Thursday, December 29, 2005

Abandoned


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.