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.

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