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.”

Monday, March 27, 2006

Return to Alberton

Breaking Loose Composite
Originally uploaded by mdt1960.
November 2003

In March of 1999 I came across an unusual discovery. On my way to Portland, Oregon with a friend, we traced an exit off of Interstate 90 into the town of Alberton, Montana for lunch. Afterwards, we drove around the small community and happened upon what appeared to be a small football field. It was one of those feelings that you might have if you walked into an abandoned alien spaceship or if you found a lost underground city. Yes, it was a gridiron, but something was different about it—perhaps it was simply the euphoria of the setting—against the spectacular mountains surrounding the narrow valley that held Alberton.

Although I knew little about six-man or eight-man football back then, I thought to myself that Alberton must be a great place to watch a football game in its sublime setting. When I walked the field that day with my friend, I couldn’t pinpoint why it seemed small, but as it turned out, it was smaller—an 80-yard field (a standard of eight-man and six-man play) rather than the usual 100-yard version.

Before leaving town, my mind was already scheming on a return trip to this overlooked community. When I inquired about the next season’s schedule at the local bookstore, I learned that lights would be installed so they could play Friday night games. This was a disappointment as I considered night games in a place like Alberton the same as night games anywhere—the unique and pristine gridiron backdrop would be lost in the darkness beyond the halogen flood lights. And so, I never gave much thought of Alberton again until last week when I heard they were hosting a Saturday afternoon playoff game.

Ten miles outside of Alberton I realized once again that I’d driven over 300 miles to see a team whose mascot and colours were unknown to me. Not the first time this has happened, yet it always comes as a refreshing surprise.

Upon my arrival to the playoff game in Alberton, I found the setting was like revisiting an old friend. And like an old friend that hasn’t been seen in years, there were subtle changes in the gridiron—or at least attributes I couldn’t recall from that late winter/early spring visit years before. For one, the bare-bones gridiron that I first happened across had been improved—a sure sign of a successful athletic booster program. There was now a chain link fence that paralleled the sidelines between end zones.

The goal post on the playing field seemed new—more than likely it had only received a new coat of paint. However, the practice field just to the west of the game field hadn’t changed a bit. The old scoreboard was still standing—as forgotten as it was when I first passed through.

Like that imaginary Norman Rockwell painting I considered in the past, the players walked down one of the streets of town in their football gear between the locker room and the playing field before and after the game—an image seen in other towns like Rosebud and Harlowton.

The public address system was no more than a powerful amplifier and speaker combo sitting in the bed of a shiny pickup truck under the crow’s nest. They played rock ’n’ roll music loudly over the system during warm-ups for the game. The music was an odd juxtaposition to the gridiron’s majestic backdrop, but I understood its pre-game role in “pumping up” the players and spectators for the day’s contest. Ironically the announcer mentioned near the end of the game that the booster club was raising money for a new p.a. system. I assume it will be something more permanent—fixed to the crow’s nest perhaps.

The sun moved across the top of the iconic mountain ridge overlooking the town and its gridiron until about half-time. And when it could no longer keep up with the towering folds of land, it dropped behind them, casting a long shadow across the entire field. Despite the gridiron’s sudden loss of light, I could look up the valley toward the east where it widened; there the land was still basking in the warm, late afternoon sunlight.

Looking back on that return visit to Alberton, the primitive field from 1999 had been improved. However, none of the newer developments distracted or took away from this pristine small town football setting. Alberton will remain as one of my favorite places to watch a small town high school football game even if they play on Friday nights. I’ll just have to attend the games early in the year when there is still plenty of light for the opening kickoff.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Geraldine, Montana

Geraldine Metropolis
Originally uploaded by mdt1960.
Attending a high school football game in Geraldine, Montana has been on my list of “must-do-before-I-die” for years, but my first call on this small Montana town of 280 didn’t materialize until early November of 2002 when the Tigers hosted Belfry in the quarterfinals of the Montana Class “C” Six-Man playoffs. Not long before I departed for my first visit to Geraldine, I told one of my colleagues about the upcoming playoff game there and his only comment was in reference to the town’s name. “So, what happens in Geraldine,” he asked me? “Does the team take the field dressed up like sixties comedian Flip Wilson in his Geraldine outfit yelling with high-pitched voices at their opponents, ‘The Devil made us do it!’” However, there’s nothing to laugh about when the Tigers take to the field.

Over the years, they have built up a great program that is respected by all in the ranks of Montana six-man football. They are a well-oiled machine of young men showing all the signs of good coaching and self-discipline attributed to head coach Rod Tweet who has been Tiger head coach since 1982.

Geraldine was established in 1913 as a grain depot and is located in the central region of Montana favoring the north-central localities. Named for the wife of William Rockefeller, a major investor in the Milwaukee Railroad, which created the town. Today it is primarily a farming community where wheat is the main cash crop—the rows of grain elevators that line the railroad tracks skirting the town’s perimeter testify to this attribute. The banks of the Missouri River are less than a half hour drive to the north while the nearest motel coming from the south is 38 miles away in Stanford.

In Geraldine’s heyday, it had up to 85 different business operations including two barber shops and three lumberyards. Today it has been whittled down to the bare necessities—a store, a bar/restaurant, one bank, one elevator company, one fuel and feed store, two garages, one hair shop, and one crop spray flying service. The public school is the town’s largest employer and the center of the community. Enrollment has been declining gradually over the years, but the town’s citizens are determined to keep the school in operation.

Some thirty miles on the other side of the nearby Highwood Mountains by way of a winding dirt road is the town of Highwood—Geraldine’s arch-rival in six-man football. Together, these somewhat obscure little towns with only a mountain between them and the great vastness of the country’s fourth largest state (in area) surrounding them have claimed 14 of the last 19 state titles in Montana six-man football.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Good Football in the Darndest Places

Rocky's Winning Touchdown
Originally uploaded by mdt1960.
November 8, 1997 / Byron, Wyoming

The morning before the Wyoming State 2A Championship I found myself in the withering badlands bird hunting with a couple of friends not too far from the small town of Byron. I walked around with these guys and their dogs all morning in the windy, thirty-something degree temperatures. Around noon, I asked them to drop me off in Byron and told them about the hamburger-chili-brownie-pre-game meal. Though not interested in the game, they couldn’t resist the one-dollar meal that fueled them the remainder of the afternoon in their search for a fouler game.

The State 2A championship game between RMHS and Lusk High School started at 1:00 p.m. Though the weather wasn’t conducive to bird hunting, I embraced it at the stadium as I recalled my scant football-playing days in the same conditions. My association with the cool weather has always been with the post-season and is usually when most teams have perfected their game. Shivering as a spectator, I knew the chill in the air would only make this championship game more memorable for those on the gridiron.

Lusk isn’t exactly down the road from Byron. Located due east of Casper near the Nebraska/South Dakota border, I would guess they drove over six hours to contend for the state title in a town that refers to its northern horizon as Montana.

From the coin toss to the last minutes of the game, it exceeded any Super Bowl I'd ever witnessed on TV. Both teams displayed championship poise, talent and finesse. Despite the opening kickoff being returned for a touchdown by Rocky, Lusk answered right back with a touchdown of their own on their first possession. I knew it was going to be a great game. All the elements were right for it—call it good football karma. Each time one side scored the other would turn around and answer with the same result.

At halftime the score was too close to predict the outcome. A bit of gloom came over me as I considered one of these fine teams would walk off the field defeated. Both were deserving of championship status. In the end, it was the Grizzlies of Rocky Mountain High School that prevailed. Superior talent and athletic ability didn’t seem to factor into Rocky’s victory as much as good fortune and a better selection of plays by the coaching staff.

After the game, both teams remained on the field. The Lusk team retreated to the south end zone and when called out, proudly ran to the center of the field to claim their runner-up trophy despite the tears in their eyes. The home fans applauded loudly for them. A big lump grew in my throat and my vision became misty as they galloped out trying to hold their heads high.

Unlike the reporters and cameras in the locker rooms after the Super Bowl, the fans were permitted to walk onto the field after the game and see for themselves—first hand—the disappointment and jubilation found on the faces of each player. This proved to be a more intimate post-game experience—short of donning the helmet and pads myself. The best thing about it was no one had to ask any of those stupid post-game questions—all of the answers were right there in front of us.