Friday, February 24, 2006

Rosebud's New Field

Post Game Wrangler
Originally uploaded by mdt1960.
September 2002

After nineteen years, football has returned to Rosebud, Montana. Unfortunately Rosebud’s first home game on their new field found them taking on an undefeated and talented team from Belfry; talk about raining on someone’s parade. During pre-game warm-ups, Belfry head coach Tom Webb lightly joked on the occasion, “Well, I guess we get to give them their inaugural butt whuppin.’”

I knew of the impending six-man mismatch earlier in the week and contemplated attending another game between two other undefeated powers, but I had made the conscious decision at the onset of the season to attend every Belfry game regardless of any lopsided match ups. As it turned out, my decision to stay with the Rosebud/Belfry game was a good one despite the 73-14 final score—in favor of Belfry of course.

The story in Rosebud wasn’t the game, but the new field that would be christened that day. Many of the not-so-perfect attributes of a classic small town football setting were brought to the front. For one, several fresh rows of rocky dirt ran parallel with the yard lines on the field where the new underground irrigation system had just been installed—hardly a well-manicured field. Added to this hazard were several new sprinkler heads that hadn’t quite seated themselves below the playing surface.

The game was well attended by the citizens of Rosebud—possibly every last one. Just before the game started, there was a euphoric ambiance in the air and the community was clearly proud of anything to do with this quaint little Montana town. The back of the program included a long list of individual names and businesses that contributed to the new field’s completion. The small section of bleachers was full and a line of spectators stretched the full 80 yards of the field on the home side. The public address system consisted of a woman with a bullhorn introducing the players just before kickoff.

And then there was the scoreboard which came all the way from Choteau, way up near Great Falls. It had only arrived on Thursday before the game. A Rosebud fan told me that it had fallen off the trailer while rumbling down Interstate 90. I laughed and imagined the next scoreboard gossip I heard would be about how they acquired it on Ebay. Despite its wear and possible tear, it sat on the trailer (a temporary setup I’m sure) just beyond the west endzone. An orange heavy-duty power cord snaked its way to the scoreboard from some undisclosed location—and all the lights seemed to work as it counted down through the afternoon. Where the scoreboard once read “HOME,” a block of heavy red paint with white letters now covered it reading, “ROSEBUD.”

Rosebud’s new field isn’t exactly adjacent to the high school. Rather it is about four blocks down one of the town’s main streets. After the game, in what reminded me of a Norman Rockwell painting, a string of defeated Wranglers—still in uniform—could be seen walking through town heading for the school’s locker room.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Thanks Curt

Stookey & Clark
Originally uploaded by mdt1960.
Curt Gowdy's first radio job came in 1944 in his hometown of Cheyenne, Wyoming standing on top of a couple of crates alongside a football field. It was six-man football, which seemed easy enough.

But Gowdy quickly discovered the football field wasn't lined. What's more, there were no rosters. When the players spilled out of the bus, Gowdy noticed the players' uniforms weren't numbered.

He had no time to identify players so he recalled names of friends, classmates or Army buddies. Was the ball on the 20-yard line, the 30 or out of bounds? He placed the ball wherever he thought it was.

Gowdy went home that day, believing he had failed terribly. Then the owner of the radio station called, offering him a steady job.

Years later as he sat in the press box at Yankee Stadium or Chicago's Soldier Field, he'd remember that afternoon in Cheyenne. "And I'd say to myself, 'Gowdy, what a lucky bastard you are.' "

Monday, February 20, 2006

National Coverage & Self Pity

Tiger Frosh
Originally uploaded by mdt1960.

November 2003

After twelve consecutive weekends of travelling the two-lanes of Wyoming and Montana in search of small town high school football, I found myself in Geraldine, Montana for the Class “C” Six-Man state title game. Although I’d been to Geraldine the year before for a quarterfinal game, it was good to be back in this town of under 300—truly one of the smaller enclaves of small town high school football. The only other place I could have been on that last weekend was Drummond where the undefeated Trojans were hosting the Class “C” Eight-Man title game. However, I’d been there the week before for a semi-final playoff game.

Nevertheless, I would have chosen the six-man final over the Drummond offering regardless of my travels the week before. I’d told my partner several weeks earlier that if Custer-Melstone and Geraldine faced each other in the finals, I’d sworn to that title game over the other choices.

So, what was all the hullabaloo regarding the Custer-Melstone/Geraldine match-up? Admittedly, there was nothing unusual about Geraldine making it to the finals—they do it often and have won their share of title games too. The Tigers are a well-oiled machine and that oil consist of head coach Rod Tweet. Consider them the Ohio State of six-man football. Rather than three yards and a cloud of dust, it’s more like twelve yards and a slightly smaller cloud of dust.

Nevertheless, Custer-Melstone was the real story for me. Like Geraldine, the Cougars are well coached too. Brad Hoffman is a Custer rancher who takes time out to coach football. He’s not a teacher of any classroom, but one of his assistants told me, “He sees six-man football like no one I know.”

Last year the Custer-Melstone team was every bit as talented as this year’s team, but a surprising adversary from Geyser ambushed them in the quarterfinals. Since the Southern Six-Man Conference’s inception, no team representing it has ever won the state title. In fact, it’s not unusual for an all-north title game to result as in last year’s Highwood-Geraldine match-up. Fortunately this year the Custer-Melstone Cougars—champions of the Southern Six-Man Conference—had recorded another undefeated season, but this time around they soundly defeated Geyser in a rematch of last year’s quarterfinals and then the following week, eliminated last year’s champions, Highwood, in the semi-finals. Undoubtedly they felt this year’s trip to the state title game should have been their second in as many years.

Custer-Melstone also holds a special place in my heart because I knew the road to the title game was a bit rougher for them, especially the kids from Melstone—literally.

Both Custer and Melstone, Montana have fewer than 200 people in each town. Their high school enrollments (9–12) are 30 and 22 respectively. Typically football of any kind is not a commodity in towns with numbers this low. As a result, these two Montana communities and their schools organized a football co-operative in 1999 just so they could have a six-man football team between them.

“Between them” is also defined as the 40 miles of dirt road that separates Custer and Melstone. And there are no fast food shops, gas stations or mini-marts to be found along this wilderness thoroughfare that passes over the low rising eastern extension of the Bull Mountains.

Although the Custer Cougars and Melstone Broncs rival each other during the basketball season, every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday after school during the football season, the kids from Melstone (five of them in 2003) are driven by one of the parents over the 40-mile dirt road to Custer for practice—of course there is the return home via the same route afterwards too. On Thursdays, the head coach commutes to Melstone and drills the Bronc detachment in their last practice of the week—a light one—before their game on Friday nights or Saturday afternoons. At the same time on Thursdays, the Custer crew is supervised by the two assistant coaches. Of course there are the jaunts back to Custer on game days or to catch the team bus for a road trip.

So, things don’t exactly fall into place regarding football with the Custer-Melstone Cougars. There’s an extraordinary amount of sacrifice, co-ordination and hard work to make this little football co-operative work.
That was my take on the Montana Class “C” Six-Man title game.

When a crowd of over 4,000 converges on a town the size of Geraldine, I suspect the president of the United States could attend and not everyone would know about it. It’s not a typical small town high school football game by any means when this kind of crowd shows up. And this is why I never knew about the presence of The Washington Post until a couple days after the game was history.

The Post isn’t exactly known for its coverage on small town high school football, but on the week of the six-man title match-up, a writer and photographer representing The Post were in Geraldine working on a story about rural population decline through the eyes of a small town high school football team—an odd and unwelcome coincidence in my mind. Both writer and photographer were sent to cover the story about one small town in Northern Montana.

An e-mail from Brenda Clark, athletic director at Geraldine High School, thanked me for the images I had sent from the title game and told me how much she and her students enjoyed the electronic slide show I had given her on CD. Then came the news that made me want to vomit:

“Have you checked out the feature article about Geraldine that The Washington Post guys put together in their on-line photo gallery? You should check it out,—it’s awesome.”

I had hoped she wasn’t talking about the past week’s game. I noticed a couple of photographers there, but never considered there would be national coverage.

In seconds I was at The Washington Post home page and sure enough, there it was, with an image of the Geraldine grain elevators: Washington Post photographer Michael Robinson-Chavez photographed the championship football game in Geraldine, Montana. Photo above: Fielding Hope in Montana; View Slideshow.

It was one of those news incidents that make you stop whatever you are doing, or in my case, whatever I was planning on doing and process it over and over in my mind. The evening of grading and paying bills was ruined by what appeared to be an egocentric earthshaking. Later on I found myself comparing my stuff from Geraldine to his… His was better—not a big surprise I suppose. After all, he worked for a major newspaper as a photographer, I was just a lousy freelancer who would be working at Wal-Mart as a greeter before putting food on the table with my camera.

He had been there a good part of the week leading up to the big game since he had images from the practices. No doubt, his expenses were paid for. I doubt he had to drive the 300 miles I drove. They probably put him up in a cushy hotel in Great Falls with a sweet little rental car.

Like a spoiled little brat who didn’t get his way, another neighborhood kid was playing with my toys even if he wasn’t breaking them. I knew it was wrong to feel this way, but I couldn’t do anything about it. I know there are other shooters and writers out there who have felt the same.

I contemplated how I would have handled it at the game if I had known The Post was there. Would I have shot differently? Would I have tried harder to make myself better—to really get the good shots, as if it was my last game, ever—or would I have simply walked over and smashed Robinson-Chavez’s camera to bits?

“How did his idea come about,” I pondered? Later I read that it was the writer’s idea who was searching for a way to write about the depopulation of the Plains states. “Then why weren’t the images from the Plains states,” I thought? Why weren’t they in Texas, Nebraska or South Dakota? There’s plenty of small town football programs in those states. They grow wheat in Geraldine (or used to), but it’s hardly a town where you’d find Dorothy and Toto running around.

I considered all the promo material I’d innocently sent out that year. Yes, even some of it went back to Washington, D.C. Was it possible a friend of a friend of a contact came across some of my stuff and passed it on to someone at the Post? …Naaaah, that couldn’t happen. Yet, I found myself considering the risk of promoting my unknown work in the future. I was experiencing self-promotion hell.

I’d always imagined some photographer, some writer, like myself, showing up at one of the games someday looking at this part of the world in the same light and perhaps adopting it as their own project. I never thought much past that because I know how much work it would entail. Undoubtedly I’ve never felt too threatened when considering my seven-year head start on this imaginary individual. But, I never considered that individual a staffer for The Washington Post. In my mind, that imaginary seven-year head start vaporized when Robinson-Chavez showed up in Geraldine.

My chest tightening as I continued processing this matter. If I were the defending high school six-man championship team of Montana or Wyoming, Robinson-Chavez’s entrance was like the Carolina Panthers or New England Patriots showing up to challenge me.

Beyond the fact that a real professional photographer had stumbled upon my subject, I was also concerned about the nature of his employer and how they process and present their coverage. Often daily newspapers will whittle down the richest stories to a few tasty morsels and leave an impression on their readers as if they’ve been thorough. Images of the old buffalo hunters from the late 1800s that killed bison just for their tongue and left the the rest of the animal to rot came to mind.

Looking back on that day now, it appears that my small town high school football project is blessed and curse at the same time. Blessed in the fact that the national coverage was validation. I am truly on to something that intrigues the general public—it just isn’t in my mind anymore. Yes, someone else beyond my little world of friends and family members does “get it.” Cursed though in that now with this kind of exposure, this kind of caliber showing up in Geraldine, it’s ripe to be taken from me. Sometimes I feel like James T. Kirk aboard Enterprise that just lost its shields as the Romulans are swinging around one last time to blast me into stardust. One day it’s The Washington Post—the next day, who knows?

A few months after the big title game, Robinson-Chavez’s images from Geraldine appeared again in Photo District News. Yet more proof that my time is precious. What scared me the most about this wave of images were his comments about the assignment. Clearly he sees the same things I see in this subject. “I did anything I could to show people this wasn’t the suburbs, but instead the heartland of America… I wanted to get a flavor of location and football together.”

Like anyone, I start considering the worse case scenario—what if he decides to take this subject material and make it his project, what success or notoriety might I expect following the release of his book or major gallery exhibit? Does anyone know the name of the other flyers who contended for the first transatlantic flight other than Charles Lindbergh? Can anyone name one crew member from Apollo 12?

The PDN story also stated that Robinson-Chavez was preparing for his next assignment—Iraq. That’s a bigger pond for a truly bigger fish. From a selfish perspective, I hope the war and its fallout keeps him busy for a long time—long enough for me to exhaust all the opportunities that may result from the small town high school football project—or at least until Custer-Melstone wins the state title.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Miles of Mascots

Wolf Mascot
Originally uploaded by mdt1960.
What mascot name would you expect the football team from Whitefish, Montana to own? It’s a tough one. The Fish? No, that would be redundant. The Whitefish Bottom Feeders… Naaaah! How about the Anglers? That might work even if it sounds like a fish that fishes for itself. Perhaps not masculine enough for a sport like football, but I’ve heard of worse. Of all the possibilities, the “Bulldogs” probably wouldn’t be anyone’s choice—even if it is one of the most popular mascot names, rooted in America’s first professional football team—the Canton Bulldogs.

Admittedly I hadn’t lost any sleep over my curiosity of the Whitefish football team mascot prior to their contest with the Anaconda Copperheads (yet another team name and mascot worthy of lively discussion), but it had crossed my mind somewhere in that 300-mile stretch between home and Anaconda. Perhaps somewhere around Three Forks, Montana I expected the clouds of my ignorance to part with a beam of sun that had the sensible name of the Whitefish mascot written on it. So imagine my dumbfounded response upon hearing they were the Bulldogs. I mean, what’s the connection between a whitefish and a bulldog?

Sad, but true, mascot names have kept me going on more than one occasion over the remote and uninteresting stretches of highway as I passed from one small town high school football game to another.

So, here’s the rundown on high school mascots in Wyoming and Montana.

• Some mascots are popular, all too predictable for this region of the country, and don’t linger long in my mind—names like Wranglers, Broncs, Warriors, Longhorns, Panthers and Eagles abound. There are at least five “Warrior” teams in Montana alone. However, it’s worth noting that some of these Warriors teams have rosters loaded with Native American players. Warriors from Heart Butte, Plenty Coups, Brockton and Wyoming Indian all are from or near a reservation.

• I’m always captivated by those mascot names that link the school to this region, but do so with an unpredictable flair. The Chinook Sugarbeeters and Sunburst Refiners come to mind. Then there are mascots that link the team to a region but not with the same glamour or sense of masculinity as in the Forsyth Dogies or the Augusta Elks.

• When it comes to conveying a sense of masculinity, those teams that hail from a town or area that has a feminine ring to it must be certain to align themselves with a mascot that is unquestionably masculine as in the Geraldine Tigers or the Laurel Locomotives. Imagine if Geraldine were to take on the same mascot name as, say, Bridger—the Scouts. No one would be surprised to hear of Geraldine’s rivals referring to them as the “girl scouts.”

• And then there are those schools and mascot names that rival peanut butter and jelly. You know the folks in Belfry, Montana were bent on getting it right when they gave Belfry High School the Bats as their mascot. And what of the Joliet J-Hawks? No, it’s not “Jayhawks,” but “J-Hawks” where the “J” stands for Joliet! It may be redundant to refer to them as the “Joliet J-Hawks,” but it certainly has a nice ring to it.

Which brings me back to the Anaconda Copperheads. At first that seems like a natural—with all the copper extracted from that part of Montana. However, those who don’t know might ask, “Which is it, an Anaconda snake or a Copperhead snake?” Maybe the good folks in Anaconda were too caught up in the whole snake thing way back when. Perhaps they should have just gone for the “Copper Kings.”

Monday, February 13, 2006

Six-Man’s Biggest Man

Rosebud's Pat V
Originally uploaded by mdt1960.
Pat Viera seems oblivious to his size. And why wouldn’t he? Since his birth, he’s been a “big kid”—arriving in the Greenville, N.Y. hospital back in 1986 at 10 pounds, 10 ounces and 22 inches in length. So, after 18-plus years, perhaps it’s to the point where he just doesn’t give it much thought anymore.

Greenville, New York, to Rosebud, Montana? When Pat was very young—following his parents’ divorce—his mother blindly placed her finger on a map of the United States that landed on Forsyth, Montana. Afterwards, she took out an advert in a Forsyth newspaper looking for a “country guy.” Local Kurt Lehti answered the request and the rest was history.

When it comes to football, there are many teams that would like to have a guy like Viera on their front line opening up holes for fleet-footed running backs or clogging up the traps of a well-honed offensive line. But when you play for the Rosebud High School Wranglers in Rosebud, Montana (pop. approximately 150) you play six-man football. And six-man football has much to do with speed. Unfortunately for Pat Viera, a guy that measures five-foot, 11-inches and weighs in at 350 pounds is probably as much disadvantaged in six-man play as he would be advantaged in 11-man play.

Listening to Pat talk about his life on the gridiron, one gets the feeling that if he had a choice, he’d gladly choose his size and play six-man football over another challenge that isn’t quite as obvious but constantly summons him beyond the football field.

When Pat was born, due to complications at birth, his right arm was impaired by Erbs Palsy—a disabling and incurable condition that renders limbs nearly useless. In Viera’s case, he estimates that his arm is about 15 percent functional. And if one looks closely, there is a noticeable size difference between his left and right arm. Sometime around the age of three, he once asked his mother which of her two arms was her “bad” arm.

He’s considering a tattoo on his “good” arm with his last name spelled out on it. When asked why, he simply stated, “The chicks dig it.”

Back on the football field, Viera uses his right arm as a decoy much like a boxer fakes a punch with one hand and throws a real punch with the other. According to Pat, if his opponents are paying attention, they usually solve the mystery of his right arm by the end of the first quarter. Viera might not be in on every tackle or play, but he’s the last guy on the field one would want to lose track of if playing against the Wranglers.

Despite the forces that appear to work against Viera, he isn’t discouraged a bit. Not only is he competitive in football at Rosebud, but also is a member of the basketball and track teams. As he put it regarding life in Rosebud, “What else is there to do?”

I first saw Pat Viera during his sophomore year—it was also Rosebud’s first home football game in 19 years. His physical size wasn’t nearly as shocking as his age, considering he had a full-bearded face (neatly trimmed to a goatee). He looked like a seasoned 25-year-old professional football player.

Now a senior, Pat still considers himself a typical high school student who struggles as much as anyone with the traditional academic rigor of math, sciences and literature. And like any senior, he’s eager to move on past high school and prove himself in the world beyond Rosebud including travels to Europe and other places overseas.

During that first home game, many of the opposing team players challenged one another to knock Viera on his duff—reminiscent of Native American warriors proving their bravery by capturing coup from their enemies. Despite being a marked man that day, each time the indestructible Viera came off the field, he showed no sign of hostility toward the other team. Sometimes he would say, “Man, that guy can really hit” while the Wrangler fans on the sidelines laughed in support.

Later that same year following the homecoming bonfire, Pat was involved in an automobile accident with other Rosebud classmates that seriously damaged his good (left) arm. So serious was it, that Pat could not pull himself from the wreckage because neither arm was capable of grabbing anything. Two schoolmates lifted him to safety and Viera spent the next six months without the use of his good arm. Classmates carried his books and fed him during school hours while his mother fed and bathed him at home.

When asked about his favorite food dishes, his mother’s Puerto Rican rice and seasoned pork tops the list, but as he put it, “It’s hard to beat a good hamburger.”

Forsyth, Montana is the nearest big town (pop. 1,944) where someone from Rosebud can find a fast-food hamburger. Besides burgers, Viera and his classmates make the short trip on any given Saturday night for bowling. Sheepishly, Pat owned up to an unimpressive 110 bowling average.

Viera isn’t quite ready to hang up his cleats yet when it comes to football. He’s hoping for an opportunity to participate in football at the collegiate level, even if it means as a walk-on. One senses that he’s aware of the odds stacked against him. Regardless, when Pat’s football days are truly behind him, he’s hoping to make a difference in people’s lives by serving as a counselor or teacher. No doubt, he’s probably been influential as a role model already amongst the Rosebud community.

Pat Viera is probably one of those individuals who come along every now and then that seems destined for greatness. Two hundred years from now there will probably be a statue of him in the future-to-be town square of Rosebud. In some ways he has already achieved greatness—not so much for his greatness in size, but his greatness in character.