Monday, December 04, 2006

Connoisseur of the Concessions

Tanya At Centerville
Originally uploaded by mdt1960.
My wife, Tanya, witnessed her first football game back in 2002 when she attended the opening home game of the Powell High School football season. She was hardly impressed. Despite her sub-par initial reaction, it really had nothing to do with the quality of play regarding the hometown Panthers or their opponents that night, but rather it was about her idea of the game of football influenced by a land far, far away.

Since she was 11 years old, Tanya lived in New Zealand until moving to the States at the ripe old age of 30. And if there's any one thing you need to know about New Zealand, it is that (as a country) gridiron football is probably about as popular as badminton is here in the U.S. The Kiwi version of football held in high esteem is called Rugby. As you probably have guessed, gridiron football takes some getting used to if one has been watching Rugby most of their life. Undoubtedly, the same would be true of watching gridiron all your life and then watching Rugby.

But her sour outlook on gridiron football started to change a year or two later when she tagged along with me to towns like Dubois, Belfry, Heart Butte, Drummond and Lima; she started taking a liking to the game of gridiron football—especially the eight-man version. And soon after that, she even developed a fondness for particular teams.

In 2003, when we travelled more miles than any other year, it was my own wife who first told me that Drummond was the team to beat after watching them defeat Noxon early in the season. For the most part, I was humoured that she had come so far from her initial disliking for the game to picking a team that she considered the best. Nevertheless, I was confident that Harlowton was the best team after watching them trounce Joliet and Denton during the regular season—not to mention that my knowledge of gridiron football was much more credible than hers.

So, during the quarterfinals that year, we both watched Drummond defeat Harlowton 40-0 and (as many know) went on to win their first state title. What do I know?

Yet, Tanya's true passion for attending any game extends beyond the gridiron play—resting instead on the concession stands and their offerings of popcorn, nachos, candy, soft drinks, hot dogs and hamburgers. The outcome of the game (for the most part) is really secondary to her.

So, when I asked her recently to give me some kind of list of small town football's outstanding concession stands, here's what she had to say:

BEST OVERALL CONCESSION STAND: Big Sandy and Drummond (could this be the largest factor behind her loyalty for Drummond?). NEEDS-MORE-WORK CONCESSION STAND: Rosebud (candy was the only offering). IT'LL-COST-YOU-AN-ARM-& A-LEG CONCESSION STAND: Custer. BEST CHEESEBURGER (her favorite concession stand item): Drummond and Denton. BACK2BBQ CHEESEBURGER: Harlowton (served cold) and Gardiner (not cooked thoroughly). And although no single concession stand stood out in its excellence in popcorn, she only remembers the NEEDS-MORE-WORK POPCORN: Eureka and Dubois (Wyoming). HONORABLE MENTION to Rocky Boy for serving saveloys (the Kiwi name for a hot dog/sausage with red casing).

Of course, Tanya is not the only one who benefits from the concession stand when we travel together. There are those weekends when she doesn't travel with me and as a result, I might only purchase a small bag of popcorn and/or a candy bar. I typically don't stop long enough to savor the concession stand offerings on my own. But when Tanya is along, I can be sure that she'll find me on the sidelines somewhere and force me to pause long enough for a delightful, char-broiled hamburger or hot dog with a cold Coke.

And if I'm lucky, she'll help me in the long drive home after the game.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Small Town Coach for Hire

Savage Coach
Originally uploaded by mdt1960.
I get some pretty unique comments and emails regarding this blog site. Regardless, I never thought someone would consider this project as a link to finding a coaching job, but as John Prine would say, "It's a big old goofy world." So, if any school system out there is interested in the following, drop me a line and I'll hook you up with this small town football coaching prospect.

I have 25 years experience coaching high school football in three states: Ohio, Maryland, and Florida. Currently I reside in Florida. My journey—God-willing—is to become a head football coach in a small town (in any state). However, I do not posess a teaching degree. In the past I have always worked as a sub-contractor for a given school or on a volunteer basis. My family includes my wife and four children.

My search is for a program that is in need of rebuilding. I have been involved with some great football programs over the years—attributed to my hard-nosed, hard-working, Christian values. My approach is a concerted focus on details and accountibility from coaches to players and from players back to coaches. I am 43-years-old and have been involved with football more than half my life.This may come off as a strange e-mail, just understand I am trying to live out a dream and if you have any knowledge of a program that would consider or talk to me, please have them call me.


Saturday, November 25, 2006

Emotional Extremes

Schilling's Big Catch
Originally uploaded by mdt1960.
I'll be the first to admit it—so count me amongst the non-believers—I didn't give the Miners of Centerville a chance against Wibaux. The best I could hope for was a two touchdown margin of victory for the Longhorns. And when I watched the Miners take the field from the Centerville hillside, there was nothing about them that impressed me like the 1999 title team. Maybe it's just those giant numbers on the Miner jerseys that dwarf the young men wearing them.

In the early minutes of the game—I think it may have been the second play—Wibaux grabbed an interception and the next thing I knew they were on the scoreboard. "The romp is on," I said to myself from the hillside.

I came so close to attending the Highwood-Roberts six-man title game which was probably only a 45-minute drive from Centerville, and as Wibaux drove in that first touchdown, I was practically kicking myself for my final game selection of Centerville over Highwood.

Nevertheless, I had made a thoughtful and informed decision. I'd been thinking about it all week and even as I drove off in the wee early morning hours on Saturday, I was still considering which game I would attend since they were both in the vicinity of Great Falls.
_____________ . _____________

In the first place, I had attended at least two games at both locations going back to 1999, so I wasn't hurting for images from the Highwood or Centerville gridiron.

I also toyed with the idea of driving to Highwood to shoot the first half of the six-man title game and then speeding over to Centerville to watch the eight-man title game conclusion. After all, halftime for the six-man game at Highwood would likely come earlier than the Centerville-Wibaux game because each quarter is two minutes shorter—this would also buy me more time in the drive between games. Despite this logic, it made me feel cheap because I was opting for quantity over quality. Further, I tried this same experiment last year with a game at Rapelje against Ten Sleep (Wyoming) and another game at Park City against Winifred. When I arrived at the second game, there was only seven minutes remaining because Park City was clobbering Winifred which resulted in a running clock.

Another thing I considered was the team match-ups at Highwood and Centerville. Early in the year I attended the Roberts-Highwood regular season game held at Roberts—a damn good game to be sure. Although Highwood won, it was closely contested; so close that I reckoned Roberts could win if they played again. So, if I desired an uncertain outcome, than Highwood was my choice. However, as I mentioned above, I had my doubts about a well-contested game at Centerville. Yet, Centerville and Wibaux never see each other during the regular season. In fact, the only other time I know they've met was in 2000 for a semi-final game. Thus, there was a certain mystical attraction in the contest—kind of like Dracula vs. Frankenstein or Jason vs. Freddie—even if I was certain of the movie's ending.

Thanks to my early start, I arrived at the Highwood turnoff around 10:30 a.m. for a game that wasn't starting until 1:00 p.m. and I still hadn't made a decision regarding which game to attend. With the excess time on hand, I decided to drive on towards Centerville and have a look around the surrounding towns of Sand Coulee and Stockett which also contribute to the contingency of Miners from the "tri-town" area. Despite attending two other Centerville games in the past, I'd never travelled beyond its gridiron. Following my tour of the area, I would drift on over to Highwood for the actual game if that was my inclination.

Walking around in the "downtown" area of Sand Coulee, I approached the town paramedic/EMT who was preparing to depart for the football game. Standing next to his truck while he smoked a cigarette, I finally asked him directly, "So, why should I attend this game over the game in Highwood?"

He paused a moment and then told me about "some F-14s" that would be flying over just before the game started. Initially I was humoured by his reply, but more importantly, I was finally swayed in which game to attend.

Sure, it's no big deal when a bunch of fighter aircraft buzz a major college or professional football game, but flying over an eight-man football game was rare in my book. Truly, this could be one of those small town moments. I made my way for the Centerville gridiron and confirmed my tip with the athletic director after I paid my six-dollar admission. Afterwards I positioned myself on the hillside with a camera that I considered would capture the moment and setting as I scoured the horizon for the incoming F-14s.

Keeping my vigilance, I felt a bit inadequate with my miniscule Nikon camera, especially since I didn't even know the direction of their approach. I knew there wouldn't be much time if I had the luxury of seeing them close in on the venue—even less time if they came from over the hill behind me. For a moment, I sympathized with the Iraqi army back in those early and glorified days of the "war on terror."

At 12:50 p.m. I spyed two, fast-approaching bogies and within seconds managed to peel off four shots before they were out of sight. I didn't even have time to make a positive I.D.—friend or foe. Now I know what a poor soldier I would make… shoot first and ask questions later.

Regardless, it was "mission accomplished" and kick-off was only moments away.
_____________ . _____________

Well, I'm hardly a sports writer, but the whimsical happenstance (despite my attempts at logical reasoning) that brought me to Centerville resulted in one of the most exciting football games I had ever witnessed—at any level of the game.

Following the second Wibaux kickoff in the early minutes of the game, I was taken back when Centerville marched the football down the field and tied the score. Not only that, they made the two-point conversion and grabbed the lead. I was amused. "Well, at least it won't be a shut-out," I said under my breath from the hillside.

The visiting Longhorns came right back with another score on a long pass to their swift halfback and regained the lead, but failed again to make the conversion. And as the first quarter came to an end, the Miners answered back with a long pass of their own and suddenly, I found myself attending the game I thought was to be found only in Highwood.

In short, I was stunned and remained so throughout the game especially when Centerville was up 42-20 early in the fourth quarter. Even a few players from Chester J-I (who represented the only team that had faced both teams; Centerville during the regular season and Wibaux in the playoffs) were somewhat shocked. But just about when I thought there was no hope for the Longhorns, I was stunned again when Wibaux came storming back while the Centerville passing game fell oddly silent.

The momentum of the game had shifted to Wibaux's side and with less than two minutes remaining in the game, Wibaux miraculously tied the game to send it into overtime. At that point I was sure the Longhorns would win the game, but even so and regardless of the outcome, this was far from the game I had expected. Then I considered either team receiving the runner-up trophy—it didn't seem fair.

Overtime in Montana playoffs is settled by each team having four downs from their opponents ten yard line—reminiscent of extra innings in a baseball game. If neither team scores, they each receive another set of downs until the tie is broken.

Centerville won the coin toss for overtime and chose to defend first (just like the home team in a baseball game). And in that first set of downs during overtime, Wibaux's momentum was suddenly neutralized when they lost a fumble near the goal line.

Centerville's offense started with a sputter of their own in that first possession of overtime. On second down—out of the shotgun formation—the Miner quarterback missed the ball as it passed between his legs, but he recovered it back on the 21 yard line. As it turned out, this loss opened up the passing lanes between the line of scrimmage and the end zone, and on the next play he found one of his favorite receivers in man-to-man coverage with a perfect strike over the middle in the end zone.

As the setting sun drew closer to the horizon, I witnessed the mingling of emotional extremes. The yellow-clad jerseys of the Wibaux team—some still lying on the field from the play that just ended the game—were engulfed by the black-clad fans and players from Centerville pouring on to the field to embrace the player who caught the winning pass and his other teammates.
_____________ . _____________

Coach Nellemore
Originally uploaded by mdt1960.
And I thought the team and fans from Drummond had a long drive back from Wibaux the week before upon losing their first game in 45 wins (the longest winning steak in Montana history) during the semi-final contest with the Longhorns. But, it was clear that the crowd from Wibaux had it every bit as bad—might as well be a 2,000 mile drive home for them. I wondered if many of them came to the game with the same expectations as myself—thinking the Longhorns would be less challenged in this game compared to the Drummond game.

On the drive home, I thought about those exhilarated hometown fans at the Centerville Bar or The American Bar in nearby Stockett. Perhaps I should have lingered a bit to witness the merriment. Nevertheless, the further I drove into the night, I found myself thinking more about the defeated Wibaux team instead—the Pittsburgh Steelers of Montana 8-man football.

The week before I sat in Wibaux's most popular watering hole, the Rainbow Club, where locals watched old videos of past title games on one of the TVs. It was a reminder of how many titles the school had claimed over the years and how high the locals held up those championship teams. Certainly this group of players wanted to be counted amongst those elite title teams of the past as well. "Weren't they as good," I asked myself, "Don't they deserve to be included in that elevated group even if they came up short in overtime of the title game?" Former player and assistant coach Travis Nellemore could surely speak to the question. If I recall correctly, he played on teams that won the state title and lost the state title games. I'd like to think that whatever he said to the Wibaux players—perhaps from the darkened interior of the humming bus as it glided eastward down the lone highway—somehow shortened that long drive home.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The Rematch

Longhorns Take the Field
Originally uploaded by mdt1960.

Wow, what a game. What... a... game—one of those that you hate to see either team lose.

Nevertheless, Wibaux appeared to be the better team from the opening minutes of the game. But, no one told the Trojans they had met their match which is why the outcome of the game was unknown until those final seconds.

My hat goes off to the Drummond Trojans, not just this year's team, but all the teams—going back to that first game of the 2003 season when it all started. I don't like to claim favorites in all the miles of following small town high school football games, but Drummond would be up there if a gun was held to my head. Why? Despite their success, the coaches and players have always maintained an air of modesty and humility about them. In short, they don't flaunt it. I wish our country's foreign policy would adopt some of these attributes found in Drummond's football team.

Oops... politics, I probably shouldn't go there. Not here anyway.

So now, Wibaux finds itself back in familiar territory—the state title game. I haven't seen this year's group of Miners from Centerville, but I'd be a fool to bet against the Longhorns after watching them this past weekend. Someone point out their weakness to me because I didn't see it.

All game talk aside, my favorite image/memory of the Wibaux-Drummond game won't be the eruption of Wibaux fans when they realized their Longhorns had sealed the victory, nor will it be the look of defeat on a team that has never experienced defeat. Rather, it was a simple and fleeting image and I suspect few noticed—it was Wibaux's head coach Jeff Bertelsen. Once the game's outcome was history, I glanced over to find him sitting on the sidelines with his bare, kicking legs stretched out in front of him like a giddy child in a bathtub—it is truly remarkable to see such unbridled happiness in a person. So, "Where's the image," you might ask? I'm sorry to say, but as far as photography goes, that was a fish that got away.

Postscript: I'm not sure if the Wibaux-Drummond II outcome means there's a changing of the guard in Montana Class C eight-man football. I suspect Drummond will be back (like Wibaux did this year) as well as the usual suspects; Centerville, Park City, and Stanford. Anyone else? Oh yes, and than there is Superior coming down from Class B to join the ranks of eight-man once again. They had 41 players on this year's team and they were in the Class B playoffs too.

Stay tuned as this story has no end.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

The Harebrain Law of Equals and Eight-Man Football

Trojan & Longhorn Battlefield
Originally uploaded by mdt1960.
Like many good folks around the state of Montana, it's hard not to think about this weekend's upcoming semifinal football games. Personally, I don't know what to think of myself walking around the campus of Northwest College in Powell, Wyoming thinking about playoff football games in Montana when my hometown Panthers are playing for the state title in Douglas this weekend. Traitor? Well, I've some thoughts explaining this strange phenomenon, but I'll save that for another time.

In some ways I think the semifinals are as anticipated as the finals—in fact many people have pointed to a couple of the games (i.e., Wibaux vs. Drummond) and have made claims such as, "That's the state title game right there." Perhaps, but if I had my way, I'd attend the Wibaux vs. Drummond game and the Park City vs. Centerville game too. That being possible, I wouldn't mind folding in the Libby vs. Dillion game too. Oh yes, than there is the Huntley Project vs. Malta.

I suppose there's this part in me that wishes the-powers-that-be would stagger the games so nut cases like myself could drive in record time between these games and witness each one. Yet, there is something good about picking only one and making the best of it.

I did that last week when I chose to drive to Park City for their showdown with Twin Bridges. Admittedly, I was hoping for a better game. Depending on who you talk to, either Park City is really good this year or Twin just didn't show up in full force.

Well that got me thinking about which teams really are the best based upon the common teams they've played thus far. So, here's what I came up with—it truly means nothing, but I just chuckled to myself for the pure entertainment of it all.

Centerville defeated Chester J-I 46-6
Wibaux defeated Chester J-I 54-12
Wibaux defeated Ekalaka 52-6
Centerville defeated Ekalaka 56-8
Therefore: Centerville equals Wibaux

Centerville defeated Valier 58-6
Stanford defeated Valier 56-0
Therefore: Centerville equals Stanford

Stanford defeated Absarokee 26-6 and 36-0
Park City defeated Absarokee 40-0
Therefore Park City equals Stanford

Drummond defeated Twin Bridges 42-6
Park City defeated Twin Bridges 46-8
Therefore Park City equals Drummond

Therefore: If Wibaux equals Centerville, Centerville equals Stanford, Stanford equals Park City and Park City equals Drummond, than Wibaux equals Drummond and Park City equals Centerville.

But, here's where the equation fall to pieces: Drummond defeated Stanford 38-6.

One last thought: A Wibaux-Drummond rematch? How many starters from that first meeting in 2004 will be playing this weekend? I suspect it's hardly a rematch from a player level.

Happy Election Day and best of luck to everyone this weekend. May the best teams truly win. See you in Wibaux.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Antarctica and Ekalaka

Another Bulldog TD
Originally uploaded by mdt1960.
It's that time of the year when the innocence of small town high school football takes a back seat to the intensity associated with the playoffs. Despite the transition to a heightened level of competitiveness, the grass roots feel of the small town game never leaves the stage as there are plenty of reminders right up to the title games. Such was the case in Ekalaka (pronounced "eek-a-lack-a") this past weekend.

Ekalaka Chewing Tobacca, spit it on the floor! (A derelict cheer of unknown origin—probably a rival school of Carter County High School.) This is proof that some words are simply fun to speak out loud.

Years ago while applying for a job at McMurdo Station in Antarctica, I read about the issues regarding taking a holiday when working in the world's "Deep South." The discussion had to do with "polies" (those who are based at the South Pole) and non-polies (as in those who work at McMurdo Station). Polies typically travel to McMurdo for an extended weekend and once there, they can take in a movie, bowl, go to a bar or whatever else is offered/available in Antarctica's largest outpost. On the other hand, those who work at McMurdo are known to catch a flight to Christchurch, New Zealand for a brief holiday as Christchurch is the world's jumping-off point for flights to and from the frozen continent. And then the foundation of the joke is formed about what would happen if polies skipped McMurdo and went straight to Christchurch. It was concluded that they would be overwhelmed like a habitual gambler turned loose in the middle of Las Vegas, and thus never seen again.

Ekalaka, Montana is somewhat like Antarctica when it comes to isolated places in America's fourth largest state. Located in the southeast corner of the Treasure State, there is only one paved road leading to Ekalaka—a 35 mile ribbon of narrow asphalt straight to Baker. I've oftened wondered if the high school kids in Ekalaka travel to the larger town of Baker to get away from their small town of 500—reminiscent of Antarctica's polies. In fact passing through Baker is nearly a prerequisite for almost anyone from Ekalaka attempting to get "out of town." When it comes to the high school kids in Baker, it's likely that they travel to nearby Glendive or Miles City when they want to get away from their small town of 1,700. So, like the polies in Antarctica, I've pondered whether the parents of Ekalaka are taking a gamble when allowing their high schoolers a road trip to the bigger towns of Glendive and Miles City. Imagine getting that phone call from the principal at Miles City High School informing you that your child is now a MCHS student. Yikes!

Speaking of road trips... it's a long haul from Powell, Wyoming to Ekalaka, Montana—a 667 mile round trip to be exact. Although I nearly begged my wife to join me in this trip, I travelled solo. Rising at 4:00 a.m., I was on my way by 5:00. My arrival was 45 minutes before the game started thanks to delays brought on by a couple pullovers to photograph and a half hour cap-nap at the Wordan exit along I-94. (I was happy to learn in this trip that I can sleep comfortably in the cab of my old 1990 truck—just purchased last spring—if need be.) The return home took even longer—again broken up by more photo stops and another cat-nap at the same exit. Totally exhausted, I pulled up to the house at 12:15 a.m. swearing I'd never do that again unless there was a hotel before or after the football game.

And what a football game it was—a Montana Class C eight-man playoff game between Carter County (Ekalaka) and Culbertson-Bainville (a.k.a. "Culby"). The first thing that bowled me over was the number of players dressed out for Culby. They had at least 40 players and weren't lacking in the size department either. Watching the two teams warm up, I found it hard to believe that Ekalaka had defeated the Cowboys during a regular season match-up. I was convinced that key players from Culby must have missed that first meeting.

Fruit Scampers
Originally uploaded by mdt1960.
The Bulldogs of Ekalaka (smaller and fewer in numbers) were hardly impressive as they warmed-up, but once the game commenced, they didn't take long to establish their dominance as they marched down the field on their first possession and scored. The Bulldog quarterback, Orry Fruit, was most outstanding in that his initial physical appearance didn't strike me as a terribly gifted athlete. I couldn't have been more wrong as Fruit was extremely skilled, confident and deceptively fast—many times appearing either very tired or injured or both, but he never left the game (perhaps a good actor too).

Two small running backs with the same name—brothers Orin and Pat Hansen—joined Fruit in the backfield and proved to match Fruit's athletic ability for the hapless Cowboys. Other members of the starting team for Carter County came across the same way as their quarterback. They were hardly a flashy team to look at, but well disciplined and scrappy to the core. Truly, the game was never in any doubt.

In Culby's defense, the Cowboys started many sophomores and juniors and with those kinds of numbers and size, Wibaux and Ekalaka have surely made note of what might be coming down from the northeast in the next two years.

For now though, I'm eager to know how the Bulldogs of Ekalaka will match up to undefeated Centerville next weekend.

Postscript: Sometimes I'm convinced that this undertaking of high school football is nothing more than an excuse to go to places like Ekalaka, because I doubt I'd ever get to them driven only by curiosity.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Denton, Montana and the NFL

Originally uploaded by mdt1960.
Perhaps fly-overs by a squadron of F-16s is to be expected at a major college or professional football game, but most of the fly-overs that take place at a small town high school football game are usually 747's at about 35,000 feet—I'm sure not too many people notice.

So, imagine travelling to Denton, Montana, to watch an eight-man football game and find a little Cessna, single-engine plane circling the field at a low altitude. After making a couple passes over the field, the pilot actually puts it down in the alfalfa field/landing strip next to the gridiron and then casually walks over to the sidelines to take in the action. I learned later that his son was a linebacker for the visiting Harlowton Engineers.

I suppose this is a small example of the charm that one might experience in the small town football venues around Montana and Wyoming.

— • —

It's a long way from places like Denton, Montana, to the congested metropolitan areas and their professional football games and stadiums—and more than just physical distance too.

Recently a gentleman living in the Washington, D.C. area wrote about a football outing he recently experienced involving the Washington Redskins.

“I live just outside Washington, D.C. and yesterday attended, as a guest, the Redskins-Tennessee Titans NFL game. Never have I seen such blatant commercialism in my life, everywhere you turn you are expected to pay ($7 for a bottle of beer or a brat hot dog—this is after $110 for an end-zone ticket and $25 for parking) or are forced to watch a wide-screen video commercial. Around the inside of the stadium and animated billboards—promotions for soft drinks, banks and products I have never heard of. The in-stadium, big-screen-replay-screens spend more time on commercials than on plays and replays. I sat in a throng of 88,000 others and could not really see much of what was going on football-wise. 

The players have no local loyalty—they are hired mercenaries.  The crowd can be jerked around only so much; the Redskins played so ineptly that the hometown fans turned violently against them as they blundered, fumbled and racked up penalties.  I seldom watch NFL on TV and now I never will again.

I was thoroughly frisked before entering the stadium…”

That seems like a lot of money for a not-so-good time.

Contrast this testimony to my experience at Denton. A charcoal-grilled hamburger cost $2.75—just like the ones from the backyard at home. All non-students paid four dollars to watch the game even if it was possible to watch from the surrounding roadsides without paying. Of course, parking was free. There were no advertisements that I could remember, only a list of booster club members from the Denton area in the game program.

The best part though was that every player on both teams truly represented their school and community. The only recruiting that goes on at this level is the head coach trying to talk a potential student/athlete to join the football team. Some coaches are so successful that over 90 percent of the school's male population dress out every Friday night or Saturday afternoon.

Thankfully I wasn't frisked before the game, but many of the locals knew they hadn't seen my face before when they gave me a nod or smile. A couple of the bolder ones went so far as to ask where I was from—which is a great question in starting a conversation at a small town football game.

Denton, Montana is a great place to take in a small town high school football game. Not only is it in a great setting, but their football program is a reputable one despite losing to Harlowton the day I was in town. The hometown Trojans have made several trips to the six-man title game and even won it all in 1990. Sometime after that, they moved up to eight-man play and in 1994 and 1999 they were the state runner-up.

Of course there's the other attribute associated with Denton—you can fly in for a game and no one needs to give you a ride to the football field. Lear jets are probably out of the question.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

The Blind Side

Roberts Aerial Attack
Originally uploaded by mdt1960.
This book just released and its author were featured on National Public Radio recently. The premise of the book is about the evolution of the left tackle position over the past twenty years—now the second highest paid person on the NFL field next to the quarterback.

The book references that fateful and bone-crushing (literally if you recall) tackle by Lawrence Taylor on Joe Theisman during a Monday night game.

Click on the link below to hear the interview by Robert Siegel and read an excerpt from Lewis' book.

Michael Lewis Interview

Monday, October 09, 2006

Rumblings in the West

Trojan Starters
Originally uploaded by mdt1960.
Did I read that right, Drummond 56, Sheridan 20? And Sheridan recorded the first touchdown of the game! What the...

Well regardless—someone pinch me… another team has scored three touchdowns against the invincible Trojans—did someone slip a couple grams of kryptonite into Superman's Wheaties too? When was the last time that happened? That's about as many touchdowns scored on the Trojans during the entire season last year.

My eyes drifted aimlessly across the sports page as I couldn't even comprehend the other scores around the state upon reading the Drummond-Sheridan score.

OK, I know this doesn't mean the wheels have fallen off the football juggernaut in Drummond, Montana, but this has to be good news to all the other teams that might face the three-time, consecutive state champs in the upcoming playoffs—perhaps the Trojans are human, finally.

And maybe it's not much to go on, but—thanks to the Sheridan Panthers—there is now a small ray of hope for all the other title contenders in the state.

Of course the other possibility is that Drummond is as good as they've ever been, only Sheridan is loaded for bear as well. And let us not forget last year when we were only one game away from an all-Western Class C title game as Park City eliminated a pesky Twin Bridges in the semi-finals, thus securing the last dance with the Trojans.

Lastly, Sheridan's loss to Drummond wasn't their first. Two weeks ago Sheridan lost to Twin Bridges, 40-26 and Drummond doesn't meet up with Twin Bridges until the last week of the regular season.

Surely everyone in Class C eight-man is keeping one eye on Drummond as the playoffs approach, but it appears that the Falcons of Twin Bridges were no fluke in last year's playoffs while Ed Burke's Sheridan Panthers can't be discounted either in light of their moral victory against the Trojans.

Should we be surprised if the title game is a Western conference rematch? Maybe not, but I'd be downright shocked if the West wasn't represented in the title game at all.

Friday, October 06, 2006

A Six-Man Saint

Originally uploaded by mdt1960.
The Roberts Rockets have a good shot at winning the Montana Class C Six-Man football title this season, and I suspect Fromberg's head coach and superintendent, Randy Durr, couldn't be happier if they pull it off. Even though Durr's Falcon's face the high-powered Rockets this coming week, it was the Fromberg coach who single-handedly put the Roberts team on the six-man map back in 2001 when he started the program there. Prior to that, 50 years had passed since Roberts fronted a football team.

Today, Coach Durr sports tattoos on his lower legs—homages to his successful days at Roberts. The kids at Fromberg have called for a big "F" wherever he can find the space, but he's not budging until they tally their first five-win season.

DurrAble Legs
Originally uploaded by mdt1960.
Randy Durr hopes to concoct another successful football formula in Fromberg's newest athletic program. For several years, the Falcons played eight-man football in a co-op with nearby Bridger. And as he did in Roberts, it was Randy Durr who convinced the Fromberg community that the world was a better place if they had their own six-man football team.

Besides establishing the new six-man program in his first year, Durr was also the impetus in raising $28K for renovations in Fromberg's gym.

Along with guys like Stephen Epler and Jack Pardee, Randy Durr might merit sainthood someday in the world of six-man football.

Postscript: I first met Randy Durr in the summer of 2003 when the superintendent and head coach was mowing the Roberts gridiron. "Only in a small town," I thought to myself and wondered if mowing the lawn was in his job description.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Drive-By Fans

Pirates Warm Up
Originally uploaded by mdt1960.
There are football fields all over the country set in locations conducive to feedback from cars and trucks that drive by in close proximity to these special gridirons. Specifically, the Montana football fields of Lima, Drummond and Reed Point lie directly adjacent and below the speeding interstate traffic that pass right by the games, and also offer the interstate travellers a brief glance of the action on the field below. Often I wonder if these fleeting spectators realize they are watching an eight-man or six-man contest or do they only have time to recognize that it is simply a football game.

Inevitably and most outstanding are the semi-trucks that blast their loud horns as they scream down the asphalt. One can only guess that they are doing this to cheer on whichever team has the momentum of the crowd or perhaps it's only an approving signal of the game of football in general. Often you can hear their tires rolling over the jutter bars signaling that they are indeed watching the game rather than the road.

Reed Point Lights
Originally uploaded by mdt1960.

The timing is not always perfect when someone blows their horn in a drive-by, but on occasion, there will be that one wailing blast that comes at the perfect moment as in the night I watched from a hillside overlooking Interstate 90 and the six-man game between Reed Point and Augusta. As the Augusta ball carrier crossed over the interstate-flanked goal line and the official raised his arms to signal the score, a gleeming 18-wheeler streaked by the gridiron with the horn blaring away—adding the perfect accent to the celebrating visitors from Augusta.

Regardless of the timing, such moments are unquestionably Americana.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Staying Sane in the Rain

Halftime Rain
Originally uploaded by mdt1960.
It never fails—there's always one really wet football game every season that seems to find me. For everyone except the players on the field, it can be downright miserable—especially if your team loses the contest.

Last year—and most memorable of them all—was up on the Hi-Line in Chester when the newly formed Chester-Joplin-Inverness Hawks hosted the down-from-Class-B Chinook Sugarbeeters in a Friday night match. Although my "weather-proof" digital camera held up under the rainy conditions, I didn't fair as well.

I had intended to camp somewhere after the game that night, but the last thing I wanted to do was camp in a wet tent and soggy sleeping bag. Fortunately it was the first game of the season, and although the early September air wasn't exactly frigid, one might say I was chilled to the bone. Following the game—and feeling completely exhausted—I considered rewarding myself a motel upgrade in nearby Havre over a primitive campsite or even a local motel in Chester.

Blissfully into the night I drove past the tiny towns of Joplin, Inverness, Rudyard, Hingham, Gildford and Kremlin in my old Mazda with the heater blowing hard and hot. By 10:00 I was in Havre and anticipating a warm and dry motel room somewhere in its pared down metropolitan sprawl. My lack of planning for this little, serendipitous excursion proved foolish as there were no motel rooms to be found in Havre thanks to a weekend celebration called "Havre Festival Days."

Once I succumbed to the idea of a no-vacancy-Havre, I settled for the confines of my Mazda 626 and the local K-Mart parking lot—and all of its bright lights. It was a rough night of car-camping resulting in little rest as my wet clothes dried while I tossed and turned inside the compact car.

The next morning everything was dry except my socks and camera. I bought a couple pairs of socks shortly after K-Mart opened their doors, but my camera refused to power up until the following week.

. . . . . . . . . .

When I awoke last Friday morning, I was surprised to find that the rain from the previous night was still coming down. It continued throughout the morning and when I left the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in nearby Cody at 4:00 p.m. that afternoon, the rain was falling there as well.

Somewhere in the back of my mind I wondered if this would be a typical short-lived wet period or if it was big enough to yield a good soaking throughout the region. However, I never stopped to think about the rain relative to my trip to Belt, Montana the next morning. Perhaps I didn't want to dampen (no pun intended) my enthusiasm for the upcoming journey if I had known there was going to be inclement weather waiting for me. Ah yes, ignorance is bliss.

When I climbed out of bed early Saturday morning for my venture to Belt, I was even more surprised to find the same wet weather lingering. In my mind though, Belt was too far away to have the same conditions, and as I drove out of town, I started wagering with myself regarding where the weather would finally begin breaking up—surely around the Wyoming-Montana border, or maybe somewhere near Bridger or Laurel, or perhaps as far away as Columbus. Undoubtedly there would be big, puffy clouds and plenty of sunshine by the time I hit my turn-off at Big Timber.

Scott Simon hosting the Weekend Morning Edition entertained as my truck pushed toward the border through the headwind and driving rain that mimicked a car wash while the windshield wipers bounced ineffectively across the glass due to the excessive turbulence.

The headlines of the morning told me about the E. coli that was turning up in packaged spinach all over the country and as always, something about President Bush. But today I couldn't be bothered to hear another story of buffoonery from "the Decider."

The truck's gas needle was moving fast—too fast considering I had just paid $2.67 per gallon. I mused over whether the same head wind would become a tail wind on the return trip home later in the day.

Entering the badlands between Warren and Bridger, Montana, the National Public Radio broadcast faded to noisy static. I reached for a CD called Faithless Street by Whiskeytown to find the somewhat depressing lyrics of one particular song blending perfectly with the weather conditions of the day. As a result of this harmony in misery, I found my spirits lifting over the dreary day—I chalked it up to the old math postulate of two negatives equal a positive.

Well excuse me if I break my own heart,
It was mine from the finish... I guess, it was mine from the start
This situation don't seem so god damn smart,
This situation is tearing me apart.
So you'll have to excuse me if I break my own heart

Well excuse me if I break my own heart tonight,
Afterall it was mine... it was mine...

Not far from Columbus, the wipers were idle for the first time, but it was short lived as hurricane-like rain awaited along the climb out of Columbus.

There is only one place to purchase gasoline in Wilsall, Montana. For the most part, it's practically the exact opposite of a full-service gas station. Nevertheless, if you have a credit card, you can fill your tank regardless of the hour at the little, two-pump, self-service island. Fortunately for me, there was someone around for assistance when I became stumped by the idiot-proof, automated operation. Standing in the cold wind and spitting rain as the man from a building next door solved my problem, I suddenly realized that it had gone from mid-September to late-November in less than 100 miles.

As the truck climbed out of the Shields Valley, the rain turned to snow and once I reached the endless road that traverses the Little Belt Mountains from White Sulphur Springs to State Route 200, the snow was everywhere and starting to build up on the wet pavement. Dropping down the other side of the mountain, the first snow plow of the season was making his way up the incline.

I couldn't believe it; September 16.

My arrival time to Belt was 1:30—a half hour after the game between Belt and Sunburst commenced. I had planned on a five hour drive that would find me arriving an hour before kickoff. Instead, it was a six and a half hour drive. And to top it all off, the rain was coming down as hard as it was when I departed Powell.

Had the gods forgotten about the game at Cody three weeks earlier when it rained on me there too?

So, it was Belt vs Sunburst in the rain—practically a repeat of Chester the year before; only this time I was driving straight home following the afternoon game with the truck's heater blowing hard until I was dry in Harlowton.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Coach Jim Martin and the St. Mary Special

Coach Webb
Originally uploaded by mdt1960.
Jim Martin probably liked to think of himself as a punster rather than a football coach. I’d like to think he was better at coaching even if I did laugh at his litany of puns throughout my freshman year at Schrop Junior High School.

If you were a student who came across Coach Martin early in the school year, you were probably rather intimidated by him at first. He was a solid man even if middle aged. It wasn't hard to see the athlete in him of his days when he attended and played football at Heidelberg College in Tiffin, Ohio. His eyes were close together behind his spectacles and his jaw was always tight—sometimes giving one the impression that he had a few marbles or chew in his mouth. Nevertheless, when he spoke, he was quite clear and articulate. He could pitch a softball underhanded like it was nobody's business and I always found it extremely uncomfortable when he was on the opposing team during a gym class dodge ball session.

Coach Martin was a good football coach because every kid that played for him liked him—whether they were a starter or a bench warmer. He could be tough, but probably wasn’t as tough as other coaches in his day. I always wondered if he thought we were too young to be pushed to the limit or did he recognize the talent in our team and therefore, didn’t feel the need to be as demanding. Regardless, he was certainly serious about fielding a quality team, but above everything else, he liked to make it fun for everyone involved. One of his sources of fun was the reliable trick play. By the end of our 9th grade season, we had at least three razzle-dazzle plays in our game book that were used for any given opponent.

The St. Mary Special (SMS) was our most successful trick play and was developed specifically for the Irish of St. Vincent/St. Mary High School (yes, the same school basketball pneom LeBron James attended some twenty years later). St. V/St. Mary was considered our most formidable opponent that year and Coach Martin knew we’d need a little something extra if we were to run with the Irish. Thanks to the SMS, we ended up tying them with one of our touchdowns coming from the play named for our esteemed opponent. In the games that followed the remainder of the season, the SMS was good for at least one touchdown per game.

Here’s how it worked: Setting up in our normal offense, the quarterback would take the snap and handoff to the fullback who appeared to be running an off-tackle dive. As he approached the line of scrimmage, the tightend or slot back on that side of the line would turn to face him to receive the ball as the fullback blasted by. The end/back would then pitch the ball back to the apparently idle quarterback. While all of these shenanigans were unfolding near the line of scrimmage and giving the appearance of some kind of running play, a wide receiver would be streaking downfield—and usually wide open. Once the quarterback received the ball again, all he had to do was get it downfield in the vicinity of the receiver. Touchdown, guaranteed.

And no one on the bus or in the locker room afterwards found more delight in those magical touchdowns than Coach Martin himself.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

False Friday

Wind River Again
Originally uploaded by mdt1960.
The last time I was at Wind River High School was in the summer of 2004 when I decided to check out their football field on a hot, mid-summer day. Typical of most fields at that time, it was getting plenty of water in preparation for the upcoming season.

To the north of the Wind River gridiron is a small sandstone rock formation that I thought would be an ideal backdrop for a football game. Therefore, I was certain to return for a future game.

This past week, after two years of having the school fax me their football schedule, I decided to return for a game against nearby Shoshoni—"Perhaps a rivalry," I thought.

I had avoided Pavillion and Wind River High School since my first visit because most of their home games were on Thursdays rather than Fridays—I suspect this is one of those schools that has eliminated the Friday school day and has extended their Monday through Thursday hours. Nevertheless, it has always been pretty much impossible for me to get down there on a Thursday since I have my own school commitments in Powell. But, things changed this year with the installation of lights, and besides, the secretary on the phone told me they'd be playing Friday night games as she was preparing to fax me the 2006 schedule.

It's exactly 164 miles to Wind River High School (in Pavillion, Wyo.) from my home in Powell. I had departed later than I had hoped, but even as the clock was reading 3:10 p.m. when reaching the highway out of town, I was confident I would arrive before the starting kick-off at 7:00.

Reaching Pavillion at 6:00 sharp, I was delighted to have so much time to spare. As a result, I scouted the field and even searched for an access to the rock formation beyond the north end zone as the setting for a potential sunset shot.

One thing that troubled me was the water sprinklers. Driving up, I could see them on the field and at first I thought they were directed at the grass beyond the gridiron's perimeter. However, as I walked toward the field, I was surprised to see that they were indeed watering the gridiron. "What an odd thing to do before a game," I thought to myself and chalked it up to just one of those odd little quirks that might be found in any small town and the grooming of their football field.

I also noticed a lack of significant activity given the game was just under one hour from kick-off. However, things looked pretty much the same the week before in Jordan, Mont. an hour before that game commenced.

By 6:15 and following my initial survey, I saw a few adults and students sitting near the gym. I approach them to ask if the game was to start at 7:30 or 8:00 since I had my doubts about a 7:00 start.

"The game was last night," came the reply from a young man who might have been a faculty member or coach. "Where are you from," he asked?

Quickly I considered a reply that wouldn't leave them laughing their heads off right in front of me.

In desperation and nearly in denial, I lied.

"Well, I'm from Powell, but I'm down here to visit some friends in Shoshoni and thought I'd come over for the game," came my stupid reply.

Later I considered my foolishness in not being truthful. Anyone who lives in Shoshoni (given its small town status as well) would surely have known the game was last night and thus, would have told me so if I had truly been visiting them.

So, I grabbed a camera to record my wasted trip, looked around the town of Pavillion a bit and made my way home in a complete stupor thinking about what had just happened.

The first thing I considered was; after nearly ten years of travelling to strange towns and places all over Wyoming and Montana, this was bound to happen. I should be thankful that I didn't travel 300 miles for the same outcome instead.

Then I started to get mad—not at Wind River High School, but at Wyoming high school football in general. "Who plays varsity football on Friday nights in America," I said to myself. "Only in Wyoming... How blasphemous to the game of football... Everyone plays football on Friday nights if they have lights!"

I considered how good the gridiron looked—it's perfect grass, the new lights that were probably brilliant for a photographer, the backdrop of sandstone, yet the game was played on Thursday night—24 hours earlier. In search of an analogy, I thought of the Stepford Wives or of an episode from The Twilight Zone.

Approaching the town of Thermopolis as the day's light soaked into the darkness, I talked myself into attending the local game there if I saw floodlights—even if they were a "big" 3A school. As luck would have it, the lights were on. Looking at my watch, it was just past 8:00, so I knew there would be plenty of time remaining in the game between Hot Springs County High School and whoever they were playing.

As I walked onto the gridiron at Thermopolis, I found the scoreboard reading 54-0 in favor of the visitors from Kemmerer. That didn't seem possible until I noticed that there was only nine minutes remaining in the fourth quarter—the game had started at 6:00 for whatever reason.

It was a day (or night) I couldn't win. The day before I had told my wife, "I'm going to get a good shot tomorrow." What a joke I thought.

As I approached the little town of Meeteetse, I could see the glow of their football floodlights behind a small hill. I briefly considered swinging by and if nothing else to learn of the game's outcome in this six-man contest between the home town Longhorns and the visitors from West Yellowstone. However, I drove right past the turn-off, determined to be able to turn away from the temptation of a lighted football field and content with my day of football miscues.

Before retiring to bed that night, I examined the faxxed copy I received from Wind River High School dated August 7, 2006. There was some comfort in finding that even on the faxxed schedule, the home game with Shoshoni was listed as, "Friday, September 8."

Lesson learned: Always confirm the date and time of any given small town high school football game before leaving home.

The Cougars of Wind River High School are playing host to Saratoga next FRIDAY night. Assuming that's true, I'm wondering if I should redeem myself and make another 164 mile trip. Any advice out there?

Monday, September 04, 2006

The Road to Jordan... Montana

Ball and Captains
Originally uploaded by mdt1960.
If you ever look at the state map of Montana, check out the town of Jordan. It's located in the eastern third of the state along the east-west State Route 200 that snakes it's way recklessly across this great land of desert, prairie and alpine terrains. From a geographical viewpoint, you'll notice Jordan isn't close to anything. I'm told that for shopping and entertainment beyond Jordan itself, most locals travel to Miles City which is nearly 90 miles away. A return trip to a larger city such as Billings would require about seven hours of driving before the day has ended.

I suppose it's one thing to label a town "small" because its population is less than… let's say 1,000. However, it's another thing when your town fits this definition but is also a good stretch from any other town that is larger and thus has more to offer when it comes to matters of commerce.

So, I'm sitting here wondering, "Which town is really smaller... Custer, Montana, population under 300 and 45 miles away from Billings (population about 100,000) or Jordan, Montana, population about 500 and 90 miles away from Miles City (population about 8,100)?"

I've had my eye on Jordan for a couple of years now (well, at least the Jordan that's on the map). In an effort to cover the entire state, I felt Jordan was in a section of Montana where no other small town football program existed. Because of this, I was compelled enough to go—site unseen, no matter what setting was offered for this photo documentary project.

Once I decided this mission was a "go," I started to look at other schools along the way that might offer a game on Saturday afternoon since the Jordan program has lights and thus plays on Friday nights. At first I considered Ryegate as they were embarking on a new six-man football season sans co-op with Rapelje and were playing at home. Ryegate would only be a short detour on my way home from Jordan, and besides I was willing to go just to see where they located the new football field. The last time I was in Ryegate, there wasn't anything resembling a football field to my recollection since they had played in Rapelje when the two schools were a co-op.

Earlier in the week I also discovered that Grass Range was hosting their first eight-man football game of the season and I would be driving right by Grass Range on my way to and from Jordan. Further, I had scouted the gridiron at Grass Range last year on my way back from a game at Hays and thought its backdrops—mostly void of clutter—would provide for a quintessential setting of small town football in Montana.

Grass Range is a very small town with less than 200 people. As a result, the school teams up with Winnett and Roy—two very small schools as well to make for one eight-man football team. Winnett is 23 miles east of Grass Range while Roy is 27 miles to the north. The population of Winnett and Roy is 185 and 395 respectively. Some sources report that Roy was actually named "Ray," but due to a typo when setting up the post office it became "Roy."

It was decided—Jordan Friday night and Grass Range Saturday afternoon.

The road to Jordan (...Montana that is) from Grass Range is one of those lonely two-lane roads in America. Once you pass Winnett, there is only one store at Sand Springs in the 76 miles to Jordan. Despite the isolation of such places, it always a bit more exciting to be on a road that I've never travelled with its new sights along the way.

In an effort to refute the old saying of "if you blink, you'll miss it," as you approach Winnett from the east there is a sign that says, "Go ahead and blink, we're still here... Winnett, next two exits." Well, they are hardly exits—more like turn-offs—but Winnett looks like a metropolis in the vast emptiness surrounding it.

According to the map, there are also two other towns along the road—Teigen and Mosby, but neither do I recall seeing anything that resembled a settlement nor any sign telling me I was entering either community.

With nearly 90 minutes to spare before kickoff, my first task upon arriving in Jordan (as always when entering a new town) is to find the gridiron. School crossing signs usually give its location away if I don't spot lofty gridiron floodlights in my approach of a given town.

I was happy to discover the Jordan gridiron in a decent location with a vista of sorts to the northeast. Perhaps not the majestic surroundings of an Alberton, but it beat the pants off of Chinook's 360 degrees of chaos. Shortly after, I was relieved to find at least two different locations to pitch my self-sufficient camp and a supply of gasoline for the return trip to Grass Range. I called Tanya to let her know of my safe arrival and returned to the Jordan gridiron for my objective.

Jordan's first home game pitted them against Savage—about a 140 mile trip away near the North Dakota border. When Savage took the field in the early evening, late summer sunlight, their numbers were more suitable for a six-man squad than eight-man with only two players on the sidelines during the game. Jordan's numbers were greater (19 on the roster) despite their total school enrollment of 57 students in grades 9-12. Fittingly, Jordan scored the first touchdown that was recorded on their brand new scoreboard. Although Jordan was challenged by the Warriors of Savage early in the game, in the end the Mustangs were too much for the visitors. Final score: Jordan 20, Savage 8.

I was most impressed with the bright and even lighting of the Jordan gridiron as football fields in many towns of this size are often poorly lit if they have Friday night games at all. This year's new scoreboard along with the new canopy over the home stands from last year was a strong message that Jordan football will be a staple in the community no matter which class of football they play in the years to come.

I left Jordan at 9:00 a.m. the next day to allow myself plenty of time to photograph along the way to Grass Range. I had camped in the Jordan City Park following the game and found myself surprisingly well rested when I awoke Saturday morning despite the primitive sleeping conditions of tent, foam pad, sleeping bag, and two little blue sleeping pills (my small tribute to Elvis).

It was a picture-perfect day at Grass Range with the exception of a gusty little breeze. The Rangers were hosting the Bridger Scouts, a school that had broken out of their co-op with nearby Fromberg and were taking on the ranks of Class C eight-man football on their own now. I expected to see their numbers down from last year's squad when I saw them teamed up with Fromberg in the first game of the 2005 season against powerful Park City. However, as they rambled onto the field it was clear they weren't hurting in numbers or physical size.

The hosting Grass Range-Roy-Winnett Rangers listed 17 players on their roster—just a few less than Bridger. However, the Scouts appeared to have the edge in size and overall athletic talent. Nevertheless, the Rangers played the Scouts tough in stuffing their running game and sacking the Bridger quarterback on more than one occasion. At the half, Bridger was on top to the tune of 20-8. A few costly turnovers and defensive lapses sealed the Bridger advantage in the end. Despite losing their quarterback to a sprained or broken ankle early in the fourth quarter, Bridger seemed most dominating of Grass Range in those last twelve minutes of the game. Final score: Bridger 48, Grass Range 8.

As I made my way home in the four-hour drive back to Powell, I considered some of the sights I'd spied on the way up—now there would be more time to photograph on the return trip. Nevertheless, the wind and sun at Grass Range had taken its toll. Further, I'd felt blessed with the images I'd been provided thus far and considered myself greedy should I stop to shoot more. So straight home I drove stopping only for a rootbeer freeze in Roundup and a bit more petrol in Laurel.

On other scores around the state: How about those Sunburst Refiners... are they for real?

Sunday, August 27, 2006

First Game Thoughts of 2006

Loco Helmet
Originally uploaded by mdt1960.
After all these years of documenting small town high school football in Wyoming and Montana, one would think the gridiron in Cody, Wyoming (just down the road 22 miles) was covered years ago. However, I ashamed to say that last night was my first game in Cody.

As expected, neither team was very polished and neither was I when it came to working with my equipment in this initial outing of the 2006 season. The cameras felt awkward in my hands and often I found myself not very decisive in how to go about my work. Nevertheless, it was worth attending as the 5A Cody Broncs of Wyoming hosted Montana's Class A Laurel Locomotives.

Laurel has great tradition in football—a few years ago they won it all in Class A play. The number of Laurel fans in attendance almost matched the Cody fans. It seems that there are so many things going on in Cody, one gets the impression that high school football doesn't stand out like it might in a place like Laurel.

The Locomotive roster was smaller in numbers, but for the most part their starting eleven matched up well with Cody's first team. Either school could have won this game dominated by turnovers and costly mistakes. In the end, it was Cody who gave the game to Laurel although Laurel tried hard to give it to the Broncs. Laurel 6, Cody 2. Despite a threatening drive near the end, Laurel held off the Broncs and celebrated wildly on the field as if they'd won another state title.

Then there was this stupid cold from "down under" that I picked up from my wife who acquired it from her daughters when they returned from Australia for the summer. And if it weren't for having a cold, between the second and third quarters the rain came down in buckets that left me with a bad chill—suddenly summer seemed long gone.

My weather-proof Olympus digital camera held up well during the rain—in fact so well, I couldn't turn it off... Hmmm, perhaps some dampened circuitry in there somewhere. Hopefully a couple days of drying out will take care of that little glitch.

Perhaps the newest thing about the infant football season has to do with growing old. It seems that my eyes have finally weakened enough that a pair of reading glasses are needed along with the light meter, extra batteries and film when I take to the gridirons. This is a problem that I haven't quite determined how to solve. Undoubtedly by season's end, I should have an acceptable solution to this newest twist of life.

Monday, August 14, 2006

An End to the End of the Summertime Blues

Koach Kevin
Originally uploaded by mdt1960.
November 1999

Everyone knows how satisfying it can be to find one’s car keys or wallet after a lengthy search. If you stop and think about it, there are probably few experiences in life that result in greater happiness than a successful find in a time-consuming search. Whether it be that five minute search for the keys or a lifelong search for the meaning of life, such searches are always fulfilling once they are completed. In the searches of life, we often discover that what we were looking for was right under our nose as in the case of my longtime search for a cure to the end-of-summertime blues.

It seemed like every year around mid-August, I came to the realization that summer was winding down and the season of frolic was nearly over. As a child, the arrival of school only contributed to this mild depression associated with summer’s curtain call. The cure was within reach, but I just couldn’t see it and certainly never would have guessed how to administer the remedy had I found it as a child. Like a bottle of aspirin hidden behind the countless other drugs in a medicine cabinet, I’ve overlooked football or (at least discounted it) as a remedy to my annual end-of-summer gloom. I know this must be hard for some people to believe.

Growing up in a Mecca of gridiron football, it’s easy to take the game for granted and look past it just like that overlooked bottle of aspirin. Football’s abundance at every level of play in Northeast Ohio left me feeling like a shark at a shipwreck—just too many choices. Only in my latter years did I realize that it wasn’t just football, but which type of football.

In my early years, watching professional football on TV was a weekly event. On Sunday afternoons, CBS and NBC carried the NFL games with the likes of Curt Gowdy and Al DeRogatis and we would take in every broadcast until no more was offered. Nevertheless, keeping up with professional football wasn’t a passion and deep in my heart I knew it, so my dim outlook on the world resurfaced each year as summer showed signs of giving way to autumn. The promise of another professional football season via TV in our stuffy living room on Sunday afternoons was no substitute for the endless days of summer’s frolic.

In my high school years, beyond my own pathetic participation in the game, I discovered the excitement of college football in Columbus, Ohio via Ohio State University. I found the games there to be faster and less predictable than the skilled play of pro football on TV. The huge stadium swelled in colours of red and gray while the Buckeye all brass marching band swept everyone up in its ritualistic stadium entrance. Columbus, Ohio was (and probably still is) a great place to discover college football. Nevertheless, sometimes the ordeal and the financial commitment of getting tickets for a Buckeye game overcame the desire to attend and in the end, my days of Ohio living were soon behind me.

As a college football cheerleader at Arizona State, I was surely (although temporarily) distracted from my depression associated with the end of summer. No doubt, summer’s demise in Arizona isn’t quite as pronounced as it’s swan song in places like Ohio or Wyoming. And tumbling in front of 70,000 spectators and lifting beautiful girls on the sidelines is a sure distraction to whatever may follow summer’s conclusion in the blistering Sonora Desert.

Years past and in my late twenties and through a good part of my third decade, there was no significant football in my world. Those were the darkest autumns and winters I’ve known. I simply blamed it on the summers not being long enough. I failed to acknowledge the absence of any kind of football in my life.

Moving to Wyoming and reintroducing myself to high school football was a key turning point in my return to the light. Yet despite this boost, I still wasn’t aware of football’s helping hand in my brighter disposition throughout the autumn and winter seasons.

It’s hard to say what particular attribute of the football season brought me to my awakened sense of enlightenment. Maybe it was the free admission at all Wyoming high school games, or the securing of a state title in an overlooked town like Byron, Wyoming. Nevertheless, this fall my epiphany in football was confirmed while standing in the wide open places of Montana where I discovered six-man and eight-man football.

Summer’s ending is now small town high school football’s beginning. Yes, there is still some “down time” for me following the end of this season, but it is tolerable—perhaps even welcomed in the short time that it finds me. For not much longer than a month after the championship games end, the days start growing longer, signaling summer’s return.

Now, I’m already looking beyond the summer to another autumn—a first in my life. These days when I pour over a map of Wyoming or Montana I find myself searching for and pondering any one of the given small towns—wondering if I’ll be present on a future game day. And there’s no greater happiness than putting your finger on something that has taken up nearly a lifetime of searching.

Monday, July 31, 2006

Memories of August

Joliet Morning
Originally uploaded by mdt1960.
August 2003

Of all the months in the year, August is the only month that isn’t aligned with a particular event like all the other months in the year. Ask ten different people what’s the first thing that comes to their mind when they think of August and you’ll likely get ten different answers. As for me, when August finally rolls around, I’m not pressed at all to come up with an association for this eighth month of the year. In my mind, August always reminds me of summer football practice.

The recollection of summer football practice probably equals any one game worthy of memory. Besides the uncontrollable salty sweat dripping down and burning my eyes from the confines of the helmet, I remember how everyone couldn’t wait to “hit.”

Summer practice usually entailed at least a week of non-contact conditioning. We’ve all seen this driving by a practice field—players wearing only helmets, shorts, and t-shirts—no other football gear required. Then would come the day that we would dress out in all our gear, but we were always told that contact was still prohibited (according to state laws handed down by the high school athletic associations). Despite this dress rehearsal, the coaches usually started putting us through drills that invited contact and when such occurred, they usually looked the other way or calmly reminded us that there was no hitting. So, on that full-dress, non-contact day I was always on full alert reminding myself, “Expect to be hit.” And usually I was.

Walking out to the practice field on that first day of contact, the air was filled with talk of “finally sticking someone.” You’d thought we were all about to lose our virginity. I never went too overboard about this like most of the players on the team—chomping at the bit to paste someone, knowing it was the most telling of football attributes for coaches to consider who was worthy of a starting assignment. I only welcomed hitting and everything associated with it because it broke up the monotony and endless volley of conditioning drills—making practice seem shorter and a bit more colourful.

Players that shined during conditioning drills often faded after that first day of contact—some never returned the next day. For the most part, I made others look good during contact drills. As one of the smaller players and usually placed in the position of a running back, I felt more like the hunted than the hunter.

For whatever reasons, I never caught on to the concept of being fired up to nail one of my own teammates on that first day. I equated it to the instinct found in the animal kingdom of eating one’s young. This was probably the single factor that found me spending more time on the bench during game days than on the playing field.

Not long after the calendar moved from July to August this year, a subtle, but noticeable coolness in the evening air appeared despite the relentlessness of the sweltering hot days. While out on a run yesterday, I noticed a barley field had already been plowed under following the harvest and thus ready for another winter of dormancy. At the same time, the local football field is now pampered like a triple crown contender as summer begins its waltz off the seasonal dance floor. Yet more reminders of August here in Wyoming.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Cokeville, Wyoming

Blocking Sled
Originally uploaded by mdt1960.
Wyoming has five different classifications of high school football teams based on school enrollment sizes. 5A includes the largest schools whereas 1A consists of the state’s smallest schools. All five divisions are a reflection of the state’s sparse population as none of these classes have more than twelve representative teams.

In the autumn of 2001, I decided to stay closer to home and instead of wandering into Montana to seek out the six-man and eight-man games of Class “C” football, I went after the 3A, 2A and 1A games that took place in and around the Big Horn Basin.

I knew it would be a good year following the opening game between Greybull and Dubois when the Buffalos of Greybull ended their 39 game losing steak. Following that first game, I travelled to Basin, Lovell, Burlington, Meeteetse, and Byron to take in their versions of small town high school football. Throughout the year, I would visit the Wyoming High School Athletic Association web page to check out the results of a past weekend and to find out where the games would be played for the upcoming weekend. Each time I made note of the standings for each division as well. One team at the top of the 1A standings continued to catch my eye—Cokeville.

Although I’d never been to Cokeville and didn’t even know where it was until I looked it up on the map after hearing about this team, something told me I needed to go there or to a town where they would be playing. As the season progressed, I’d heard fans, coaches, and referees mention this team from time to time which fed my curiosity. What really struck me about Cokeville was that even though they were only a 1A team, they were beating up on 2A and 3A teams—often on the other teams’ home fields as well!

But getting to see Cokeville wouldn’t be easy. In geographical terms Cokeville is neatly tucked away on the other side of the Commissary Range in the southwestern part of the state and is the last town you go through before leaving the state to enter Idaho. Furthermore, they didn’t play any games this far north so, I knew if I wanted to see them, I’d be looking at a long drive and possibly a long weekend.

As the season approached its conclusion and the playoff match-ups started to form, I started thinking more and more about how I would see undefeated Cokeville. The second weekend in November turned out to be when all the title games would be played. With the exception of the 5A game being held on Friday night in Rock Springs, the other four games would be played at the same time— Saturday at one o’clock. It wasn’t difficult for me to decide which one I would attend, although I was a little miffed that all the games were scheduled at the same time preventing those like myself from seeing more than one title match on that day. So, I started making plans for the 1A championship game in Cokeville.

Early in the week before the game, I was concerned that my car wouldn’t make the trip because of noise coming from my front left wheel and there was only enough funds in my bank account for a visit to Jiffy Lube. However, I visited with my local auto mechanic and he assured me it would be reliable for such a road trip providing I didn’t do any off-road driving or tight parallel parking in some big city. I didn’t think that would be the case in Cokeville.

To shorten the drive, I left Powell friday night and stayed with a friend in Pinedale—a mere three hour drive from Cokeville. As I was driving through Thermopolis I noted that everyone looked like they were just going about their usual, ho-hum business. I wanted to stop, climb up on top of my car and shout, “What’s wrong with you people? Don’t you know tomorrow is the big game in Cokeville? Didn’t the folks of Thermop know of the impending “State Title Saturday?” And if they weren’t going to Cokeville surely they’d consider the other title games in Big Piney, Mountain View, Rock Springs or Yoder. It was like an epiphany. I envisioned every sports fan in Wyoming travelling over the scenic vistas of this high desert state to attend one of the high school title games offered up each year—what a great tradition! I looked again at the people in Thermopolis following my little fantasy—they looked as if they could give a toss; so, why was it that I cared?

The next morning in Pinedale, I jumped in my car and made my way for a town I’d never been to in order to watch a team I knew little about—I didn’t even know their school colours or mascot. And before the weekend was over, I had driven over 1,000 miles.

The weather was euphoric that November weekend—as if a couple of the warm September days that never materialized two months ago had finally arrived. The temperature climbed into the 60s with a few high clouds and plenty of sun. The coloured leaves of autumn had been carried off by the wind and were already scattered across the earth. Winter was waiting in the wings for its stage call.

Somewhere north of Kemmerer I thought to myself, “Well, here I am with eighty dollars in my pocket—half of it for petrol—and I’m finally on my way to Cokeville. This is living!” A song with a clunky melody came to me that included the refrain, “I’m going to Cokeville.” I was embarrassed for myself.

It’s always a funny thing to be driving miles and miles down the road to some football game in a town you’ve never even passed through. “What if there’s another Cokeville somewhere else in the state,” I pondered? “What if I can’t find the stadium because of some obscure rationale for playing in the next town down the road?” Yet, I considered that a town as small as Cokeville hosting something as big as a state title game surely must be bustling with excitement so, how could I miss it? I found myself wishing that I had arrived the night before just so I could take in some of that excitement in one of the watering holes the night before or the town cafĂ© for a pre-game breakfast. I considered the people that go to Times Square for the New Year’s celebration. Surely they know more of what to expect than me going to Cokeville for the state 1A title game. At least they’ve probably seen Times Square on TV in previous years.

The questionable condition of my car made the trip more of an adventure than usual. I thought, “I may get to Cokeville, I may not. This may end up being a story about car troubles instead of football. But, I didn’t spend an entire season following small town high school football just to miss the best team in the title game. I’ll get there if I have to hitchhike.”

I found myself wishing someone was along with me for this particular trip—someone who would never do this on their own initiative. Surely they would light up with excitement upon finding such an event in a place they’ve never given a thought. And what would the players of Cokeville think about me if they knew I had driven over 300 miles to see them play? What would they think of a 41-year-old guy driving all those miles—just for their game, nothing else; no relatives there, no girlfriend, just a football game involving a bunch of high school kids!

The day after the title games were played, I learned that Big Piney had beaten Mountain View in the 3A title game. On my way to Cokeville I had driven through Big Piney in the morning where that game was played. Then I remembered that Cokeville had beaten Big Piney earlier in the season—at Big Piney. Yes, I had chosen the best game to attend.

Friday, March 31, 2006

Junior High Promises

TD Bound
Originally uploaded by mdt1960.
Chuck Hamrick was the star of our eighth grade and freshman football team at Schrop Junior High School—a part of the Springfield Township School District located just beyond the city limits of Akron, Ohio. We ran from the wishbone formation that had an offensive backfield comprised of the school’s swiftest runners. Along with Hamrick at one halfback position, John Polinger took up the other half while Mike Baker ran out of the fullback position. Any one of these three were capable of breaking a play wide open with little effort from the front line.

But Chuck was special. You could sense it in all the coaches that spoke of him. Even the high school coaches were looking forward to his arrival. He was extremely fast and of good size for a freshman. Chuck Hamrick was one of those kids that passed through puberty early and fast. By the time he was a freshman, he had grown long sideburns while the remaining majority of us were in the height of adolescence.

Thanks to Hamrick and our talented backfield, we managed to go undefeated as a freshman team. However, in this same school district, the other junior high school was having a successful season as well, and we heard of their talent just as they, no doubt, heard of ours.

As our co-district rival, naturally we would face the Springhill Junior High Falcons in our last game. As that final game approached, we heard more and more about them. In particular their star halfback named Ray Angerstien—often called “Ray-Tater” or simply “Tater Bug.” I’m unsure as to how that nickname came to be, but Ray had a very unorthodox way of carrying the football and he was deceptionally fast—taking short choppy steps rather than the graceful gate of someone like Chuck Hamrick.

Everyone in the township probably started putting two and two together to predict that the two junior high teams would be a high school varsity team to contend with when our talents combined. That turned out to be true, but that’s another story.

The meeting of the Schrop Junior High Rams and the Spring Hill Junior High Falcons was marred by an unfortunate incident two weeks before the big game, when several members of the Falcon team were involved in some kind of alcohol-related scandal that resulted in the suspension of their most talented players for the upcoming big game. They lost their entire backfield in the suspension and in a desperate attempt, moved some of their biggest lineman to the backfield in hopes of overpowering Schrop. It was a bold and admirable move, but it failed in the end.

And so, no one ever saw the great and anticipated match-up of these two junior high school powerhouses and their talented backfields.

Meanwhile, the football coaches at the high school were looking forward to the arrival of these two freshman teams—in particular Chuck Hamrick who ran for a couple of touchdowns in the season finale. From my perspective, few references were ever made regarding Angerstien, and, if so, it was only after the mentioning of Chuck Hamrick.

And as these stories go, something funny happened during the summer between our freshman and sophomore years. Chuck Hamrick moved to Toledo, Ohio, when his father’s employer relocated. Hamrick was never heard from again. Surely many were surprised as I was to not hear of some powerhouse high school out of Toledo with a fleet-footed running back who was destined to become one of the nation’s top recruited players at the college level. Instead, back at Springfield High School, the Spartans went on to win the league title during our junior and senior year as expected, but instead of Chuck Hamrick, it was the brilliant and talented running of Ray Angerstien who carried the team. Angerstien was also named the player of the year in the greater Akron area along with his first string all-state accolades—truly a great feat in a football-rich state like Ohio. In the end, Angerstien was heavily recruited by every major college team in the country.

And although capable of college play, surprisingly to many and admirable to me, Ray Angerstien chose not to pursue football at the collegiate level.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Victory at Greybull... finally

Greybull Halftime Talk
Originally uploaded by mdt1960.
September 2001

Last night I attended my first high school football game in nearly two years. There were few things I missed during my year outside of the country, but high school football was definitely lumped into that minority.

I travelled to Greybull—about a 45 minute drive across the high desert of the Big Horn Basin—to watch the Buffalos take on the Rams of Dubois.

In considering all the games that were available that night, travelling to Greybull wasn’t exactly whimsical on my part. I’d been tipped off last month that Greybull was still winless after four seasons of play. Thirty-nine games and not one victory. An entire generation of football players (from freshman to seniors) had passed through the corridors and football field at Greybull and none of them had experienced a win. There were rumors floating around Greybull that the sophomore class had plenty of talent and even in varsity play (usually dominated by juniors and seniors), they might be able to carry the team to their first victory this year. I was hooked.

Two years ago, I had attended a friday afternoon game between Greybull and Burlington hosted by the Huskies of Burlington. It had been a tight game—tied up to the last minute. Greybull was marching down the field and looked unstoppable. From the Husky five-yard line with less than one minute to play, the quarterback rolled out of the pocket and attempted a pass to his receiver in the end zone. However, the ball was intercepted by one of the Husky defensive backs and he returned the ball over 100 yards for the winning touchdown. It was a true heartbreaker for the Buffalos.

Last night’s game was every bit as exciting. Dubois came out in the first quarter with the game’s first two touchdowns and surely the fans of Greybull were getting a refresher course in what to expect at a Greybull High School football game. But, before the half had ended, Greybull assembled a drive that resulted in their first touchdown. One could sense the rise of hope and confidence in the Greybull team just like the fireworks that shot up from the south end zone following the touchdown.

During half-time, one of the Dubois coaches was easily heard through the cinder-blocked locker room walls. They were not pleased with their six point advantage. In contrast, the Greybull camp seemed civil. I even considered it was too civil and possibly lacking of a “killer instinct” that was needed to win any game. I was wrong.

In the third quarter, Dubois produced their third touchdown making the game 18-6 in their favor. The Rams seemed for the most part unstoppable and on defense, they had been shutting down the Buffalos bland offense. Yet, like a desert mirage—lost in an undetermined span of time during the second half and out of nowhere—Greybull moved down the field and stuck the ball in the end zone. Their methodical offense chipped away at the Ram’s defense ever so subtle as if not to wake the sleeping giant and thus Dubois watched their two-touchdown lead fade like a dream.

On the ensuing kickoff, the ball carrier for Dubois fumbled the ball in open field—no one had even touched him—and Greybull recovered the ball. Suddenly Dubois was awake but they were no longer the giant. On the next play, Greybull demonstrated the textbook example of killer instinct and great coaching. A razzle-dazzle misdirection play led to a down-field pass and a wide open receiver. And just like that, the game was tied up. Dubois was in shock and never recovered.

The Ram’s offensive steam engine sputtered and stalled out on their next possession—turning the ball over to an energized Greybull team. The Buffs picked up where they left off in their last offensive stand as they marched down the field like an infantry of soldiers. There was nothing elegant in their advance—just basic, beginning-of-the-year football.

During those closing minutes, as Greybull approached the Dubois goal line, I was reminded of that game in Burlington two years ago. How many heartbreaks could this team take? But on this Friday night, it wasn’t to be. Greybull finished the drive with a touchdown and held off a last gasp effort from Dubois in the closing seconds of the game.

Driving out of town into the darkness of the Big Horn Basin with my root beer freeze from the Greybull A&W drive-in, I thought to myself, “Wow, tonight Greybull is going to be jumping—even the summer rodeos won’t surpass the excitement of this night.”