Monday, December 31, 2007

Wyoming could learn from Montana: Part 1

Rowberry Leaps
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
With the exception of walking over to my nearby Powell Panther football games on a couple of Friday nights, this past football season found me documenting small town high school football exclusively in Montana. It wasn't on purpose, it just turned out that way.

Or maybe it was on purpose.

In 2006, I attended only one Wyoming football game and the years before that, just a couple during any one season. Only in 2001 did I attend games exclusively in Wyoming.

Looking back on this record, I can only surmise that the reason I've attended more Montana high school games than those in Wyoming is because Montana's games are simply better.

There, I said it. I reckon this guarantees me a last-place finish for any popularity contests in the Cowboy State (where I reside). Regardless, I hope no one will take it personally, but rather think of it as only a critique that might be taken into consideration when the powers that be think about improving the game of football in Wyoming's high schools.

And, before you go and totally dismiss my opinion, give me some credit for having attended a fair share of games in both states—not just some ridiculous conclusions based on a few visits.

Of course, I can't just stop here without defending my opinion, so I'll explain my rationale.

Montana high school football is better than Wyoming high school football; Part 1

All Montana games are played either on Friday night or Saturday afternoon—regardless of class. The only exception comes during the last week of the regular season (the beginning of the hunting season?) when many games are played on Wednesday because there is no school on Thursday and Friday.

The point I want to make here is that many Montana games are played Saturday afternoon—for those smaller schools and communities that don't have floodlights. Given any Saturday during the football season, there are typically over 20 games scheduled in Montana.

On the other hand, many schools in Wyoming without lights play on Friday afternoon. And a few schools even play Thursday afternoons or Thursday nights because they don't have classes on Fridays! As far as high school football goes, that's practically sacrilege in my opinion. If a school doesn't have classes on Friday, that's no reason to move its home games to Thursday afternoon or evening. Most everyone outside of the school still has another weekday of work (Friday) and who wants to go to a high school football game on a Thursday night and still expect to find the same "magic" in the air as a Friday night game? Of course having a game on Thursday afternoon is even more offensive and moving them to Friday afternoon is no better.

So why are so few (if any) Wyoming high schools playing on Saturday afternoons—referring to those schools that don't possess floodlights? Some have speculated that doing so would be interpreted as a disloyal act directed toward the University of Wyoming and its Saturday afternoon games in Laramie. If true, I find it incredible that attendance at a UW football game would suffer if communities like Burlington have their football games on Saturday afternoons as well. What of all of the Saturday high school games in Montana that are held when there are up to six Montana colleges hosting Saturday games including the University of Montana and Montana State University? Further, Montana's five high school championship games are typically played the same afternoon as the annual Cat and Griz (U of M and MSU) face-off!

From my vantage point, it doesn't seem to be very community-friendly when games are scheduled at anytime on Thursdays or a Friday afternoon. This would seem to be especially poignant in the smaller communities. The only people that are likely to get off work (in the case of weekday afternoon games) are family members of the players and members of the school community. Scheduling compromises such as this will surely be the demise of high school football just like churches would find dwindling membership if they suddenly started holding services on Saturday instead of Sunday mornings. And in a state that has the lowest population in the country, adhering to conventional Friday night football (or Saturday afternoons) is paramount.

As big a fan as I am, it's nearly impossible for me to travel to Wind River High School (located in in Pavillion, Wyoming, only a 3-hour drive) for a Thursday afternoon or evening game unless I make some major adjustments to my work schedule. However, I can easily make it to Rudyard, Montana (about an 8 hour drive up on the Hi-Line) for any Saturday afternoon game.

I wonder now if these scheduling cacophonies in Wyoming high school football have retarded attendance in the smaller towns already? Surely the game's allur has lost its luster, and if continued, might such alternate scheduling be the beginning of the end for the future of small town high school football in Wyoming?

Next up, Part 2 in the argument for Montana's superior high school football program.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Hysham's Magic

Town Pirates
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
If I were a betting man, I would have wagered $100 on Augusta defeating Hysham in the six-man title game. Good thing I don't bet. I'm still trying to determine how Hysham won it? I was there, but I'm having a hard time putting my finger on how the Pirates did it so convincingly.

Good coaching? Sure, but Augusta's Coach Barrett is no slouch.

Speed? I'd say so, but it wasn't obvious, was it?

Good discipline and execution? Yes. At least I was conscience of that a couple times—once while running back Matt Icopini waited patiently for a trap to develop on the sparsely populated, six-man line of scrimmage. It payed off as he raced 54 yards for the touchdown.

Tough? Oh yes. They have to be, but who isn't when they make it to the title game?

Pirate magic? Sure, it makes as much sense as anything.

And here's the kicker... They won the Montana Class C six-man title with only one senior on their 13-man roster and never lost a game all year.

At five-foot, seven-inches (at best), I'm a believer in that old expression "dynamite comes in small packages." But, when Hysham started walking down Main Street on their way to the gridiron, I was thinking to myself, "Is that it? Are there some other players coming out later... like, the varsity?"

In the game program, Hysham's #20, Tait Hollowell was listed at 185 pounds—soaking wet maybe. Programs don't lie, do they?

I'd seen Augusta at North Star several weeks earlier and I was impressed by their size and athleticism. However, they had lost to Highwood during the regular season, but Highwood lost to Hysham twice—once at home and another time at Hysham in the playoffs. So, when the Pirates appeared, I assumed that the Elks must have had a really bad day with Highwood or some key players didn't make the game that day.

As Augusta waited to receive the opening kick-off, I watched the Pirates' small-framed, kick-off team run out on the field as I prepared myself for the Augusta return man to take it back all the way. It didn't happen and what was even more surprising, it never happened.

The entire game was a reminder of last year's eight-man title game at Centerville. When the Miners came out on the field and I saw their great numbers, but relatively small size, I calculated Wibaux was going to win by four touchdowns... easy. I was wrong then, and wrong again this time at Hysham.

But, you know, I don't mind being wrong. It's good for the soul as long as one is willing to admit it.

Not only was the Hysham-Augusta match-up a great small town high school football game, it was also a great day for all the wonderful attributes of such settings—most of them people related.

First there was A'lona, one of the Hysham moms who assisted decorating the highway approaching the town. She has a daughter attending the high school, but you would have thought she had a son starting at quarterback too. I met up with her again at halftime when I heard the championship game shirt sales were going fast. I walked over to the table where she was working with only four bucks in my pocket. Strapped for cash and no ATM in sight, I promised her a CD of images from the game and my remaining dollar bills in exchange for a shirt. The CD is in the mail A'lona!

Than there was Paul and Frank, the two elder corn farmers at the Chuckwagon Café (open 6 a.m. to 3 p.m.) that have probably never heard of the word "retirement." They weren't attending the game because they had a test plot just outside of town to work, but had plenty of time to chat with us over coffee and breakfast. When they walked in and found no available tables, they took up my offer to join Slim and I at our table for four.

During the game I became acutely aware regarding how many times the opposing team players helped their opponent up after a tackle. I know it's a common thing, but it seemed uncommonly prolific in the contest—text book good sportsmanship. Funny, I don't think I have an image anywhere in my work that includes this friendly scenario. And just like that, I have a new assignment for next season already.

The magic of small town high school football appeared to follow us to the big city of Billings. We decided to get a cup of coffee at the City Brew coffee house before driving the last darkened, 90 minutes of our trip home that is illuminated only by headlights with the exception of a few streetlights when driving through Fromberg and Bridger. Tired from our big day in Hysham, an elderly man named Robert walked over to our table and initiated a conversation about hair styles for older men that led to other topics. As it turned out, Robert was a retired history professor who earned a doctorate from Columbia University a long time ago and flew as a B-24 Liberator bombardier during the late stages of World War II. As colourful as his stories were given his age of 82 years, he was excited to hear of our day at Hysham and told us how he would love to see a six-man football game someday. We exchanged contact information and promised to include him in a six-man game next season.

It was a day of magic.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Fair Enough?

Anthem Antics
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
It might not seem fair to those from Custer-Melstone if the Hysham Pirates win the six-man title this coming Saturday. After being a contender for so many years and just falling short of the title in their 2003 overtime loss to Geraldine, I always thought that if any team from the south were to wrestle the title away from the northern tier it would be Custer-Melstone.

But, it's no longer just north and south. As more teams have joined the six-man ranks (Hysham included), we've a full class of north, south, east and west. Surely Hysham would have been in the southern conference back in the early part of this decade, but they are actually an eastern team in the current re-alignment.

Further, having already knocked off northern favorites Highwood (twice) and Geraldine this season, who is more deserving of the state six-man title this year than Hysham; especially if they defeat the remaining powerhouse from the north, Augusta, in the championship game? That seems fair enough.

Not fair enough for the Elks from Augusta who have paid their dues when they appeared in the title game two years ago.

So much for fairness.

Friday, November 09, 2007


Sidelined with Crutches
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
I'm not going to Wibaux this year for the trilogy; that is, the rematch with Drummond in the semi-finals.

All week long I've been telling people and myself that I'm just too tired from last week's trip to Sunburst, and its 900-plus-miles of driving. That excuse is probably good enough.

But, laying in bed this morning, I started thinking about the game. In fact, I even felt this tug that said, "Get up early Saturday morning anyway, and just go to Wibaux. Go on."

I tried to picture what I'd photograph once I arrived. I was rolling around in my mind what could be visually different than last year's blockbuster at Wibaux. I could see myself up on the hill—not the sidelines—by the statue of Pierre Wibaux watching from a distance. Like a little kid at a horror movie for the first time watching with my eyes half covered by my hands and wincing the entire time.

Wibaux and Drummond are two great football programs—traditions some might say. Who could argue the claim? I think of them as iconic in their own unique style.

I saw the first match-up at Drummond in 2004 where, what seemed to be, an over-confident Wibaux team walked off the bus to the gridiron like Roman soldiers about to capture another unsuspecting, miniscule chunk of distant land. Drummond was a machine, but even with one state title under their belt from the previous year, there was a feeling that many folks around the state believed they still hadn't been truly tested—that is the Wibaux test. We know what happened that day.

Then last year, I watched the same two teams who clearly held mutual respect for one another battle it out again in Wibaux. Many expressed that Drummond wasn't as invincible as previous years, but still had a long string of consecutive victories on their resume. Wibaux only had a score to settle.

I suppose it's safe to say that both Wibaux and Drummond know how unbearably long the bus drive is between the two opposing towns, especially after the game has concluded.

On one hand I hate to see Drummond make that same drive home from Wibaux as they did last year, but I know Wibaux duplicated the same drive a week later after their state title loss in overtime at Centerville. I know, it's all part of the game.

On the other hand, Wibaux has been teased enough since their last title in 2001. You'd think they'd never won one at all—reminiscent of the Cubs in baseball. Yet, they're due because they keep coming back year after year no matter who graduates.

As a neutral observer for most of the games I attend, I neither drive away from any gridiron feeling elated or dejected regarding the game's outcome. My formula for elation and dejection is related to whatever images I come away with that day; multiplied by the mileage. Yet, there are those teams like Drummond and Wibaux that I've seen play enough times that it's difficult to not wish them the best. And when they play each other in their little corners of Montana, it's always bittersweet, emotionally draining... simply exhausting.

I'm going to regret not going—I just know it.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Absarokee Euphoria

Kirby Looks
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
Another beautiful autumn day in Montana and another superb example of small town high school football—this time in Absarokee.

I queried the people at the gate about how I would go about getting up on top of the foothills nearby that overlooked the gridiron. One of the Absarokee coaches informed me about the property owners that I would have to speak with first. Right there on the sidelines, he pulled his cell phone out of his pocket and called someone who knew the landowner's home number—Chris. Then, he called Chris directly for me. "Absolutely," came the answer from the other end of the connection.

I walked up the long driveway from the highway. Chris' 83-year-old father, Grant, was waiting for me near the house and offered me a ride on the ATV to the bottom of the foothills where the bridge crossed the Rosebud River.

With a least four cameras in my possession, I never thought to photograph Grant sitting on the ATV or standing on the bridge that passed over the river—a true Homer Simpson moment on my part. Nevertheless, we chatted all the way to the bridge as I held on, my legs dangling over the side of the ATV. Four deer grazing in the meadow gawked as we slowly rumbled down the path. We could have gone on for miles and I wouldn't have objected.

The game lived up to my expectations. An eight-man football nail-biter. Stanford roared out to a 22-6 lead. The margin was reduced to 22-12 at the half. And with momentum building early in the third quarter, Absarokee took the lead for the first time. Shortly after Stanford regrouped to take back the lead. And as the final minutes ticked off the clock, the Huskies of Absarokee marched down the field destined to tie the game it seemed and possibly win if they made the conversion. But it wasn't to be. A deflected pass, resulting in an interception that went unchallenged for a touchdown.

Unforgettable perhaps.

Absarokee Vista
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
But what I'll never forget were the few, but pristine moments of solitude I experienced while walking down from the foothills. It was like a dream. I passed along the tree-line path that followed the Rosebud River and its cold water from springs and run-offs in the nearby Beartooth Mountains. And up ahead... was it possible… the sound of high school football just out of my sight? I considered those out of body experiences that we hear about when the world becomes rather surreal. Could I have died?

Again, it was like a dream.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Just Shy of 49

Sunburst Vista
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
It was 966 miles and two new small town football venues in one road trip. Although I hadn't been on the road every weekend this year, this particular outing to Rudyard and Sunburst made up for the idle weekends earlier in the season. It's a life... sometimes hard.

Few people beyond my immediate family have ever joined me in the past on these football excursions, but my friend Ken (a.k.a. Slim Hardtack) tagged along for a trip that found us only eight miles shy of the 49th Parallel (the Canadian border for those folk who are geographically challenged on North America). I felt a bit cheated having come so close to Canada and not actually crossing into the land of the frozen tundra. Nevertheless, a couple years ago I did just that when attending a game in Eureka, but that's another story for another time.

At 65-years-old, Slim doesn't move quite as fast as... oh, let's say a spry 47-year-old youth like myself, so I knew if timing became an issue, I couldn't hold him too accountable. As it turned out, I had my own issues as I forgot to pack my tent and sleeping pad and after about six miles beyond Powell's city limits, we turned around to retrieve my gear.

Camping somewhere near Fort Benton was the plan drawn up a few days before our departure, but by the time we pulled into Harlowton, the day's light was waning quickly. We pitched camp at the community fairgrounds and sat down at our picnic table with a big bowl of navy bean soup including side orders of wheat thins, tinned oysters and sour cream. The cold drew down on the meal, but the soup stayed hot and later on, clouds formed overhead to seal in what was left of any remaining warmth from the day, resulting in a morning that was quite bearable for mid-October.

• • •

After morning coffee, it was onward to Eddie's Corner with a small time-out at the Judith Gap wind farm. We stepped out of our rig to hear the hush of the egantic machines. (I'm introducing the word "egantic" today as an alternative to the world "ginormous" which was recently added to Webster's Dictionary). We contemplated how some have come to resent such a hopeful looking operation where cost-effective, cows, power, barb wire, symmetry, clean, and wheat farmers all come together. Past the wind farm, the tiny town of Judith Gap and Eddie's Corner, we stopped for petrol in Stanford and then by-passing Geraldine, Fort Benton and finally arriving in Chester on the famous Hi-Line.

Chester Coyote Art
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
I wanted to see if the coyote sculpture was still sitting on top of the high school at Chester. I was pleased to see it still poised in its howling position despite the name change of the school a couple of years ago which included a new mascot—the Hi-Line Hawks. Less than a half hour later we were driving into Rudyard with plenty of time to spare before the game—taking in the modest community attractions that include a movie house and automobile museum.

In past years I'd seen North Star (once known as Blue Sky-KG... yet another school with a former identity) when they were on the road at Hays and West Yellowstone, but this was the first time I'd been to Rudyard. It's probably one of the few gridirons over 300 miles away that I didn't attempt to acquire some kind of description before attending. Something always seemed magical about the place when I looked at it on the the map—so far and way up north. Perhaps the play of their impressive 1999 state championship six-man team lingered in my mind as well.

I wasn't disappointed in finding the North Star football field and it's simplistic, on-the-edge-of-town setting. However, over the years I've learned to be careful to classify any given football field as a desirable location until it is actually occupied with fans and other components of a football contest. And sure enough, as things were shaping up at North Star, the ambulance rolled in and parked itself on the northeast corner of the field blocking a considerable portion of my "clean" shot in that direction. So distraught by this violation of gridiron feng shui, I actually queried the two medics of the vehicle to see if there was an alternate location for the big blue and white box on wheels. I hope they didn't see me as some self-loving shooter from a big town making some ridiculous demand. Regardless, my request was denied.

Sam Berge Field Entrance
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
Like so many small town high school football games, everyone from the community seemed to be in attendance. Despite the unfavorable outcome for the Knights of North Star in their last home game of the regular season, I never heard anyone diss the team or coach except one player who second guessed a play near the game's end.

Kick-off for the North Star/Augusta game was 1:00 p.m. and ended just after 2:30 p.m. The condensed time frame was the combination of six-man play's 10-minute quarters and a running clock in the second half due to a lopsided score. This gave us plenty of time to make our way to Sunburst, but not before a layover in Shelby, Montana.

• • •

I normally don't plug anyone's business in this blog, but I'm happy to shamelessly endorse the Sherlock Motel and its owner Mark Wilson. This guy knows Montana. I wish we could have stayed longer in Shelby if only to visit with Mark.

• • •

Sunburst Water Tank
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
Like a crown sitting on royalty's head, that's where you'll find the football field in Sunburst. The only thing held higher (literally) in the community of 415 is its water tank. And so, what a great place to watch a football game... with the town below and the Sweetgrass Hills off in the distance. It's places like Sunburst and its surrounding scenery where floodlights should be prohibited! I'd like to propose a football schedule to the Sunburst town council or school board that has the last two home football games playing out on Saturday afternoon instead of Friday night.

Speaking of rescheduling games, it was homecoming weekend in Sunburst and that meant the main event was Saturday night instead of Friday night. Had I not called the school a week earlier to confirm the game time, I would have been standing around in Sunburst on a Friday night feeling really stupid when someone told me the game was the following night instead. My advice is simple: when driving over 200 miles for a small town high school football game, always call ahead to confirm the event's location, date and time.

Earlier when we stopped at Eddie's corner, I had purchased a Great Falls Tribune newspaper and read the scores in disbelief... from night before, Twin Bridges over Drummond and Absarokee defeats Park City. Earlier in the season Ekalaka had finally downed Wibaux. The stars of Class C eight-man football in Montana had realigned it seemed. I wondered if the same gods would be spinning their magic this close to Canada resulting in another change of the guard for the northern conference. As part of the homecoming festivities, the middle school football teams of Sunburst and Centerville were playing a late afternoon game and in the remaining hour of sunlight, Sunburst came away the victor. Surely many others in attendance like myself considered this an omen of what was to come in the main event.

Well, some would say that three out of four ain't bad.

What's a good football team to do? Simply put, the defending state champs from Centerville were totally immune to the upset magic—thus spoiling the Sunburst homecoming bash. In hindsight, I wonder if it was my fault. I've seen Centerville play four times over the years and they've never lost—starting with the Miners eight-man title victory against Denton in 1999.

With the floodlit gridiron surrounded by darkness and the scenic vista beyond the end zone invisible, the Sunburst-Centerville football game transformed into an ordinary Friday night football game that could be found in Texas, Nebraska or Pennsylvania. My energy to work my camera dissipated with the day's light. Surly if the game had been a dogfight, Slim and I would have stayed and adopted the role of spectators.

As we walked out to our vehicle during halftime, Sunburst's coach Matt Clark stopped me and asked if I was the one who wrote the football blog. I came clean about it although I was embarrassed that I'd been busted leaving the game early—by the home team's football coach no less! Despite the impending loss that was breathing down on his team, Coach Clark thanked me for coming up. Impressed we were.

• • •

Slim was making the complimentary motel coffee at 4:45 a.m. the next day. By 5:45 a.m. we had secured a booth in the only cafe that was open in Shelby, Montana on a Sunday morning. On the way home, we mused about the owners of Cadillac pickup trucks and wondered if they drove their rigs with cow manure on their boots. Slim suspected there must be a nicely crafted boot box located somewhere in the bed of the truck (lined of course) while leather house slippers are worn in the cab. Hmmm, if you're a Cadillac pickup owner, we'd be curious to know the answer to this query of ours.

Power Field Morning
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
Desperate for a stronger cup of coffee than that provided by the Sherlock Motel, Slim and I detoured at Dutton and Power as we made our way down the interstate. It was Sunday and way too early so, as expected, we came away from the two communities empty-handed. Nevertheless, I couldn't resist photographing Power's gridiron in the early morning light with the delicate coating of frost on the turf.

Finally in Great Falls we stumbled into a Starbucks. I don't know, is it me or are Starbucks and its clones filling up with pretentious customers— just shy of those who show up for an exhibit opening at a big city art gallery featuring damaged lamp shade sculptures?

After our foo-foo (but strong) coffee and nearing Belt, we continued in our musing as we considered the everyday operations of a fictitious Department of Homeland Insecurity and the qualifications required to work for that branch of the government.

And then something about Al Gore's Nobel Peace Prize, his oversized home, what if global warming really was a hoax, and what would be so wrong with reducing our waste just for the hell of it?

It's all starting to blur now... Did I tell you it was 996 miles?

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Gospel According to Epler

Chester's First Six
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
The following excerpt is from Stephen Epler's book titled Six-Man Football: The Streamlined Game. Published by Harper & Brothers Publishers in 1938. When I was reading this to myself the other day, I felt as though I should be standing before a congregation of football disciples...

The Beginnings of Six-man Football

Six-man football can best be explained to the person familiar with the eleven-man game as the usual football played by two teams that play without tackles and guards, and are short the services of one halfback. A six-man team is composed of two ends, a center, quarterback, halfback, and fullback. Six-man football is not a pass and touch game. Tackling and blocking as well as kicking, passing, and running with the ball are integral elements of the game.

A casual observer at a six-man game would notice little difference between the two types of football except the smaller number of players. A more careful observer would soon discern other differences. He would not only observe that there are fewer players, but that the field is smaller. He would notice that all the players are allowed to catch forward passes and that more players handle the ball. He would find it much easier to see what each player is doing and he could easily observe the movement of the ball. He would notice that this is a more open game and that every running play includes at least one lateral or backward pass. He would discover that there are few pile-ups and fewer injuries. The increased amount of scoring and the fast-moving play would hold his attention.

Six-man football is primarily a player's game and only incidentally a spectator's game. Players become enthusiastic about six-man because they are allowed to carry the ball, catch passes, and handle laterals. Every member of the team must be an all-around player skilled in ball handling, pass receiving, and pass throwing as well as in blocking and tackling. The freedom from injuries and the open play increase their zest.

—Stephen Epler, 1938

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Starting with Noxon

Noxon Red Devils
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
Noxon, Montana is off the beaten path in every sense of the way. First of all, it is located in the extreme northwest corner of Montana and secondly, you have to drive over a one-lane bridge coming off the main highway to enter the town. With the Bitterroot and Cabinet Mountains on both sides and a healthy and thick stand of pine trees all around, Noxon would likely personify the quintessential image of what many people think Montana should look like—and perhaps Northern Idaho.

Despite its overall Montana-esque setting, Noxon is no Wibaux when it comes to football. That is to say, high school football still has its work cut out for it in Noxon compared to a town like Wibaux, Montana where the football season rates as high as the hunting season. While Noxon just restarted their football program in the late 90s, Wibaux has been competing for state football titles since its six-man days back in the late 30s and early 40s.

Another striking contrast between these two eight-man football schools/towns is that while some of the athletic kids in the high school at Noxon are "saving themselves" for the basketball season and opting out of football, Wibaux's community might not understand such rationale unless those same players could guarantee a state title in basketball.

Nevertheless, football tradition or location aren't everything.

* * *
I travelled to Noxon this past August to observe their first week of two-a-day practices. The idea came to me on the advice of Jody Oberweiser—the wife of Drummond's head football coach Jim Oberweiser. A few years earlier, I had considered a Noxon excursion until I heard they had installed lights. I decided 500-plus miles was too far to travel for a game under the homogenous-rendering flood lights of Friday night. So, I made plans to attend in the summer when two-a-day practices were held during the magical light of mornings and evenings.

I'm not sure what Noxon co-head coach Ted Miller thought when I called him up in June telling him about my idea to visit during their summer practices. Yet, he didn't discourage me, so I moved on with my plans.

One of the perks for travelling to that part of the state during the summer with ample time on my hands was stopping in to check out a few other small town football venues that I had pondered in the past—Superior, St. Regis, Plains, Thompson Falls, Troy, Charlo and Arlee. Along with Noxon, I would give Thompson Falls the nod for a great football setting with the added bonus of fielding a competitive team year after year.

There's a bit of anxiety when one commits to stay in a town/area they've never visited—especially if there isn't any advertising or significant word of mouth to lure you there like... oh let's say, the Bahamas. So, as I drove across the famed one-lane bridge that leads to Noxon, all I could say to myself was, "Well, this is it."

While in Noxon for the week, I stayed about five miles up the main highway (State Route 200) at the Cabinet Gorge RV Park. Diane gave me a great campsite for four nights at $42. Although I slept in my little tent and on the ground every night, it was priceless to know that a hot shower was a short walk away.

I had most of my meals from my cooler that I kept stocked with ice. However, I did break down for one meal and ordered a wonderful burger at Sneakers Bar and Grill in downtown Noxon. Next door at the Noxon Merchantile I found a bag of Australian Kookaburra licorice—what a treat and the last place I would have guessed to carry such a luxurious import. I also found my morning coffee (and a breakfast burrito) from the portable and efficient Road Runners Espresso—a converted potato chip truck that set up every morning at the end of the bridge by the main highway.

* * *
I knew it would be a good week when freshman Tyrell Wilkenson walked out of the locker room boasting one evening practice that he had gained weight over the summer and was now a whopping 136 pounds—soaking wet.

You can't help but get attached to any team if you spend enough time with them. I felt quite indifferent when I started shooting on Tuesday night, but by Friday afternoon I was a Red Devil fan as much as anyone else. Regardless of the 2007 season, I hope they come away from it with a great deal of confidence that will carry them into the 2008 season and beyond.

Leaving town that Saturday, I considered my comparison of Noxon and Wibaux and the hypothetical result of combining Noxon's scenery with the football enthusiasm of Wibaux—they'd probably have one whale of a football team. Some might argue I've just described Drummond and Centerville.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Coach Kudos

Here's a great article about Class C coaches Dan Lucier of Superior and Drummond's Jim Oberweiser. The story was written by Chad Dundas of the Missoulian, based in Missoula, Montana. Click HERE

Exhibit Opening

Anthem Singers
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
Come one, come all. The Western Heritage Center in downtown Billings, Montana will be hosting a photography exhibit titled "The Biggest Game in a Small Town" This is a collection of 50 images from small town high school football games in Montana and Wyoming from 1997-2007 by yours truly. The exhibit runs from September 13 through December 1. Museum hours are Tuesdays–Saturdays 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. The museum is located at 2822 Montana Avenue and their web site is

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Hitting Isn't Good Tackling

Walters Delivers
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
As a fan of high school football, I was disturbed upon reading a recent sports feature in my local hometown newspaper (The Powell Tribune) about the Powell High School football program titled "Natural Born Hitters." In short, the article featured six players from the high school team and discussed their ability and hunger to "hit." The following is my response to the "Natural Born Hitters" story.

Hitting (i.e. a purposeful violent tackle or collision) does not personify nor define the game of football anymore than the cumulative GPA of a football team. It is only a small part—in fact a by-product of sorts—and certainly should not be glorified nor the focal point of the game as this story so sadly portrays.

This story has somehow confused good tackling with this thing called hitting which doesn't necessarily result in a successful tackle. I've seen plenty of mediocre teams over the years with their proclaimed hard hitters, but the brilliant teams are those where every player is running to the ball right up to the whistle instead of walking down field while one of their teammates attempts to make a "vicious hit." With three or more defenders on the ball carrier, a successful tackle is much more likely.

Of all attributes found in the game of gridiron football, I wondered why hitting was highlighted in this particular story. Whatever happened to the character building that should take place via the principles of a strong work ethic, sportsmanship, creative play selection or teamwork? It was always my understanding that to participate in any sport was to become a better person. How are we helping to build character in a young man if we validate a behavior where he "imagines the punishment he can deliver?" What kind of thumbless mentality are we perpetuating here?

Although quite physical, football is also a game of strategy, finesse and proper execution of any given play that is called. It doesn't have to be smash-mouth with the intention of humiliating one's opponent or "wrecking one's spirit and determination." Those teams who aspire only to play smash-mouth football are typically one-dimensional and unimaginative. Eventually their assorted weaknesses are discovered and exploited leading to their defeat.

Reading through the story I couldn't help but think of the smack-based talk associated with the WWE ("professional" wrestling). I will even venture to say that perhaps those who find hitting to be such a great attribute in football might also be the same who attend a NASCAR event hoping they'll witness a brutal crash.

I can only imagine the non-football fans in the area reading "Natural Born Hitters" and finding even more distaste for a game that they believe is oozing with testosterone. I can't blame them.

As memorable as "big hits" might be, Chuck Bednarik's hit on Frank Gifford in 1960 (at best) only helped to seal the Eagles victory over the Giants while Jack Tatum's 1978 hit on Darryl Stingley was during a preseason contest. Such "bone-jarring hits" typically are more poignant in ending careers rather than winning football games as was the case in these two famous hits. Sadly, Bednarik is better known for his hit on Gifford rather than his place in the Hall of Fame or his role as the last of the Sixty-Minute Men (those who played both offense and defense).

It's a fine line between wanting to deliver a vicious hit and wanting to injure one's opponent. I have yet to learn of any football player who is capable of controlling their power and velocity of any given tackle/hit to insure that only the former results. Coaches and fans need to be thoughtful in the kind of encouragement we pass on to these young and impressionable players.

Everyone knows that any game/sport as physical as football has always been prone to a higher injury rate than those that are less physical. As I see it, the "Natural Born Hitters" story only endorses a style of play that increases the likelihood of injury. And that's just irresponsible.

Finally, we should keep in mind that just because a football player is considered a hard hitter doesn't mean the impact of their hit is totally absorbed by the individual in their crosshairs. Many of the game's best hitters leave the game before their time due to injuries associated with their overly-aggressive style of play.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Reservation Regards

Halftime Recovery
Originally uploaded by mdt1960.
Congratulations to the Hays-Lodgepole Thunderbirds and their Class C basketball championship this past week. The Reservations continue to post some of the best basketball teams in both of these states.

Although I don't follow basketball anything like I do the football season, I still watch from the comfort of my computer the basketball season, especially when it gets into the post-season. In particular, like football, I watch the small schools—the ones I've seen play football. I also look for the same names that I would see on the gridiron.

I was at the Hays-Lodgepole gridiron during the 2005 season and watched Lance Brockie and his Thunderbird teammates take a beating from the visiting Knights from Northstar. I suppose no one was too surprised, but I remember seeing the look of competition in the eyes of the gridders from Hays-Lodgepole. They probably didn't like losing in football anymore than in basketball. I also remember overhearing the players from Northstar commenting on how big Brockie was. They clearly knew him from the basketball court as well.

They say basketball and the Reservations go hand-in-hand. What is it about football that doesn't produce the same consistent results in these Native American communities?

Nevertheless, I remember the six-man football team from Lame Deer in 1999. They made it to the playoffs and went on to Highwood and defeated the Mountaineers who are always a perennial favorite when it comes to football playoffs—if not outright winning the state title. Though they didn't win the state title, the Morning Stars were clearly a good football team hailing from the Northern Cheyenne Reservation.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

A Barometer for Innocence

Number 40 & Uncle Jim
Originally uploaded by mdt1960.
Not long ago, a friend challenged me to explain "innocence" and "grass roots" as it relates to small town high school football in Wyoming and Montana. Initially my incorporation of these two terms has come from listening to my father talk over the years about how the game was played in his home town of Akron, Ohio—as a member of the Ellet High School football team back in the early 1940s.

I called my Dad the other day to get a refresher course on his version of high school football. Although Akron was considered one of the country's larger cities back then, football at the high school level was relatively small-time compared to today's version. The same is true even when contrasting it to present-day towns where far fewer people reside.

Listening to him, I looked for common attributes between what he described and what I've seen over the past ten years during my travels to football's smallest venues. And so, here's what I learned… one more time.

No one was a celebrity. It truly was a team sport back then and people didn't carry on about the skills or talent of any single player. Few players went on to play college ball because of the war, and if they did no one really paid it much mind.

There were no two-a-day practices, but typically the coaches would not allow them to drink water during practices—the rationale back then was that water would slow down the athlete.

No playoffs. There wasn't a great emphasis on having a winning season. Undoubtedly everyone wanted to win their games, but no one's life, football career or even weekend was ruined if a game was lost. You just had your season and it was over when the last game ended and everyone moved on to something like basketball. Parents didn't get overly involved in their kids athletics, much less pressure them to play or perform well.

My father and his teammates knew several players from the competing schools. In fact, it wasn't uncommon to hang out with their nearby rivals they played every year. Rivalries back then were few and were mostly in good sport, rather than the bitterness and harsh exchanges of today's rivalries.

Most of the people that attended games were either family or good friends of the players. There were no seats and the spectators (not fans) either stood along the sidelines or walked up and down the sidelines behind a rope to follow the play.

The field was hardly manicured like today's gridirons. They practiced on the same field as their home games. The only grooming the Ellet football field received back then was when someone would remove the cow manure off before a game. In places like Dubois, Wyoming, and Absarokee, Montana, you'll find plenty of deer and elk manure on the gridiron and in Gardiner, Montana, bison "remnants" are common too.

The gridiron wasn't next to the school. They had to walk about a half mile to their games and practices wearing their gear. One guy on the team lived between the school and the football field and they would always stop and get cigarettes at his house to smoke on their way to practice. Today, you'll find football teams in Rosebud and Alberton, Montana making the regular treks from their school-based locker rooms to the gridiron down the road, although I doubt you'll see any of them smoking along the way.

Everyone played on Saturday afternoons back then because no one had floodlights. This is still the case in many of today's smaller classes in Wyoming and Montana, but many schools aspire to get floodlights if they don't have them already.

I recall someone once telling me how small town teams in Montana would meet in a vacant field located between the two schools because it was so cost prohibitive for one team to drive the entire distance. Is there anyone out there who knows of such events?

As long as I'm asking, in the reader's mind, what represents "grass roots" and "innocence" in the game of football—whether it be years ago or today?

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Eventually Ennis

Denton at Harlowton
Originally uploaded by mdt1960.
August 2004: It was a night of rain—big, fast and steady drops. The kind of rain that submerges the interstate before it can run off the asphalt. I pulled over at the RV Park in Cardwell, Montana after I'd had enough—reminding myself along the way that I was driving through drought-stricken Montana.

There was nothing disappointing about calling it a night. There was no agenda and sooner or later, despite the rain, I would have pulled over somewhere. Besides, I had passed a mutilated deer 15 minutes earlier and knew I didn’t want to be a part of that scene. So, the Cardwell exit off of Interstate 90 was as good as any to overnight.

I had wanted to sleep in my tent, but as the rain poured down, I opted for a makeshift bed in my little Mazda instead—the back seat down with my legs stretching into the boot. I’ve done it before and when positioning the pad just right, it’s good enough if I’m really tired. As it turned out, the persistent rain beating against the car made for the perfect white noise and sometime after 10:00 p.m. I drifted off to sleep.

When I woke around 2:15 a.m., I was alert as though I had slept the entire night. The stars were out telling me the wet weather had passed. I’d slept but my dreams were restless. Something to do with relating three different subjects in tonight’s drive. And then something to do with the football towns that I was covering, but now it was all a blur and didn’t make a bit of sense even if it had made sense in my sleep.

The campground office was closed when I pulled in earlier, so I hadn’t paid for the site. Of course, I was planning to pay in the morning once the office was open, but it was 2:30 a.m. and with the thought of continuing on, there would be no payment. But it wasn’t as if I had used their resources. I hadn’t plugged in, I hadn’t showered or used a toilet. I hadn’t even pumped one drop of water from one of the water pumps. I dismissed the thoughts of guilt and pulled out of the campground.

The gas gauge told me there wasn’t enough in the tank to make it to Ennis, so I pulled off at the Three Forks exit where a Towne Pump maintained a 24-hour operation. Three Forks is named for its location as this is where the Jefferson, Madison and Missouri Rivers merge. I filled up the tank and put the interior of my car back in order as a result of my little camp out. Inside the store I purchased a bottle of Arrowhead water and a Little Debbie Fudge Rounder for 25 cents. The air was a bit chilly for a summer night (albeit 2:40 a.m.) as I unfolded the road atlas of Montana across the hood of the Mazda. This is when John, the truck driver, walked up out of the darkness.

I don’t know his actual name, but I’ll just refer to him as John.

“Where you going,” he asked?

I told him I was considering driving south on 287 to Ennis, Montana. I didn’t share with him my motive, but I’d heard it was a scenic place for a Class B eleven-man football game.

So, we talked. A lot about driving and the hazards of truck driving and the son-of-a-bitch companies that are calling the shots in the truck driving business. Stories that sound like anyone who works in the trenches of a trade-driven business. Everyone has a story about how the big companies shit on the little guys. In John’s case, they sell you a truck and then bust your ass to the point that you end up losing your truck.

Captitalism at its worse I thought. No one makes just a simple profit anymore, it’s all about making a killing at the expense of the masses. I can understand communism's appeal.

Despite this middle-of-the-night conversation, some of the things that John said weren’t very cohearent to me. Maybe it was the hour. Maybe it was the cultural contrast between us. Maybe it was the little white pills that helped him keep his eyes open at such an ungodly hour. It didn’t much matter to me. I just felt that above everything else, guys like John just wanted someone to listen to them.

John was 60 years old. His teeth showed that he probably didn’t have a dental plan—probably not one in years. I asked him how many more years he would drive a truck. He said he would probably drive until he died. I pictured a slumped over truck driver at the wheel careening out of control, taking a family or two to the grave with him.

The conversation drifted in and out of understanding. He mentioned a 30-mile-pass in Indiana that was very dangerous. I couldn’t even think of a prominent hill in Indiana. This was especially obscure after I had just driven over Homestake Pass earlier that evening near Butte. What the hell was he talking about?

I started making an effort to end the conversation, but John seemed determine to keep on talking. Finally he must have picked up on my body language and made his way to the gas station store. He didn’t say goodbye or anything like that—he just drifted away like thick black smoke coming out of a chimney on a windy day.

I made my way to Ennis reluctantly. Seems like I could have stayed talking to John indefinitely at the truck stop. I wasn’t crazy about the idea of driving a two-lane highway in the wee hours of the morning, not to mention one that was unfamiliar.

As I drove south, the rain found me again. This time near Harrison.

The night seemed adamant about rain as long as I was insistent on driving. Maybe it was a sign telling me I shouldn’t drive at night. Maybe it was a sign that made me the unexplainable answer to the drought that had stalled out over the Northern Rockies for the past few years. I concluded that as long as I continued driving, perhaps it would keep raining.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Eight-Man's Illusion

Originally uploaded by mdt1960.
While driving around the back roads of Montana on any given autumn weekend, one could stumble upon a football game and if not paying attention, not realize it’s an eight-man game. Unlike the eleven-man version of football, eight-man is played on an 80 by 40-yard field (like six-man), but the extra players have a way of making the gridiron seem “occupied” in the same way an eleven-man contest occupies a standard sized gridiron. It’s only when one notices the missing wide receivers in an offensive formation with a full backfield or attempting to determine a defensive formation (i.e. 4-3-4, 6-2-3, etc.) that an epiphany results regarding this deficiency of players.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

An Eight-Man Postcard

Just wanted to let you know that I really enjoy your blog on small town football. I just finished up a year of coaching an 8-man squad in Alabama where football is second only to The Southern Baptist in worship attendance. What I experienced was pure American. I wouldn't have traded it for anything. Attached is what has become one of my favorite pictures of my team. I thought I would share it with you. Keep up the great blog. You might check out the teams website. We are probably the smallest school in the state of Alabama to have a team.

Brooklane Academy Eagles Football

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Super Bowl Lament

Strug-up Shoes
Originally uploaded by mdt1960.
While all of America is busy securing their beer, soda and corn chip caches for the upcoming Super Bowl (XXX-something), this is one football fan who is moving on to those things that are more representative of January and February... ice skating comes to mind.

Here in the northwestern corner of Wyoming, it’s just another cold January day. The Chiefs and the Colts are duking it out now. Later on another match-up will follow between the Seahawks and the Cowboys. I could care. To be sure, Indianapolis quarterback Payton Manning is the only player from any of the teams remaining that I can name. I’ll only know of today’s outcomes when I call my parents knowing they’ve watched these two events on one of their five TV sets scattered around the house.

As for me, I’ve seen my Super Bowl way back in mid-November when championship football games are supposed to be played. In my case it was in Centerville, Montana (rather than Phoenix, Arizona), where the Montana state high school eight-man title game was played out. And was it a doozie—as good as any professional or college game I’ve seen in my 46-plus years. The only other games that can rival that were other high school games in the past—Geraldine vs. Custer-Melstone in the 2003 Montana six-man title game comes to mind. Nevertheless, I won't argue with those who make such claims about this year's Fiesta Bowl between Boise State and Oklahoma. I didn't watch the game, but the highlights were brilliant.

There was a time not so long ago when I would tune in the “gridiron winter games.” However, after years of mulling it around, I’ve concluded that December should be reserved for the commencement of the basketball, hockey and wrestling seasons. No football game should be allowed to flow over into December for any reason whatsoever, even if it is played in a state-of-the-art, temperature-controlled dome or the tropics of Florida.

I’d like to think I’m as much of a fan of the game as those who follow professional football, but the deep winter months of December, January and February are not for football in my mind. Call it heresy, but come December, I’m ready to take a break from anything to do with the gridiron.

And the NFL isn’t the only guilty party in overextending the football season. Spending the first day of the new year watching twelve hours of college football on TV is simply wrong—that’s no way to start any new year.

Speaking of college bowl games, it’s getting worse—everyone wants to have their own bowl game! Could I be the only one who finds it absolutely disgraceful to see a 6-5 team in a post-season bowl game—touted by the commentators as if they were some kind of championship team?

Like any good thing found in this country, we typically overdo it until it’s worn out or we can’t stomach it anymore—assuming we haven't fallen numb to its oversaturation. Isn't this the case with Christmas, high-tech gadgets, SUVs, Brittany Spears and now football? Where is America’s sense of “modesty” these days? I like football way too much, so I’m ready to put it away when it should be put away—no later than November 30.

So, when this year's Super Bowl rolls around again, I’m out of here. Spare me the two hour pre-game show consisting of ex-jocks, talking heads and all the other fanfare and overproduced television commercials for what will likely be a mediocre football game. If I can stomach it, I’ll read about the big game in the newspapers or the internet. Besides it won’t be long now before the excessively long professional baseball season emerges from the cold depths of winter, but that’s a rant for another day.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Luxury and Letdown

Fred & Huddle
Originally uploaded by mdt1960.
30 October 2004
It’s Saturday night here in Powell, Wyoming and unlike many Saturday nights during the football season, I’m not driving through the darkness of Montana on the lookout for mule deer in my path following another faraway high school football game. Nope, today’s game was in nearby Roberts, Montana—a mere 90 minute drive from home. The one o’clock kick off allowed my family and I the luxury of arriving home well before darkness fell—even during these shortened days of autumn as they begin to give way to winter.

The excess daylight following the game provided us a short detour to Clark’s Fork Canyon on the way home where a drama of clouds and light were playing over this small component of the Beartooth Mountains. Besides the luxury of daylight, another luxury resulted from the day’s short trip to Roberts—the luxury of thought.

Rather than consumed in high beams and arriving home safely, on this Saturday night my thoughts and cares are elsewhere as I step out into the darkness of my backyard. Looking up to the star-lit sky, I paused to consider the dissappointment that surely lurks in Montana’s smallest towns tonight as I wonder who fell to defeat in the first round of playoffs. Were the young men hanging their heads low in towns like Winifred or maybe kicking the dry dirt in Sunburst? Surely the humbling sting of today’s lost contest is just starting to set in for the players from Culbertson and Bainsville—way up in the northeastern part, where it is a short drive to the border of North Dakota (and not much farther to Canada).

Sooner or later, all but one team from each class goes through this year-end let down. Sometimes I find it hard to believe this sport is so popular knowing how every season plays out.