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.


Anonymous said...

We had built expectations. My freshman year our varsity had gone 0 and 7, losing the final game of the season to a team who fielded ten players to our twenty-five. We learned something about heart and desire that day; we learned our team didn't have any. My sophomore year Coach Dennis Hoovestal took over the football program. He began to teach us how to win; at the end of his first season we were 4 and 3. My junior year we lost only two games. We were defeated by the district's two powerhouse clubs, Absarokee and Columbus. Both teams were perennial play-off contenders, and Columbus had won the state championship my Sophomore year. We entered the season my senior year full of confidence, and tore through each of our first five opponents. With two games remaining we had a shot at capping our three-year climb out of the district cellar with an undefeated season, and a trip to the play-offs. The Columbus Cougars and the Absarokee Huskies were the two teams standing in our way.

The vagaries of high school are many. The Monday before the Columbus game our starting, left, defensive tackle inexplicably quit the team. His reason, he was tired of playing football, which to me was no reason. But that was it. I never got anything else out of him, other than the dire prediction without him we would lose our two remaining games. Outwardly I scoffed, but inside there was a small part of me that wondered.

I had played linebacker since my sophomore season. But when the tackle quit, I was moved up into the line to take his place. I stood a quarter-inch shy of six feet, and weighed 182 pounds, but wasn't nearly the same gap filler as my predecessor who was 6'1” and weighed 205. A junior, who might have been better suited at safety, was brought in to fill the linebacker position behind me. He was 5'8 and weighed close to 160 pounds. In small town football you make do with the players you have. Case in point, I was also the starting center, snapped for punts, and sometimes even returned them.

The Columbus game was a night game on their field. It began to snow as soon as we stepped off the bus, and continued sporadically throughout the contest. At times the flurries were so big and so thick the referees would have been hard to spot were it not for their black stripes. We went about our business despite the weather. Our defense held the Cougars scoreless for the first two quarters. Our offense had partial success moving the ball and by halftime we had built a 14 – 0 lead.

The snow subsided for the start of the third quarter. The Cougars had the ball close to their own forty. The quarterback was in the shotgun. Our defensive line had harried him all night, and put him on the ground more than once. The center snapped the football. Both I and the right tackle broke through the line. The quarterback's eyes widened as he saw us coming. Whether the ball slipped or he just didn't want to take another hit, I'll never know. But when he threw the ball it flew straight between the right tackle and myself. I reached out, snatched it and sprinted toward the end zone.

It's been thirty years, but I will never forget the roar of the crowd as I raced toward the goal line. I will never forget seeing the blur of winter coats, stocking caps, and waving arms. I will never forget the white glare of the field lights against the black, October night. I will also never forget the sound of the whistle or the sight of the referee as he trotted, arms raised high, into the end zone behind me. I wanted to stand in that end zone, bask in the glory of it, but I didn't. I handed the ball to the ref and loped over to our sideline. It was the first and only touchdown I ever scored.

The remainder of the game was a defensive battle. Columbus finally scored in the closing minutes of the fourth. But it was too little too late. We went home that night with a 20 – 6 victory, one step closer to our goal of a perfect season. Absarokee was next.

The Husky game was in the afternoon on our field; kickoff was at two o'clock. The team ate lunch early in the school cafeteria. The mood was boisterous. We were excited and confident. After the Columbus game we believed we could win.

Dressing out in the locker room, I broke into a sweat. I began to feel shaky, weak and slightly nauseous. I'd never felt that way before a game or any other time. I tried to shrug it off, but as I dressed the feeling became worse. My teammates were bouncing around, slapping pads and banging helmets. All I could manage was a weak grin, but nobody noticed, and I didn't tell them. I didn't know how or even what, to say. I kept hoping the nausea and shakiness would go away, but it didn't. On the field during warm-ups I felt as if I were moving in slow motion. It was a hot afternoon, but I was sweating much more than the calisthenics warranted.

I don't remember which team received the opening kick-off. My first recollection of the game is of the offensive guard who lined up across from me. He was big; he probably had two inches and twenty pounds on me. I was mildly impressed, but his size didn't bother me. I'd gone against bigger opponents before. What bothered me was how on that first snap he moved me out of the hole. He drove me off the line like I was nothing.

Absarokee was coached by Al Walker, and even thirty-years-ago when I played football, he was somewhat of a legend in southern, Montana, class C. He must have scouted us well, and I'm sure he knew our starting tackle had quit. The Huskies pounded the ball at the left side of our line, right at me. I couldn't stop them. Just as I will never forget the roar of the crowd as I raced for that touchdown, I will also never forget the loud, sickening pop that sounded four yards behind me when our undersized, left-side backer came up to fill the hole I couldn't. Play after play he hit that Husky fullback coming through the line with everything he had. I'll never forget looking back at him. He was hauling himself to his feet, sweat was running down his face, his eyes were watering, and he said two words to me. He grimaced and said, “C'mon man!”

By halftime we were down 35-0. I drank some gator-aide during the break and began to feel better, but it didn't matter. In the second half our offense still couldn't move the ball. We didn't put points on the board until late in the fourth, after the Huskies put in their second unit. I think the final score was 42-6.

Absarokee went on to play in the state championship that year. They lost to Florence-Carlton 44-8, but that was no consolation to me.

I don't remember a side-line, team meeting after the final gun. All I remember is walking, and the empty sound of my cleats on the pavement. The football field was two blocks from the locker room. I was conscious of the eyes upon me as I left the field. I remember not taking my helmet off. The fans had built expectations too.

After I'd showered and dressed, Coach Hoovestal pulled me into the gym and asked me what had happened. I didn't know what to say. I didn't know how to explain to him I'd been weak and nauseous for most of the first half. I mumbled something about not knowing. I wish I could have told him then what I know now, that I'd experienced a severe drop in blood sugar in the locker room, that the sweating, weakness and nausea were symptoms of hypoglycemia. I also wish I would have understood then, and eaten a candy bar or something before the game. Had I eaten something I would have been fine. The outcome of the game might not have been much different, but my memories of it certainly would be. The thrill of winning will carry you from one game to the next. Defeat stays with you for a long time, but defeat without having given your best is endless.

Anonymous said...

I vaguely remember these games and season (1978?). I think the guy that quit joined the Marines after graduation. Beating Columbus on their field and then getting crushed by Absarokee at home. I remember Absarokee having more players than Park City had fans. : )