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.

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