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?