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.