The only satisfaction Gross found in the long day was in the way his team responded in the 4th quarter. “That was McCook football the last quarter,” he said as the two Bluebird school buses hauling his subdued and quiet team rolled east across the late night Nebraska prairie. “Nothing fancy, just do your job. Without that effort and execution in the 4th, this would have been a really long ride home.”
It was the most poignant moment in an adventure full of poignant moments. On a fall evening, close to dusk, following on the heels of an Indian summer perfect weather day, I stopped at a small cross roads town in South Dakota. It could have been in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska or North Dakota; didn’t really matter; as I found many such towns in those states as well, but, for the record it was South Dakota. It was a depressed looking little hamlet, holding on by an economical thread; similar to hundreds of other dying little towns on the High Plains I had driven through.
It was the middle of October, 2011 and I was two months into a three month journey. I called my adventure the “ultimate road trip for a high school football junkie.” I spent the fall roaming up and down US Highway 83, from Westhope, North Dakota to Laredo, TX – the Canadian border to the Mexican border – documenting the unique role high school football plays in small town America. As a part of my project, I was photographing every high school football field along Route 83; the last non-interstate highway to run unimpeded from the USA southern to northern border. My timing, as I almost always inexplcitly found it to be on this trip, was perfect.
The Bison rebounded in the fourth quarter against Alliance with two long drives to put the game away. It was an alpha male type statement to Alliance, driven home with old school smash mouth football: you have improved, you made us work, but when the bell rang, with the game on the line; we answered. We are still McCook - and you ain’t there yet.
A MCDONALD’S TOWN
You know you are coaching football at s mall high school if you measure the quality of your victories against fast food franchises. Dan Imdieke, long-time coach of the Linton, North Dakota Lions has compiled a 35 year head coaching record of 288-67. Last fall (2010), Linton traveled south to play the squad representing the much larger town of Mobridge, SD. Overcoming a two touchdown deficit in the 4th quarter, the Lions rallied for a 34-28 win. One excited Lion player informed the coach after the game that "they (Mobridge) have a McDonald's AND a Pizza Hut. We have beaten a lot of Dairy Queen towns, but never a McDonald's or a Pizza Hut, and they have both!!
TIME TO STAND UP AND BE COUNTED
Through it all, Koetting never flinched. When his team was moored in the dire straits of Texas high school football, Koetting’s steady hand was paramount in righting the Canadian ship and steering it back into the path of the trade winds of gridiron success. Seeing him labor under such stressful conditions was – because of my personal like and professional respect for the man – for me, difficult. But I always found his calm approach inspiring. Koetting proved as the offensive coordinator for two state championship teams that he can coach
At 4 am on Saturday morning, the team buses, barely ahead of the rising eastern sun, rolled up a deserted Highway 83 into the middle of McCook, made a left on 7th Street and deposited the undefeated Bison at the back door of the school gymnasium.
Football players in Canadian are treated like gods, the praise unending, he reminded his team. Along with that glory, the coach explained, comes responsibility. “We knew what we were getting into when we signed up for this,” he told them. “Football in Canadian is very important to the community,” Koetting continued in his lecture to his team, “And it is time that we stand up and be counted.”
Excerpts from Prairie Blitz
Dave Almany Books
Copyright © Dave Almany