Monday, December 07, 2009

A Modest Proposal: Six-Man College Football

G.F. Central Intros
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
Northwest College in Powell, Wyoming (my employer) is proposing the creation of two soccer teams for the next academic year. The following is the introduction to the proposal sent out to the college community last week.

We are proposing to begin an intercollegiate soccer program—for both men and women—at Northwest College. Such a program will have a positive impact on enrollment and will provide additional opportunities for extracurricular activity for our students.

We plan to begin the soccer program with modest scholarship and staff budgets. As the cost/benefit analysis at the end of this proposal shows, the program can be implemented with a net positive impact on our overall budget. And although our analysis does not include revenue from so-called “FTE funding,” when future funding allocation models are implemented (that will take these enrollments into consideration), NWC’s budget will certainly be positively affected.

NWC Paul Prestwich has invited feedback on this subject which I was happy to do.

Dr. Prestwich,

I’ll admit I’m not a big soccer fan except when the World Cup rolls around every four years, so the following response to the college’s intercollegiate soccer program proposal shouldn’t come as a surprise.

The proposal for two intercollegiate soccer teams seems a pretty safe thing to do, perhaps too safe and thus unimaginative in my mind. I predict it won’t stir much interest, but no doubt will be an addition that looks good on paper. Nevertheless, I don’t see having two soccer teams being much different than having two basketball teams... pardon the yawn here, but I’ll admit basketball doesn’t melt my butter either. Nevertheless, soccer—like basketball—is a great game, but not nearly as popular as basketball assuring that only the purest of soccer fans will have the stomach for two teams in a college/community of this size—and I doubt there are that many in Powell, Wyoming.

Several years ago I proposed a Wyoming college six-man football conference that was sent around to the state’s other colleges as well. And even though this idea has gone out and returned empty-handed, I thought that in light of the college’s soccer proposal, now is a good time to state my disappointment in the leadership of the state community colleges and their inability or lack of interest in starting what could be the nation’s first collegiate six-man football league—talk about turning heads and interest far beyond our state border. I’ll venture to say that such pioneering/innovative spirit is just too bold and requires too much imagination for those who are in the position of entertaining such “wild” ideas here in the state that talks the talk of being a “cowboy,” but seldom walks the walk.

Initiating a men’s six-man football team at the same time a women’s soccer team would surely make the women’s soccer program more viable, more unique and thus, more appealing—just like women’s volleyball.

Close Game
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
There are students from all over the Intermountain West who grow up playing six and eight-man football (Montana, Idaho, Colorado, Washington, Oregon, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma and Wyoming as of this year)—most never get a chance to play at the collegiate level. I can’t help but think of the unique recruiting angle this would provide for the college as well. Imagine, going after the standouts of the smaller schools instead of the biggest kids from the biggest schools/programs and all the baggage that comes with many of them. Surely there would be students hailing from more traditional eleven-man programs interested as well.

I suspect you and many others reading this have already chalked it up to another one of my zany ideas, and we all know I’m nothing but trouble anyway. Nevertheless, I thought this was an opportune time to throw my proposal out there one more time.

Even more outrageous, how about men’s six-man football and women’s rugby?

Innovation and imagination have never been easy—especially in this part of the world. Long live “Yellowstone College!” (a.k.a. “Northwest College”)

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Weather, The Home Field... Next

Post-Game Group Shot
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
OK, it can snow now.

Another football season has come to a close and I’ve managed to not get myself stuck or stranded in the middle of nowhere as the result of travelling to some far-off gridiron game.

And though this past championship weekend in Montana was no tropical paradise, the snow stayed in the mountains even if the wind blew its cold across the football fields. In Denton, the sun was even shining, although wooly hats were still the preferred attire.

I found myself reminiscing about those warm-weather championship games of the past: Centerville 1999, Cokeville 2001, and Hysham 2007. I’ve been pretty lucky. Chalk it up to the benefits of global warming.

Beyond the fairly hospitable weather, I splashed out this final weekend of travel, overnighting at Big Timber’s Grand Hotel and then retreating to Lewistown’s Yogo Inn after Saturday’s shootout in Denton.

Lahr Unloads
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
No Place Like Home?
So much for the home-field advantage—unless you’re a Huntley Project fan. Of the five Montana title games, only the Red Devils playing at home were victorious. Helena Capital, Billings Central, Wibaux and Denton all played host to someone who ended up wrecking their parties. I can only imagine that there must have been some pretty jovial bus rides as the victorious visitors made their way home on Saturday night.

What’s Next?
Although the football season is over as far as I’m concerned (OK, part of it remains as long as the Griz are chugging along), it still lives on here as I plan to tie up a few loose ends that I didn’t get to address this past season (or perhaps previous seasons). It would be nice if two to three postings per month materialized, but I’m not making any promises on football’s 26th day of December. I realize that many readers will lose interest as other sports heat up. However, upon their return sometime next August, they’ll find a backlog of postings to catch up on—priming them for the new season.

What’s on next year’s agenda for this small town football fan? Wibaux summer practice (if they’ll have me. I hear its tougher than Marine Corps boot camp), Charlo, Circle, Medicine Lake-Froid, Lincoln, more Wyoming six-man, and, with any luck, another visit or two into Idaho.

And this: Can we get some of Wyoming’s new six-man teams to play at least one Montana team during the regular season?

Which teams will be “up” next year and which will likely have a “rebuilding” year?

Go Griz (and their small town football contingency)...

Monday, November 09, 2009

Purple Passion and the Wibaux Standard

No Photoshop Here
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
It was a day to fight for the purple as both Sheridan and Charlo claim purple as their dominant school colour. Everywhere you looked during the Montana Class C eight-man quarterfinal there was purple—which made me think fondly of those select (but few) Stanford fans way back in 2005 who throttled me for wearing purple wind pants to one of their games on this same blog. Too bad they couldn’t have attended this clash of purples between the Panthers and Vikings.

Panther personalities
I continually feel a need to apologize to the kind folks in Sheridan these days for neglecting to cover any of their home games until just this past weekend. Having been to other gridirons like Sunburst, Noxon, Scobey and Ekalaka, I can’t stand on the leg that says Sheridan has always been too far for me to drive. And even if their home games are at night (my least favorite environment to photograph), I confess to once driving all the way to Eureka for a Lion Friday night game. I suppose it has something to do with seeing the Panthers on the road three previous times—Alberton, Big Sandy and Sunburst and coming away from those games feeling as if I had encountered everything that was Sheridan.

I’ll admit it’s my loss for not having attended a Sheridan game years earlier given the warm reception I received this past week. Sheridan principal Jory Thompson approached me before the game and ask me if I was that “small town football guy” (or something like that in so many words) and informed me while we chatted that there was a complimentary Polish dog from their concession stand waiting for me whenever I wanted it.

Quarterback's Dad
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
Then there was Rob Crippen, the father of Sheridan quarterback Casey Crippen. He was working the sidelines keeping stats of the day’s game and also tagged me regarding my work while inviting me over to his house after the game for tacos and the Griz game on TV. That kind of hospitality is downright bold and somewhat uncommon, but if it’s ever going to happen to a stranger, you can be sure it will happen at one of these small town high school football games like Sheridan. I suppose even bolder than Crippen’s invite is that I showed up at his home after I secured my motel room.

Speaking of bold, Sheridan defensive coordinator Clint Layng is right out of the movie Top Gun when he’s sending in signals to his defensive unit on the field. Watch him long enough and he’ll convince you that he directs fighter planes for takeoff on an aircraft carrier during the weekdays.

Wibaux… not your usual playoff game
Following the Panther’s 36-20 victory over Charlo, my ears perked up when I heard Layng tell the team that he’s always wanted to play Wibaux. One hundred years ago, that would have been the talk of a gun fighter. Which found me thinking how (over the years) Wibaux has somewhat, informally (at least in my tiny brain) become the standard of measure in Montana Class C eight-man football. I mean, there’s few conversations around Montana about this class of football that Wibaux doesn’t come up in the conversation sooner or later. Might as well paint a target on every Wibaux player’s chest. Even in previous years when another team has defeated Wibaux in a quarterfinal, semifinal or in the finals, they probably take more pride in defeating Wibaux than anything that followed.

Once I had the opportunity to talk to the starting line-up of Drummond’s 2005 championship team and when asked to pinpoint their toughest opponent in their three-year domination, they all agreed it was the 2004 semifinal game with the Longhorns. Despite winning 30-0, one Trojan recalled, “Yeah, Wibaux really brought the wood.”

Horns Relax
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
And so, the Montana Class C eight-man semi-finals are decided again—reminding me of a popular play that keeps on showing year after year. Mind you, I’m not complaining, I’m just saying (as they say). It’s Centerville, Drummond, Wibaux and Sheridan—with Sheridan the freshest of this tested line-up. Should we be surprised? Each is undefeated and ranked number one from their respected division.

I started thinking about how the world might be today if none of these teams advanced to the semifinals. Imagine if Joliet, Twin Bridges, Charlo and Fort Benton advanced instead. I know there are several signs that signify the end of time—this semifinal scenario would surely have been one of them.

Back in August I was confident the addition of Ennis and Fort Benton would really shake things up—given their newcomer status in stepping down from Class B eleven-man play. And less we forget, it wasn’t that long ago that the Longhorns of Fort Benton won the Class B state title in 2002 and were runner-up in 2004 while Ennis secured their own Class C titles in 1978 and 1982. Well, Fort Benton almost pulled it off until they tangled with those other Longhorns way out/back east.

Of course, there’s the riddle of the Superior Bobcats—formally Class C for several years, then they moved up to Class B for several years after, followed by a short two-year stint back down to Class C—just long enough to defeat Wibaux in the title game last year. They moved back to Class B (again) this year and probably haven’t stopped talking about beating Wibaux in last year’s title game.

Ah yes, Wibaux, the standard of measure—beyond Class C perhaps.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Joliet Steps Up... Somehow

Anthem Line Up
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
Typically reports on the details of a small town high school football game usually don't appear here, but today’s shootout between Joliet and Scobey might merit such a departure. But above all else, it truly was a picture-perfect day in Joliet for a football game, period.

I’ll be the first to admit it, I had my doubts about Joliet. And after two early turnovers in the first quarter that lead to Scobey touchdowns, it started to look like a blow-out. Honestly I wasn’t too surprised to see these early events unfold. After all, Scobey has been a rich-in-tradition football team that has a state title or two in their trophy case, while Joliet hasn’t been one of the stronger teams since I-don’t-know-how-long.

Nevertheless, the J-Hawks success seemed to improve with the appearance of the sun because once it came out, Joliet sprung to life.

I heard more than one J-Hawk fan say, “They’re a slow-starting team.” Indeed they were—almost slow in starting like the-first-game-of-the-year slow, where very basic mistakes are the norm.

Yet, despite Joliet’s turnovers, Scobey managed to make a few of their own and the J-Hawks slowly clawed their way back into the game. Late in the second quarter, Joliet managed to take the lead, but with time running out on the last play of the half, Scobey found an open receiver who in turn found the end zone giving the Spartans an abbreviated halftime lead.

Another oddity about this particular game, two safeties were recorded—one by each team. That doesn’t happen very often, does it?

Open Field
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
Given the number of blunders and turnovers, several times I found myself saying, “Whoever wins this game won’t stand a chance in Drummond next week.” Yet, I suspect this year’s Drummond lineup isn’t composed of immortals like their teams earlier in the decade. As it turned out, the Trojans may have struggled a bit themselves in their 38-20 victory over Stanford. So, who knows? I counted out Joliet once already and they proved me wrong, maybe they can do it again.

On another note: one thing is known for sure in this year’s eight-man semi-finals, the Longhorns will be playing. And next week’s quarter-final showdown between the Longhorns of Wibaux and the Longhorns of Fort Benton will determine which one. Yeee-Haaa!

Friday, October 30, 2009

Now's The Time

Sangrey Crosses Over
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
Go ahead, pick a town—make it one of the smaller towns in Montana and treat yourself to all of the charm it offers along with the friendly individuals that call it home this Saturday—Halloween. While you’re at it, consider one of those listed below where you can double your fun by taking in a classic small town football game.

I’m heading just up to the road to Joliet, Montana to watch an eight-man game where the J-Hawks take on the Scobey Spartans who are making a pretty significant road trip from way up in the northeast corner of Montana. This trip will be nothing for the Spartans given last year when they travelled all the way to Superior, Montana—less than 50 miles from the Idaho border.

If Joliet is a bit too far from your home, consider these other towns where you can watch an eight-man or six-man playoff game.

Way Up North
Starting up north there is Centerville (not far from Great Falls) where the Miners are hosting the Victor Vikings. The Miners are always tough at home, this week will not be an exception. One of the things I love about Montana football playoffs, because the state is so big, often two schools will face each other for the first time in history. That could be the case in this match-up.

The Big Sandy Pioneers will be welcoming the Bridger Scouts in a rematch of last year’s six-man playoff game. The massive grain elevators adjacent to the gridiron make for a classic small town backdrop. I wonder if U.S. Senator John Tester will be in attendance cheering on his hometown team.

There’s also a game in Charlo—a nice detour on your way to Flathead Lake. The Vikings of Charlo will be facing the co-op of small schools from Power, Dutton and Brady. I have yet to attend a game in Charlo.

If history is your thing, you might want to swing down to Fort Benton (not far from Great Falls too) to visit the bridge over the Missouri River and the gravesite of the dog that defined “man’s best friend,” Shep. While your there, the Longhorns will be hosting their first 8-man football playoff game against Arlee. It wasn’t too many years ago that Fort Benton won the Class B 11-man title.

How about an out-of-the-way location like the little town of Denton where their six-man football team is undefeated and hosting Terry? Check out the hardware store in Denton—they have it all, packed tightly into the space of a Dairy Queen.

If you live in Great Falls and want that small town feeling without really leaving the comforts of the big city, I suspect the six-man game between Great Falls Central and the Custer-Melstone Cougars might be the ticket.

Go West
Western Montana, are you kidding!? If you’ve never been to Drummond, this is your chance. A football game at Drummond should be on any football junkie’s bucket list. Another strong Trojan team will be hosting the Wolves from Stanford (and Geyser). Stanford seems to have all the luck these past few years—sooner or later they face Drummond in a playoff game, and... well, they’d probably just assume not.

Purple Camo Brigade
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
Down in Sheridan, the purple-clad Panthers will be entertaining the also purple-clad Cowboys all the way from Culbertson-Bainville near the North Dakota border. Many of the Sheridan fans will be decked out in their special-order, purple camouflage clothing—and if you ask nicely, they’ll even let you take their picture.

Perhaps you’re thinking about a trip through Yellowstone. If that’s the case you can double your money because the Wolverines of West Yellowstone are hosting a six-man game against the North Star Knights consisting of players from the tiny towns of Rudyard, Kremlin and Gildford (along Montana’s Hi-Line).

Last but not least is Lima, Montana—down on the Idaho border with the Bitterroot Mountains serving as a majestic backdrop. Rather than Lima High School hosting the game, the home team will be the Clark County Bobcats (of Dubois, Idaho—that’s right an Idaho team in the running for the Montana State Championship). The Cats are taking on the Reed Point-Rapelje Renegades in Lima because all Montana playoff games must be played in Montana and Lima is just over the border from Dubois.

Back East

Prairie Eruption
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
Speaking of bucket lists, the same is true about a game in Wibaux—the Beast from the East. The Longhorns have one of the most successful active coaches year after year in Jeff Bertelsen and are hosting the Harlowton Engineers. After the game, I recommend a stop at the Rainbow Club for a cold one and old reruns of past Wibaux State Championship games.

Further south along the North Dakota border you’ll find Ekalaka (sometimes it’s just fun to say “Ekalaka”) way down in the southeast corner of the state and there the Bulldogs of Carter County will be hosting the Falcons of Twin Bridges. It’ll be along bus ride for the Falcons from the scenic Ruby Valley whether they win or lose.

Where the Yellowstone River turns north and approaches the Missouri River you’ll find the sleepy town of Savage where the Warriors will be hosting Augusta. The Elks have advanced deep in the six-man playoffs the last couple of years and put together a good following of fans no matter how far they have to travel.

A little farther west and north and truly out of the way is the town of Winifred. The Red Raiders are facing another isolated town’s football team in the Jordan Mustangs—maybe we should call this the “Obscurity Bowl.” Both of these teams just moved down from eight-man play in the last year and have made the adjustment without a hitch.

If Billings is home for you, this weekend might be your excuse to finally venture to Hysham. The Pirates are undefeated and their fans know how to throw a pre-game tailgate party. The Tigers of Geraldine and their stellar six-man football program are in town to take on heavily-favored Hysham. But, one should never count out Geraldine Head Coach Rod Tweet and any team he brings to a football game.

There you have it, 16 different towns (and all small with the exception of one) offering 16 different games—all starting at 1:00 on Saturday. I’d like to see them all, but there’s something very pure and honest about choosing only one and going for it.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Idaho... Barely

Mullan Townscape
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
I love vertical towns like Mullan and Wallace, Idaho. By “vertical” I mean that they are located in narrow valleys with mountains rising up from every direction. Such towns resemble a childrens’ illustrated book and always feel a bit more cozy than other places in the world.

Both Mullan and Wallace have a population under 1,000 and are only 10 miles apart. One can find a good cup of coffee in either town and both communities field eight-man football teams that play each other twice every season.

This past week I travelled to Mullan to sit in on their game against another rival; the Clark Fork Wampus Cats. My travelling companion, Slim, and I went round and round on what a Wampus Cat might look like and how it came into existence. Slim’s theory had to do with the mingling of spieces—a Wombat (a burrowing plant-eating Australian marsupial that resembles a small bear with short legs) and a Bobcat (a small North American cat species with a barred and spotted coat and a short tail). According to Slim, this cross-breed of marsupial and feline is man-eating to boot. My theory on the Wampus Cat was more streamlined than Slim's. Basically I placed it in the same category as the Wyoming Jackelope—a mythical animal cross between an antelope and jackrabbit). After a quick search on the web, it appears my theory is probably closer to the truth although I never would have guessed six legs.

I don’t know what the total mileage was, but it was about a nine-hour drive between home (Powell, Wyoming) and the two Northern Idaho communities—which was more than enough time to discuss the evolutionary origins of the Wampus Cat.

We started our Mullan trip on Thursday afternoon and despite the dismal weather forecast, we made it to the Capri Motel in Uptown Butte without incident sometime after 8:00 p.m. that evening.

Friday morning—the day of the game in Mullan—we rose around 5:30 to about five inches of fresh snow and extreme cold conditions in Butte. It was difficult to imagine attending a football game at that point. To dampen our spirits even more, we were greeted with disappointment when we drove to the M&M bar and grill for breakfast to find it had been closed and up for sale. The M&M is a Butte landmark—famous for its late-night fights and delicous but greasy breakfasts the next day that includes a red beer or two—tomato juice and beer, the perfect cure for a Butte hangover. Last year while campaigning for his Presidency, Barack Obama visited the M&M, but I’m not in the know as to if he had a red beer.

Mullan Teacher Gary Strong
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
After gathering ourselves from the devastating sight of the boarded up M&M, Slim and I discovered Annie’s Café over on Front Street. Although there were no red beers served, the breakfast was equal to any M&M breakfast I've had over the years while Annie herself had ample attitude to chase off our M&M blues.

When we slipped over Lookout Pass that defines the Montana-Idaho border, we gained an hour of time leaving us with almost three hours to explore Mullan before game time.

Waiting for us in Mullan was Slim’s friend Charleton from nearby Sand Point. “Chuck” is a coffee/espresso hound who drives a Volkswagon van equipped with a stove and bed and occasionally carries around a Leica camera that doesn't get used nearly enough.

With the extra time on hand, I walked the streets of Mullan looking for images of a great small town which included a visit to the high school to chat with principal Tom Durbin and a couple of Mullan teachers. Meanwhile Slim and Chuck located and secured the local coffee shop—The Bitterroot Coffee House. What a great find that turned out to be. I’ll just say here that if you’re passing through Mullan someday, make the Bitterroot Coffee House your first stop.

Mullan Gridscape
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
It’s hard to miss the Lucky Friday Mine on the east side of Mullan. It is one of several operations owned and operated by Hecla Mining and is a deep underground silver, lead and zinc mine. There are over 250 employees working at the Lucky Friday and it’s no surprise that the mine employs many residents of Mullan. Check out their website and the video on the Lucky Friday. I hope to return next year and photograph former Mullan players who are now working for the Lucky Friday—assuming some are there.

Then, there was the game. The Mullan Tigers hosting the Clark Fork Wampus Cats. For this eight-man football showdown, Mullan dressed out ten players while Clark Fork fielded thirteen. Unlike Montana eight-man football, Idaho eight-man games are played on a 100-yard field giving it a six-man feel thanks to the extra width and length of field.

Mullan sophomore quarterback Casey McKinnon and Clark Fork senior running back Chance Nesbitt provided plenty of the offensive fireworks for both teams, but it was Mullan who notched the victory when the game ended that day.

Even though snow was falling as we crossed over Lookout Pass, none found its way to the gridiron that day. Nevertheless, as the sun sank lower into the southwestern sky, the cold worked its way to my bones and by the end of the game, all I could think about was finding the warm comfort of a motel room in nearby Wallace.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Propping Up The Pronghorns

Pronghorn Herd
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
Even though they are athletic enough and have enough numbers to be competitive, the Farson-Eden Pronghorns may not win any games in Wyoming’s first season of six-man football—but, I still like them and I hope they prove me wrong.

Their lackluster season of wins versus losses is only a reflection of the team’s deficiency in football experience as every member is playing their first year of football—ever. And sadly, but not surprisingly, it shows. They struggle with the basics such as snapping the ball to the quarterback, hand-offs, tackling, passing and catching the ball—even running in football gear seems a bit clumsy. In short, they are one awkward looking team when they are competing on the gridiron, which is a bit odd because when they take the field, they look as physical and capable as any other team.

I still like ’em.

My hope for Farson-Eden is that the winless season staring them down now doesn’t discourage them nor their community. Farson-Eden represents everything I love about small town high school football in America. They are the poster child of this niche culture in my mind’s eye. Their community is remote and small while their old football field behind the school is reminiscent of a Field of Dreams. Although they did not play any games on the old field this year (they retrofitted the city park baseball field), I hope the school and community consider sprucing up the old gridiron with its south end zone vista gazing into the big empty of the high desert that surrounds Farson.

Steve Amrine
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
If they haven’t already, I’d like to believe that the Farson-Eden teams of the future will take their mascot name to heart in considering the Pronghorn Antelope’s attribute of speed in a game that typically anoints the fastest rather than the biggest as victor. [For those who might not be in the know: the North American Pronghorn Antelope—Antilocapra americana—is the fastest animal in North America.] With this in mind, I can’t think of a more perfect mascot name for a six-man football team playing in the American West. Therefore, beyond winning, the Pronghorns of Farson-Eden should make it their mission to be known as the fastest in Wyoming’s assembly of six-man football teams. (On a related note, given the great numbers of antelope throughout Wyoming, I’m surprised there aren’t more schools that have adopted the Pronghorn as their mascot.)

Everyone in America likes a winner, but Americans love a come-from-behind, down-and-out, Rocky Balboa-type winner even more. As Wyoming six-man football establishes itself, I hope some version of that script finds its way to the Farson-Eden Pronghorns.

Postscript: As long as I’m here, I’d like to extend my apologies and sympathies to Farson-Eden’s Tom Smith. Although he is one of their most athletic players, in the two Pronghorn games I’ve attended, he has sustained game-ending injuries both times—a badly sprained ankle at home against Guernsey-Sunrise and a separated shoulder in Meeteetse. I think my presence is bad luck for them.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Monday, September 21, 2009

Ennis, Montana: Fly Fishing to Football

Originally uploaded by mdt1960
To many people, Ennis, Montana means one thing: fly fishing on the Madison River—one of America’s greatest fishing holes. And one pass through this town of 800 permanent residents, you’ll find an assortment of businesses that cater to all things that are fly fishing and a bit more.

I’m ignorant about what or who is the runner-up to fly fishing in Ennis, but if someone told me it was football, I’d believe them given the number of “Mustang Football” signs posted throughout the community.

Starting this year, the Ennis High School football team finds itself back in familiar territory—Class C eight-man football play. “How familiar,” you might ask? In 1978 and 1982 the Mustangs won the Class C state title and in 1983 they were the runner up. Their football reputation might not be up there with the likes of Wibaux or Absarokee, but it is undoubtedly reputable.

Like Superior and Absarokee, Ennis is one of those schools that walks the pesky and fine line defining Class B eleven-man and Class C eight-man. Pesky in that the goal post and football field must be reconfigured each time there’s a switch between these two states of play.

Not that I’ve been to every small town football field in Montana or Wyoming, but I have seen more than my share. Up until my visit to Ennis this last week, I had declared Harlowton as the best lit field for Friday nights. However, as long as Ennis is playing Class C, they are the undisputed champion when it comes to playing under the lights. This is one beautiful facility. And when you stand at the top of the hill overlooking the gridiron, you can watch the setting sun (coming from behind you) reflect off of the high peaks of Madison Mountain Range just over the trees that surround the field. If the Rocky Mountains extending from Canada down into New Mexico were a football team, then the Madison section would be one of the lineman.

Hornet Carrier
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
In past writings I’ve always downplayed that “Friday Night Lights” thing, declaring that once it’s dark and the floodlights come up, visually speaking, every football field is the same and thus looses its sense of place. That was somewhat challenged when I was watching the game between Ennis and White Sulphur Springs—the Mustang’s homecoming to boot. Because after my intoxication with the sublime wore off and the sun was long gone, I realized there was a great football game playing out in front of me—one of those games that’s played so hard by both sides, you hate to see either one lose.

In the context of this project, I suppose there’s no need in mentioning who won or who lost that night between Ennis and White Sulphur Springs. What I do need to state here is that sometimes there is magic in the game itself—when two teams are so perfectly matched up, you really have no idea how the game will end. There are also times when there is magic in the setting of the game—the wide open spaces beyond the gridiron or the mountains that tower above. This second option is common and rather unique to Wyoming and Montana. But on those rare occasions, the magic of the setting and the game will marry and you’ll find yourself wondering how you got to be so lucky—as I did in Ennis, Montana the other night.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Kickoff Hoopla

It Begins...
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
As an “official” high school football blogger, I was sent an email about an upcoming movie dedicated to this year’s participants of high school football. The movie is titled Red Zone ’09 and will debut (for one night only) on August 25th in 460 movie theaters around the country. It features Tony Dungy and an entire line-up of other famed NFL players and coaches.

Here are the links...

After watching the promotional material on the web, I fantasized about the tiny movie house in Rudyard, Montana as one of the 460 theaters where Red Zone ’09 premiers. Rudyard is the home of the North Star Knights—a school and community located along Montana’s remote Hi-Line, not far from the Canadian border and where six-man football is the game.

And after watching Red Zone ’09, I started wondering about how the players and coaches of North Star would respond to (what appears to be) the ramped-up production.

They might dig it, or they might think to themselves, “Wow, what far-away world plays that version of of high school football?”

Footnote: The Hi-Line Theater in Rudyard is not one of the 460 theaters that will carry Red Zone ’09—I checked. Only theaters in Bozeman and Helena will carry the movie—about 300 and 200 miles respectively from Rudyard.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Explaining Football, Explaining America?

Murchinson Field
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
After reading How Football Explains America by ESPN's notorious sports reporter Sal Paolantonio, I couldn't help but wonder why the book wasn't titled How America Explains Its Version of Football. Or better yet (but, probably too long of a title), How American History Explains Gridiron Football.

Even on the inside of the dust jacket, one of the paragraphs read, "How Football Explains America explains how football was influenced by Davy Crockett, John Coltrane, Jackie Robinson, and Douglas MacArthur. What? Say that again. If football explains America Sal, explain to me why we're not reading about how football influenced Davy Crockett and company?

I suppose Sal sees America and football like the simple math regarding the commutative laws of addition where If 2+3=5, than 3+2=5 as well.

The selection of the book's title may have only been a matter of coming up with a catchy title for his new book, but I still think it's not very telling of the volume's contents. How Football Became Our National Pastime would probably be a better title in my mind—and it says so in 30-point Helvetica Bold type on the backside of the dust jacket!

OK, enough about a book's title.

For the most part, this particular read was worth the purchase. I learned several things about the game's evolution that I didn't know about before diving in. For example, did you know that the concept of an offensive huddle was actually conceived by Gallaudet University—a small school with a roster of deaf players?

Nevertheless, the book is flawed in all of its conjecture. Paolantonio takes great liberties regarding the paths taken by football pioneers like Walter Camp and Amos Alonzo Stagg—as if he had uncovered the missing diaries of these men and what they were thinking in the deep recesses of their minds when they conceived and developed their rules, plays and protocol of the game in its infancy.

Here is but one of several examples regarding the author's use of conjecture and unfounded conclusions the reader will stumble upon: In a discussion about Stagg and his adoption of the huddle, Paolantonio quotes the famed University of Chicago coach, "To me the coaching profession is one of the noblest and far-reaching in building manhood. Not to drink, not to gamble, not to smoke, not to swear, to be fair-minded, to deal justly, to be honest in thinking and square in dealing, not to bear personal malice or harbor hatred against rivals."

From Stagg's quote, Paolantonio comes up with this: "Thoughtful, pious, and righteous, Stagg brought innovations to football as an attempt to bring Christian fellowship to the game. (This is a reference to Stagg's desire to become a minister since he was enrolled as a divinity student at Yale from 1885 to 1889.) He wanted his players to play under control, to control the pace, the course, and the conduct of what had been a game of mass movement that often broke out into fisticuffs."

Is it possible that Stagg simply wanted his players to only be more Christian-like?

More conjecture appears to follow in the next paragraph where Paolantonio makes the leap from the Christian values that Stagg wanted to instill all the way to huddle mechanics: "Stagg viewed the huddle as a vital aspect of helping to teach sportsmanship. He viewed the huddle as a kind of religious congregation on the field, a place where the players could, if you will, minister to each other, make a plan, and promise to keep faith in that plan and one another."

One would think the author could present a more direct quote about the huddle if such is really true. Perhaps Paolantonio has channelled Stagg through some kind of football locker room séance.

And if that weren't enough, Paolantonio hits a Patriotic chord in the next paragraph that almost made me place my hand over heart as I read it: "What is the huddle but a meeting, a place for the citizenry to gather and regroup? And what is more American than that? Our founding fathers put it right in the Bill of Rights: Congress shall make no law prohibiting 'the right of the people peaceably to assemble.'"

As if the idea of assembly was conceived only in the democracy of America...

Perhaps the most compelling in Paolantonio's How Football Explains America is his argument that Manifest Destiny is the primary motive behind Gridiron (aka American) Football's deviation from soccer and rugby. It's a good idea well worth discussion, but I don't find any of it to be more substantive or compelling than my own theories about the game's evolution. In fact, what I found most annoying was his insistence to belittle the global games of soccer and rugby and other American team sports like basketball and baseball.

Net Ball Action
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
I tried to imagine the response (and disdain) of a sports writer from England, New Zealand or South Africa who covers rugby or soccer reading Paolantonio when he says, "Go ahead, you try going to a rugby game and writing about it. Soccer? Ninety minutes of whatever and then maybe one goal scored by accident. Tough to create a coherent narrative out of that."

I don't know about everyone else, but I find plenty of "coherent narratives" about rugby at

It was this kind of rhetoric throughout the book that I found myself wondering how any non-American would digest this material without contempt for the "land of the free and home of the brave."

Yet, in Paolantonio's defense, he warns the reader in the beginning of the book, "So, please, by all means, check your political correctness at the gate."

Ah yes, the true spirit of the Bush Administration. How dated the book seems already. I wonder how the 2nd edition might read after four or eight years of Obama in the White House. After all, I believe that it is America that really explains football.