Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Antarctica and Ekalaka

Another Bulldog TD
Originally uploaded by mdt1960.
It's that time of the year when the innocence of small town high school football takes a back seat to the intensity associated with the playoffs. Despite the transition to a heightened level of competitiveness, the grass roots feel of the small town game never leaves the stage as there are plenty of reminders right up to the title games. Such was the case in Ekalaka (pronounced "eek-a-lack-a") this past weekend.

Ekalaka Chewing Tobacca, spit it on the floor! (A derelict cheer of unknown origin—probably a rival school of Carter County High School.) This is proof that some words are simply fun to speak out loud.

Years ago while applying for a job at McMurdo Station in Antarctica, I read about the issues regarding taking a holiday when working in the world's "Deep South." The discussion had to do with "polies" (those who are based at the South Pole) and non-polies (as in those who work at McMurdo Station). Polies typically travel to McMurdo for an extended weekend and once there, they can take in a movie, bowl, go to a bar or whatever else is offered/available in Antarctica's largest outpost. On the other hand, those who work at McMurdo are known to catch a flight to Christchurch, New Zealand for a brief holiday as Christchurch is the world's jumping-off point for flights to and from the frozen continent. And then the foundation of the joke is formed about what would happen if polies skipped McMurdo and went straight to Christchurch. It was concluded that they would be overwhelmed like a habitual gambler turned loose in the middle of Las Vegas, and thus never seen again.

Ekalaka, Montana is somewhat like Antarctica when it comes to isolated places in America's fourth largest state. Located in the southeast corner of the Treasure State, there is only one paved road leading to Ekalaka—a 35 mile ribbon of narrow asphalt straight to Baker. I've oftened wondered if the high school kids in Ekalaka travel to the larger town of Baker to get away from their small town of 500—reminiscent of Antarctica's polies. In fact passing through Baker is nearly a prerequisite for almost anyone from Ekalaka attempting to get "out of town." When it comes to the high school kids in Baker, it's likely that they travel to nearby Glendive or Miles City when they want to get away from their small town of 1,700. So, like the polies in Antarctica, I've pondered whether the parents of Ekalaka are taking a gamble when allowing their high schoolers a road trip to the bigger towns of Glendive and Miles City. Imagine getting that phone call from the principal at Miles City High School informing you that your child is now a MCHS student. Yikes!

Speaking of road trips... it's a long haul from Powell, Wyoming to Ekalaka, Montana—a 667 mile round trip to be exact. Although I nearly begged my wife to join me in this trip, I travelled solo. Rising at 4:00 a.m., I was on my way by 5:00. My arrival was 45 minutes before the game started thanks to delays brought on by a couple pullovers to photograph and a half hour cap-nap at the Wordan exit along I-94. (I was happy to learn in this trip that I can sleep comfortably in the cab of my old 1990 truck—just purchased last spring—if need be.) The return home took even longer—again broken up by more photo stops and another cat-nap at the same exit. Totally exhausted, I pulled up to the house at 12:15 a.m. swearing I'd never do that again unless there was a hotel before or after the football game.

And what a football game it was—a Montana Class C eight-man playoff game between Carter County (Ekalaka) and Culbertson-Bainville (a.k.a. "Culby"). The first thing that bowled me over was the number of players dressed out for Culby. They had at least 40 players and weren't lacking in the size department either. Watching the two teams warm up, I found it hard to believe that Ekalaka had defeated the Cowboys during a regular season match-up. I was convinced that key players from Culby must have missed that first meeting.

Fruit Scampers
Originally uploaded by mdt1960.
The Bulldogs of Ekalaka (smaller and fewer in numbers) were hardly impressive as they warmed-up, but once the game commenced, they didn't take long to establish their dominance as they marched down the field on their first possession and scored. The Bulldog quarterback, Orry Fruit, was most outstanding in that his initial physical appearance didn't strike me as a terribly gifted athlete. I couldn't have been more wrong as Fruit was extremely skilled, confident and deceptively fast—many times appearing either very tired or injured or both, but he never left the game (perhaps a good actor too).

Two small running backs with the same name—brothers Orin and Pat Hansen—joined Fruit in the backfield and proved to match Fruit's athletic ability for the hapless Cowboys. Other members of the starting team for Carter County came across the same way as their quarterback. They were hardly a flashy team to look at, but well disciplined and scrappy to the core. Truly, the game was never in any doubt.

In Culby's defense, the Cowboys started many sophomores and juniors and with those kinds of numbers and size, Wibaux and Ekalaka have surely made note of what might be coming down from the northeast in the next two years.

For now though, I'm eager to know how the Bulldogs of Ekalaka will match up to undefeated Centerville next weekend.

Postscript: Sometimes I'm convinced that this undertaking of high school football is nothing more than an excuse to go to places like Ekalaka, because I doubt I'd ever get to them driven only by curiosity.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Denton, Montana and the NFL

Originally uploaded by mdt1960.
Perhaps fly-overs by a squadron of F-16s is to be expected at a major college or professional football game, but most of the fly-overs that take place at a small town high school football game are usually 747's at about 35,000 feet—I'm sure not too many people notice.

So, imagine travelling to Denton, Montana, to watch an eight-man football game and find a little Cessna, single-engine plane circling the field at a low altitude. After making a couple passes over the field, the pilot actually puts it down in the alfalfa field/landing strip next to the gridiron and then casually walks over to the sidelines to take in the action. I learned later that his son was a linebacker for the visiting Harlowton Engineers.

I suppose this is a small example of the charm that one might experience in the small town football venues around Montana and Wyoming.

— • —

It's a long way from places like Denton, Montana, to the congested metropolitan areas and their professional football games and stadiums—and more than just physical distance too.

Recently a gentleman living in the Washington, D.C. area wrote about a football outing he recently experienced involving the Washington Redskins.

“I live just outside Washington, D.C. and yesterday attended, as a guest, the Redskins-Tennessee Titans NFL game. Never have I seen such blatant commercialism in my life, everywhere you turn you are expected to pay ($7 for a bottle of beer or a brat hot dog—this is after $110 for an end-zone ticket and $25 for parking) or are forced to watch a wide-screen video commercial. Around the inside of the stadium and animated billboards—promotions for soft drinks, banks and products I have never heard of. The in-stadium, big-screen-replay-screens spend more time on commercials than on plays and replays. I sat in a throng of 88,000 others and could not really see much of what was going on football-wise. 

The players have no local loyalty—they are hired mercenaries.  The crowd can be jerked around only so much; the Redskins played so ineptly that the hometown fans turned violently against them as they blundered, fumbled and racked up penalties.  I seldom watch NFL on TV and now I never will again.

I was thoroughly frisked before entering the stadium…”

That seems like a lot of money for a not-so-good time.

Contrast this testimony to my experience at Denton. A charcoal-grilled hamburger cost $2.75—just like the ones from the backyard at home. All non-students paid four dollars to watch the game even if it was possible to watch from the surrounding roadsides without paying. Of course, parking was free. There were no advertisements that I could remember, only a list of booster club members from the Denton area in the game program.

The best part though was that every player on both teams truly represented their school and community. The only recruiting that goes on at this level is the head coach trying to talk a potential student/athlete to join the football team. Some coaches are so successful that over 90 percent of the school's male population dress out every Friday night or Saturday afternoon.

Thankfully I wasn't frisked before the game, but many of the locals knew they hadn't seen my face before when they gave me a nod or smile. A couple of the bolder ones went so far as to ask where I was from—which is a great question in starting a conversation at a small town football game.

Denton, Montana is a great place to take in a small town high school football game. Not only is it in a great setting, but their football program is a reputable one despite losing to Harlowton the day I was in town. The hometown Trojans have made several trips to the six-man title game and even won it all in 1990. Sometime after that, they moved up to eight-man play and in 1994 and 1999 they were the state runner-up.

Of course there's the other attribute associated with Denton—you can fly in for a game and no one needs to give you a ride to the football field. Lear jets are probably out of the question.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

The Blind Side

Roberts Aerial Attack
Originally uploaded by mdt1960.
This book just released and its author were featured on National Public Radio recently. The premise of the book is about the evolution of the left tackle position over the past twenty years—now the second highest paid person on the NFL field next to the quarterback.

The book references that fateful and bone-crushing (literally if you recall) tackle by Lawrence Taylor on Joe Theisman during a Monday night game.

Click on the link below to hear the interview by Robert Siegel and read an excerpt from Lewis' book.

Michael Lewis Interview

Monday, October 09, 2006

Rumblings in the West

Trojan Starters
Originally uploaded by mdt1960.
Did I read that right, Drummond 56, Sheridan 20? And Sheridan recorded the first touchdown of the game! What the...

Well regardless—someone pinch me… another team has scored three touchdowns against the invincible Trojans—did someone slip a couple grams of kryptonite into Superman's Wheaties too? When was the last time that happened? That's about as many touchdowns scored on the Trojans during the entire season last year.

My eyes drifted aimlessly across the sports page as I couldn't even comprehend the other scores around the state upon reading the Drummond-Sheridan score.

OK, I know this doesn't mean the wheels have fallen off the football juggernaut in Drummond, Montana, but this has to be good news to all the other teams that might face the three-time, consecutive state champs in the upcoming playoffs—perhaps the Trojans are human, finally.

And maybe it's not much to go on, but—thanks to the Sheridan Panthers—there is now a small ray of hope for all the other title contenders in the state.

Of course the other possibility is that Drummond is as good as they've ever been, only Sheridan is loaded for bear as well. And let us not forget last year when we were only one game away from an all-Western Class C title game as Park City eliminated a pesky Twin Bridges in the semi-finals, thus securing the last dance with the Trojans.

Lastly, Sheridan's loss to Drummond wasn't their first. Two weeks ago Sheridan lost to Twin Bridges, 40-26 and Drummond doesn't meet up with Twin Bridges until the last week of the regular season.

Surely everyone in Class C eight-man is keeping one eye on Drummond as the playoffs approach, but it appears that the Falcons of Twin Bridges were no fluke in last year's playoffs while Ed Burke's Sheridan Panthers can't be discounted either in light of their moral victory against the Trojans.

Should we be surprised if the title game is a Western conference rematch? Maybe not, but I'd be downright shocked if the West wasn't represented in the title game at all.

Friday, October 06, 2006

A Six-Man Saint

Originally uploaded by mdt1960.
The Roberts Rockets have a good shot at winning the Montana Class C Six-Man football title this season, and I suspect Fromberg's head coach and superintendent, Randy Durr, couldn't be happier if they pull it off. Even though Durr's Falcon's face the high-powered Rockets this coming week, it was the Fromberg coach who single-handedly put the Roberts team on the six-man map back in 2001 when he started the program there. Prior to that, 50 years had passed since Roberts fronted a football team.

Today, Coach Durr sports tattoos on his lower legs—homages to his successful days at Roberts. The kids at Fromberg have called for a big "F" wherever he can find the space, but he's not budging until they tally their first five-win season.

DurrAble Legs
Originally uploaded by mdt1960.
Randy Durr hopes to concoct another successful football formula in Fromberg's newest athletic program. For several years, the Falcons played eight-man football in a co-op with nearby Bridger. And as he did in Roberts, it was Randy Durr who convinced the Fromberg community that the world was a better place if they had their own six-man football team.

Besides establishing the new six-man program in his first year, Durr was also the impetus in raising $28K for renovations in Fromberg's gym.

Along with guys like Stephen Epler and Jack Pardee, Randy Durr might merit sainthood someday in the world of six-man football.

Postscript: I first met Randy Durr in the summer of 2003 when the superintendent and head coach was mowing the Roberts gridiron. "Only in a small town," I thought to myself and wondered if mowing the lawn was in his job description.