded by mdt1960.

Somewhere north of Harlowton, perhaps around Judith Gap, is where I first detect that I’m in a place that is strange to me. This is that expanse in the Montana geography where it begins to feel as much North as it does West.

Every time I go there and beyond, I always find myself trying to articulate what it is that makes it feel different or look different. Perhaps it’s the angle of the waning autumn sun—lower in the South than back home in Wyoming. Maybe it’s the alternating fields of winter wheat rather than the endless horizons of sagebrush.

Whatever defines this space, my arrival there is confirmed visually as I scan the northern horizon in search of the Highwood Mountains or Square Butte. Once I see them, I know I’ve crossed that ambiguous threshold.

It’s a wonderous, but at the same time, uncomfortable feeling that never quite retreats from my conscious. Despite this unsettled feeling, I’m always gratified in its presence when I drift through towns like Stanford, Geraldine and even the metropolis of Great Falls.

Tonight as I make the short trek to my office in the dark, quiet streets of Powell, I’m thinking back to yesterday which feels so far away now; of Rocky Boy and the football game there. So far north it seems—and to think about all the darkness that separates us now. Yet, if I were desperate enough, I could jump back in my car and before morning light arrives, I could be back in that faraway place to experience its sense of north.

A humble genesis

I grew up in Akron, Ohio, and like many children from that area, football was a big part of our life—whether we played the game or supported the local teams. For as long as I can remember there hasn’t been one autumn in my lifetime that was lacking of something to do with football. And probably attributed to my football-minded upbringing, since 1997 I have travelled the remote two-lane highways of Wyoming and Montana, stopping in the small, by-passed towns to take in and document the high school football games served up in these communities on any given autumn weekend.

There is always plenty of time to ponder the mysteries of life—and then some—on my way to any given contest; attending some of these games demands as much as seven hours of driving in one direction. One early Saturday morning I was laughing at myself when I considered how far some people drive for a college or pro contest and there I was putting in over 300 miles to witness one particular high school match-up.

It’s like I’m holding one of the best kept secrets in these small town football games. Considering the millions of tourists who converge upon Wyoming and Montana every year seeking out the splendor of their national parks and surrounding areas, I wonder how many of those same people ever make it to a small town football game in one of these two states? Such is the Grand Canyon and its two classifications of visitors. For a half hour or less (as many studies have claimed), some people stand on the rim and gaze into this great work of erosional art and contemplate what it must be like down there. However, a much smaller percentage find the additional time to explore its depths and thus become intimate with its layers of rock and respectful of its inherent remoteness and dangers. It’s not difficult to calculate who walks away from the Grand Canyon with a richer experience or greater appreciation.

And in a less glorious analogy, so it is in the case of those who visit Montana or Wyoming. Like the Grand Canyon, you can get a general feel for what these two states have to offer if you visit their scenic wonders and gaze over them from a distance. However, taking the extra time to travel to towns like Dubois, Sunburst or Savage for a football game will surely yield a more euphoric experience— where you can sit or stand shoulder to shoulder with one of the locals at a six-man or eight-man game played against the spectacular backdrops provided by the Northern Rockies and the adjacent wide open spaces. And if someone asks you where you are from and why you came (because they’ll spot you easily) all you have to do is tell them you just love football and you heard this was one of the best places to see a game. Such a reply will be good enough.

There’s more to Wyoming and Montana than standing in a blue ribbon trout stream with a fly rod or hiking through a tranquil area of the Bob Marshall wilderness. And on an autumn Saturday afternoon (Friday night too in some towns), you’ll find me in Denton, Belt, Meeteetse or Custer where small town high school football folds into the landscape like sugar in your coffee. Perhaps the game isn’t as perfect as the NFL, but the scenario is just as perfect as standing in one of those blue ribbon streams.