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.