Six-Eight-Eleven is a photo-essay project about small town high school football focusing on the small town football games and programs in the bypassed communities of Wyoming and Montana (mostly). Despite the decadence of American Football at the professional, college, and some high school levels, this body of work illustrates that there are still places in this country where football’s innocence is preserved and celebrated in a grass roots setting. This project commenced in 1997.
Driving north on I-15 out of Great Falls to attend the Class C Six-Man semifinal game between Valier and Westby-Grenora (MonDak), I can’t tell you how many times I thought to myself, “Geeze, I hope I got it right. That this is indeed where the game is going to be and this is the day it will be played on.”
This stretch of highway is somewhat of a geographical limbo. It feels a little alien—probably because it’s in close proximity to Canada. There’s a lot of yellow and white—the yellow of wheat field stubble and the white of snow. I always tell my graphic design students that if you want your graphic design to fail, use yellow and white because there’s really not much contrast between the two colors, and whatever message you try to convey, it’ll likely be lost. But oddly, it works up here in Montana’s hinterlands.
One of my goals for attending the game in Valier was to get an aerial (drone-based) shot of the football field and surrounding town. I arrived about 15 minutes before the kickoff, but—like no other time—the software for my drone insisted that I logon to my account before it could take off. However, because logging on requires some kind of internet connection, I was unable to successfully logon because I had only one bar of cell phone service. Needless to say, I was cursing madly about DJI (the drone manufacturer). Luckily, I also happened to have one of my toy-based drones along, so in desperation, I flew my lowly Syma drone (see image below). Although a reliable flyer it is equipped with a primitive system compared to the other. I didn’t have any kind of “FPV” (first-person view) on board for accurate positioning. So I could only spot the aircraft based on my observation from below and hope that one of the shutter clicks every five seconds recorded a worthy image. By the time I completed this “simple” task, the MonDak Thunder had already established a three-touchdown advantage. Lesson learned: like cameras, always have a backup drone too.
Although the battle of undefeated teams was a bust in terms of being a competitive game, I’m still glad I made the long drive (391 miles one way—my longest drive of the season) as I’ve never attended a game in Valier. Because the game was easily over by the half, with plenty of light still remaining in the day, I did something I rarely do—I left the game after halftime to answer the call from the cold and abandoned football fields in nearby Brady and Dutton. I had driven by them on my way to Valier and thought I should get some imagery from these two remote locations (for me) while I was in the neighborhood.
The school and football field at Brady are now abandoned, but on this particular sunny Saturday afternoon, the town seemed vibrant. The Brady Bulldogs once played six-man football on the field there. In the earliest years of six-man football play in Montana, Brady made its first appearance in the 1984 chipper but fell short to another Bulldog team—Moore. Then in 1996 and 1997 they appeared again in the title games, but never recorded a “W” as they lost to the Choteau County-juggernauts of Highwood (21-19) and Geraldine (56-26) respectively. As enrollments dwindled, the team and school were joined with nearby Dutton. And not long after that, Brady-Dutton co-oped with nearby Power to create an eight-man team—the Titans. Even after the unification, enrollments continued to drop in both schools, and now the co-op of Power-Dutton-Brady is at the end of its rope as a six-man team that commenced this season (2017).
Over Dutton Gridiron
Down the road from Brady, the football field and school in Dutton are still occupied. In the case of the gridiron, it appears to see at least two home games per year sharing the home schedule with Power. However, there are no lights in Dutton, so the Titan home games played there are on Saturday afternoons. As the shadows grew longer with the sun’s approach to the horizon (like Brady), Dutton seemed vibrant and glorious in this last light of the day.
And this… Just before leaving the game at the half, the announcer reported the score of other six-man semifinal between Bridger and White Sulphur Springs—a lopsided score in favor of Bridger. However, when I stopped for gas on the way out of town, one of the clerks at the convenience store indicated that the lopsided score was in favor of White Sulphur Springs. It was only much later in the day that I found out that it was indeed Bridger that notched the win.
And then I started getting a little excited, because I knew they’d be hosting the title game and Bridger is only a 45-minute drive from my home. Even with Daylight Savings Time vanquished, I should still get home before dark—a first for me on a title-game-day.
Football Footnote: What is it about the mascot “Titans” and football co-ops in Montana? Tri-Cities (Hobson, Moore and Judith Gap), Power-Dutton-Brady, and most recently Flint Creek (Drummond/Phillipsburg)… all Titans.
I know a majority of the populace out there see me as the guy who photographs six-man football, but as the title of this blog states, “Six-Eight-Eleven,” I have also been known to attend, photograph, and write about eight-man and eleven-man venues as well. When it comes to eleven-man, I typically gravitate to the smallest classes. In Montana, it’s mostly Class B games (and a couple of Class A game years ago), while covering 1A and 2A in Wyoming.
With that said, although I’ve never been to Forsyth for a game, the Dogies have never played in too large of a class for me to cover a game there. However, given their arrival to the eight-man level (down from eleven-man play this year), it seemed timely that I visit for one of their games this season.
And so, there I was for their first round playoff game against Choteau—another team, like Forsyth, from Class B that moved down to eight-man this year. As it turns out, Forsyth is the ideal distance for me to travel; just under one full tank of gas to get there in my not-so-fuel-efficient 1990 Ford F-150 (despite its 300-straight-six engine).
Because it was the last weekend in October, the weather was absolutely devine in Forsyth. I don’t know if it hit the 70° mark, but it was sunny and certainly in the 60s. So warm was it that some of the players were experiencing muscle cramps like those during the first games of the year when the weather is outright hot. However, the Forsyth team didn’t seem as prone to this condition. I spied a couple of the Dogie players drinking pickle juice. I had to ask. Apparently pickle juice is a good remedy in the prevention of muscle cramps. What would the marketing teams at Gatorade or Powerade make of this grassroots electrolyte insurrection?
When it came to the actual contest between Forsyth and Choteau, the Dogies assembled a strong argument for a title game appearance. I suspect they’ll advance to the semifinals and the championship game, but no one team is a sure bet this year. Choteau kept it close for almost two quarters, but late in the second quarter when it was 22-8 and the Bulldogs were threatening to make it 22-14, Forsyth picked off a pass and returned it for a touchdown (“pick-six”), making it 30-8 at the half instead. The Bulldogs never recovered.
With all the Forsyth scoring going on, it’s band played several rounds of the Dogie fight song. And, like many high schools that “acquire” their fight song from some famous college, Forsyth’s fight song is Michigan’s “Hail to the Victors.” Had I closed my eyes, I could almost project myself into an Ohio State game where Michigan was kicking their ass. As a kid who grew up following the Buckeyes, it was a bit disconcerting in hearing that particular fight song over and over.
Now that Wibaux has moved down to six-man, one has to wonder if Forsyth is the new incarnation of “The Beast from the East,” or will Fairview have something to say about that.
It was the battle for the South, and even the mascot names provided a battle imagery—the Scouts vs. the Rangers. In this case it was the battle for Montana’s Class C six-man football Southern Conference. Grass Range-Winnett was paying a visit to Bridger to decide who would earn the number one spot heading into the upcoming playoffs. The last time I saw these two teams clash was in 2006 at Grass Range when both were competing in eight-man play. How things quickly change in Montana high school football.
* * *
When the weather is not cooperating or when I simply can’t psyche myself up for a long drive, Bridger is my go-to destination. Oh sure, there are other venues closer such as Meeteetse and Burlington, but for whatever reason I lean toward Bridger. Perhaps it’s the easy terrain of getting there and the lower elevation of 3,600 feet (compared to Meeteetse’s 5,751 feet)—meaning less likely to snow. And, unlike Burlington, they never play Friday afternoon games which is difficult to attend if I have a Friday afternoon class. At 57 years of age, I’m not much for driving at night either, so if I have to, I think returning from a Bridger Friday night game is easier on my aging eyes.
* * *
It was Bridger’s “Senior Night.” I was surprised to hear over the public address system that four of their senior football players were planning to attend Northwest College—my employer. I even called my division chair during the pregame ceremonies to share this unexpected news. I found out later that senior members of their esteemed volleyball team had a couple players heading for Powell as well.
* * *
I set up camp behind the east end zone, but I wasn’t alone. Two men where studying the field and the players with a little more attention than the casual spectator. As my camera was working on a time-lapse series, I walked over to them and said, “You guys are either reporters or scouts for another team.” When they looked up, they recognized me before I recognized them. It was the Geraldine-Highwood coaching tandem of Rod Tweet and Brandon Gondeiro. No doubt, they were in town to gather some information knowing there was a good chance they’d see one of these two teams in the second round of the playoffs. Later on it dawned on me that the two coaches were scouting the Scouts (of Bridger).
As it turned out, the game wasn’t as competitive as I thought it might be. Bridger shined brightly and made a statement by easily securing the conference’s number one seed to the tune of 49-14 over the Rangers.
* * *
The Scouts weren’t only brighter because of their talent and athleticism, but the new field lights made everything three aperture stops brighter than the old bulbs when I last photographed a game there. I asked a Bridger fan if they were indeed new and was told the lights were installed during the 2016 season. Yet, one more reason to keep Bridger as my default destination.
* * *
Jim Goltz is the principal at Bridger, but in another life, I first knew him as the assistant coach at Custer back in 2003. I managed to catch him running errands in his school golf cart before the big game. During the half, he invited me up to his office to see a print he had made from one of my drone shots last year over the school. And if that wasn’t flattering enough, he has since started flying a drone himself.
* * *
Maybe I’ll buy a little place in Bridger when I retire.
* * *
Staff Sergeant David Thatcher was the last survivor of the “Ruptured Duck” crew during World War II’s Doolittle Raid and was born in Bridger.
The Huskies and their extra goal post in Burlington.
Burlington, Wyoming is probably the most centrally located town of the Big Horn Basin. Yet, despite this geographical attribute, it doesn’t get much traffic because the only road that goes through the community is rather secondary unlike the other thoroughfares that pass through communities located on the fringes of the Basin.
Burlington weighs in with 288 residents according to the town limits sign as you enter. This count is in the “Goldilocks” region when it comes to supporting a six-man high school football team. But, there’s a lot of pride in Burlington which has allowed for this town to field an eleven-man team for years. But as mathematics go, even a town/school determined to play eleven-man football has to face the facts of dwindling enrollment numbers. So, last year, Burlington started playing six-man football and from the looks of things, there have been no regrets. According to head coach Trent Aagard, “I think the community is excited about six-man football. I hear a lot of positive response to it. They like the fast paced feel to it, and I think they like that we are playing teams that have similar size to us.”
They have a new football field (and track) at Burlington with permanent goal posts still spaced out for an eleven-man game (120 yards including end zones). For the six-man field, they have a portable goal post to designate the south end zone for the shorter-sized field. However, according to Aagard, the reason why the goal posts have not been permanently moved to the six-man field as of yet is, “We felt that we needed to wait and see what the state is going to do with us moving forward. I would imagine if it looks as though we will be in six-man long term, we will move it.”
Then there’s The Burlington Place (formerly the Burlington Bar). Four years ago Mike and Melissa purchased the bar and transformed it from just another watering hole in another tiny Wyoming town to a pub known throughout the Basin for its pizza and wide selection of beers. This might be the first time in a long time that people are driving to Burlington for something other than an athletic event or to visit a relative that lives there.
So, come to Burlington for great six-man football, and stay for the pizza and beer.
Like many of Wyoming’s smaller communities throughout the state, the town of Shoshoni has a new school these days. It opened for the 2016-2017 academic year with a complex that includes all grades on the same site (albeit different entrances for K-5 and 6-12).
The old school was built in 1937 located in the center of town included many add-ons. However, the new $38-million-school is out on the edge of the small town of 649.
There’s nothing glamorous about this dirty, little town that popped up in its middle-of-nowhere location around 1905. Perhaps it’s abandoned Main Street with its dilapidated store fronts is what most people remember when they pass through town today. Once famous for its milkshakes at the Yellowstone Drugstore, even that started fizzling out in 2002 upon being relocated where it eventually folded in 2012.
When we stopped off in Shoshoni during the total solar eclipse this past August, while having a cold one in the Lucky Five Lounge, my friend and I were educated by one of the locals regarding the rattlesnake den that was discovered on site during the construction of the new building. Even after the school was finalized and holding classes, rattlesnakes were turning up a little too frequently.
Although the rattlesnake news was nearly a year old by the time I arrived for the first home game of the season against the Lovell Bulldogs, I was ever-so-careful as I navigated the football field and the adjacent areas of the school.
As far as the game’s outcome with Lovell… it wasn’t close at all. The Lovell Bulldogs came into town and schooled the Wranglers on what it’s like to play a 2A team (Shoshoni plays at the 1A level). For years now, I have been anticipating Shoshoni joining the six-man ranks as it is the quintessential six-man football town in my mind, but somehow their enrollments continue to remain high enough to compete at Wyoming’s smallest class of eleven-man football.
On another football note as it relates to Shoshoni: Years ago I was told by a colleague that the Left Tackle Bar on the east end of town as you head toward Casper was started by a former NFL football player (who played left tackle), but even in the age of Google, I’ve never been able to verify that account.
It was just another ordinary regular-season game between foes that see each other nearly every year on the gridiron, but there is nothing ordinary about the travel arrangements for the visiting team when it comes athletic contests between Rocky Mountain and Cokeville High Schools. In this case, Cokeville made the journey to Cowley for its fourth game of the season against Rocky—a rival in the same conference. When you think of teams within the same conference, you probably think of relative close proximity. Even in Wyoming, that distance can be easily over 100 miles. A two-three hour drive to any game is not unusual. But for Cokeville, almost every road game is an adventure.
It’s 230 miles as the raven flies from Cokeville to Cowley, but with major mountains serving as obstacles between the two small communities, it’s 378 miles—typically a six-hour drive (with no sight-seeing along the way). Go ahead, Google it or go to your distance calculator web site and see for yourself (on the map) how far it is.
The game at Cowley started at 6:00 on this particular Friday night, and by time the game was over and the bus was back on the road, it was nearly 10:00 p.m., and if you do the math, you know what time that puts the Panther football team back in Cokeville.
Yet, there is more than just determining that is was sometime after 4:00 in the morning when the Cokeville busses breached the home town limits.
Speaking with Lenn Johnson, one of the two bus drivers for the Cokeville cause, he recounted how the two busses departed Cokeville at 8:30 that Friday morning and arrived just after 4:00 in Cowley with short stops in Farson and Thermopolis along the way. However, the day before, two other bus drivers drove a car to the area as they were designated to work the return trip—trading their car for the bus with the Johnson and the other Friday-morning driver. Such extensive logistics and coordination are required now as school budgets continue to be cut year after year. There was a time when the team would overnight in a motel somewhere on the way home after playing a road game this far away.
The handful of Cokeville fans that attended told me of their travel follies as well. Although they didn’t leave from Cokeville as early as the team, all of them had overnight stay locations after the game. One party was staying in Cody, while another party was going to stay in Riverton.
Lastly, you might wonder, how does a 378-mile bus ride affect a football team’s performance? Well, in Cokeville’s case, it wasn’t detrimental, but any fan or player of the team will tell you they had a pretty sluggish start even if they notched a win to the tune of 26-6 and remained undefeated.
Despite the flooding in Houston, the North Korean acquisition of a thermo-nuclear device, and the ongoing and everyday FUBARs by our President, I made a beeline for Dayton, Wyoming following my class that ended at 2:50 on this first Friday of September. Although it wasn’t the first week of the football season, it was my first week of the season. The truck was packed and gassed up before class and I was looking forward to the drive over the scenic Big Horn Mountains via the ten-percent grades of the “Oh-My-God Highway” (i.e., U.S. Highway 14-A).
The 6:00 start time worried me regarding my ability to arrive on time even though my navigation app told me it was a two-hour drive. Whatever travel time such apps say, I’m pretty sure such estimates should be multiplied by 1.5 when I’m driving since I’m not a fast driver, and I stop often to photograph along the way.
I’d been looking forward to revisiting Tongue River for some time as I haven’t been there since they built the new school and repositioned the gridiron. Standing on the sidelines, I was stumped in this real life “Where’s Waldo” puzzle as I scrutinized the area to detect what had exactly changed when comparing the location of the old field vs. its new location. I would likely need some aerial photography that provided a before and after image of what surely must be subtle changes in the landscape.
Speaking of aerial photography, one of my main objectives in this outing was to capture a strong aerial image of the field with my “high-end” drone—with the Big Horn Mountains as a backdrop. Unfortunately, I was presented with a “firmware upgrade required,” so this drone never left the ground. However, the mission was somewhat salvaged in that I also brought along one of my toy-grade drones and managed to get the attached image included in this post. So, a big sarcastic “thanks” goes out to the DJI firmware upgrade crew for crippling this photo opportunity.
Along with revisiting one of the most scenic locations for a Wyoming high school football game, the Wright Panthers were in town as a worthy opponent for the Eagles, and I’d never seen a game featuring their yellow and black colors with the oversized “W” on their lids.
Wright gave the Eagles a good game, and appeared to have a size advantage, but couldn’t get the win. From my vantage, they seemed to lack the confident and the preparation that is so critical for a first-game of the season. If the two teams meet in the playoffs later this season, I won’t be surprised to hear of Wright winning the second contest.
Perhaps the biggest story of the day was smoke. Forest fires from distant locations to the north and west of Dayton made this quaint little community known for its clean mountain air feel like a typical large city with an inversion problem. I wondered how the air quality was affecting these young adults full of testosterone, playing their first game of the season, while bashing wildly into each other all night. Given such conditions, I concluded they probably didn’t even notice a little air pollution.
Following the game, I queried the staff at the Dayton Sinclair Quick Stop about overnight car camping and followed their advice on the Community Center parking lot. A drive back over the Big Horns in darkness these days is out of the question for a 57-year-old like myself. So, I processed images as I devoured a sandwich and a bag of chips in the dark parking lot before retiring around 10:30.
Early in the morning, I found refuge at the Branding Iron Café in the form of French Toast and coffee before heading over the Big Horns. As I climbed the 14-A mountain road, I concluded that small town high school football trips don’t get much better than this.
Postscript: You can purchase Maltesers (chocolate-covered malt balls that are ten times better than Whoppers) at the Dayton, Wyoming, Sinclair for 49 cents per 1.3 oz. bag. The same bag goes for over $2 at the World Market Store in Billings.