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Sunday, January 20, 2019

A Photo Frozen in Time

Ruben Shelton and Drew Rogers, frozen for all time in the biggest contest either will ever play in, Northwest High vs. Kirkwood High, St. Louis' Kiel Auditorium, March 8, 1972. The stylish confidence of both jumps out from the black and white photograph. Both lanky teens ooze with the measurable quality any 1970’s teenage boy strove for, the cool factor: Shelton with the perfectly symmetric Afro hairstyle, Rogers with the blown-dried long curls covering his ears and cascading over his collar. Both are obviously, young Alpha Males.

Oblivious to the 9,000 rabid fans in attendance - an out of focus background blur in the photo - both are alone on an island with the other. They are two young warriors at the peak of life, deadly stares locked in. Rogers has the ball, body creating space from Shelton who is deep into his defensive crouch. Shelton’s body is coiled, set for action as he studies the eyes of his opponent. Rogers is looking to score, Shelton set to spring into shot blocking mode. 

The next move and the ball belong to Rogers. He is sizing up his adversary. A pump fake to get Shelton off his feet? A quick fall away jump shot over the lunging Northwest star? An up-and-under move and attack to the rim, perhaps with a foul on Shelton as a bonus? Or, maybe Rogers should concede this one, reset the offense with a kick out pass to a teammate in a white Kirkwood jersey: The Thrill or Sugar Bear or Prime Time or The Rock, all out of the picture but assuredly into their own personal battles with the other four blue jerseyed Northwest players. And where is Shelton’s teammate, Hercle Ivy? Is the future collegiate All-American and NBA star leaving his own man, sliding into help Sheldon on Rogers? We will never know for sure. 

And the coaches, Denver Miller of Kirkwood and Northwest's Jody Bailey, legends who would combine for almost 100 years of coaching experience and near 2,000 victories, are also outside the border. They have brought both combatants to this intersection but can only now watch.

Although both players have taken on statuesque poses, remember this is a frame freeze. Within this brutally hard-fought contest, both teams will continue flailing away mightily at the other as they sprint to the game’s conclusion. Winner to the final four, loser goes home. The stakes are high.

In a millisecond the game resumes to a blur of action, this frame of Shelton and Rogers now rudimentary and delegated to history. The ball and the players continue to ricochet off each other, the passion of the contest driving the packed Kiel Auditorium to a pitch of frenzy destined for an ugly ending.  It is good for the imagination that the conclusion of this momentary standoff has been lost to time. Neither Rogers nor Shelton, I am sure, can today recall this possession. There were hundreds, maybe thousands, of just such one-on-one duels in that evening's 32 minutes of fevered action.

Shelton and Rogers would both move on and out of this still shot and beyond the school kid's game of basketball to become the successful adults they are today; Shelton, a corporate lawyer and first African-American President of the St. Louis Bar Association and Rogers, a successful California corporate sales manager and a author of distinction. 

But, let’s stop now and relish this simple black and white photo from 47 years ago. All the trash talk and posturing- false attempts to impress peers and foes alike- the phony pretenses we use to prop up our self-esteem – are all stripped away in a moment like this: Shelton vs. Rogers; show me what you got.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

The Best Who Never Were

There is a dark cloud that hangs over any big city playground basketball court, its shadow casting uncertainty over every young hoops protegee. Thy are easy to identify. Look for the cocky little bop in the stride. For every kid who makes it out of St. Louis, a Bradley Beal or a Justin Tatum, there are countless others who do not. Google the names of David Brent or Marshall Rogers. 

Marshall Rogers and David Brent were teammates on the best high school basketball team ever produced by the city of St. Louis, MO: the 1969 Sumner Bulldogs. Anyone who debates this assessment is just wrong.

Marshall Rogers was a Sumner High 1971 grad who had it all: size, strength, a text book perfect jump shot and a swag that made him what many old timers call to this day the best trash talker in the history of the Pubic High League. His high school coach John Agee called him, “a combination of Oscar Robinson, Elgin Baylor and Jo Jo White, all rolled into one.” He also owned a volatile personality controlled by a troubled mind. 

Marshall Rogers
Rogers went at first to the University of Kansas. He stayed for one semester. Eventually, he found his way to Pan American University where hall of fame and folksy Coach Abe Lemons waited with outstretched welcoming arms. Lemons may be the only coach who ever really truly understood the moody and volatile Rogers. In 1976, Rogers led the nation in scoring with an average of 36 points per game. He was a 1976 first round NBA draft choice of the Golden State Warriors. He was dropped by the team in pre-season camp before his second season.

A college star, at 6’4”, Rogers was a “tweener.” When he got to the Pros, Rogers was not big enough to bang inside with the taller players but not quick enough to play on the perimeter. After his two-year NBA career as a marginal player with Golden State and several years of a nomadic quest to re discover his game in the backwater of the minor leagues, Rogers was washed up. Rogers had nowhere else left to go but back home to North St. Louis. He soon faded into obscurity. Rogers struggled with mental health issues most of his adult life. He lived mostly with his mother and sporadically held down menial jobs. Rogers was several times, through the jurisdiction of the court system, placed in mental health facilities for evaluations.

In his 40’s, Rogers was a fixture at a neighborhood playground basketball court near his mother’s house. Every summer evening, he could be found alone, a solidary figure shooting one jump shot after another at a rim with no net, always clad in his old and tattered Golden State Warrior practice gear. Few who saw the dusk silhouette of this overweight middle age man going though his nightly ritual would have pegged him as a one-time national scoring leader.

Sadly, Rogers died alone in June, 2011, from complications of diabetes. He was 58 years of age. Rogers spent the last few years of his life in an assisted living center, no family member remained who could care for him. His constant companion in those last years was a scrap book from his glory days as a Sumner Bulldog. He delighted in sharing it with both friends and strangers. Rogers had his high school stats committed to memory. He eventually lost both of his legs to diabetes.  It is said he refused, after the amputations confined him to a wheel chair, to take his life sustaining medicines. He had no interest in a life that denied him the ability to shoot solidary jump shots on an empty playground.

David Brent is St. Louis’s basketball version of the best that never was. Brent starred for the 1969 Sumner Bulldogs. So talent loaded was Coach John Algee’s squad that Marshall Rogers was the team’s 7th man.  Brent stood 6’11” but moved like a gazelle and ran the court like a cheetah. His speed for a man of his size was jaw dropping. At almost 7 feet tall, he ran the anchor leg on the Bulldogs state championship mile relay team with a 440-yard split of under 49 seconds. In the 1969 final four, he torched Columbia Hickman in the semifinal round with a 35 point, 13 rebound and 9 blocked shots effort. He hit 14 of 18 field goal attempts. For good measure, the next night in the championship win over Webster Groves, Brent led the scoring with 35 points. Brent averaged 26 points per game in his senior season. He led the Bulldogs in 1970 to another PHL title.

David Bre
Brent enrolled as a freshman at Jacksonville State, the year after the Dolphins had finished second in the NCAA tournament, falling to John Wooden and the UCLA Bruins in the title game. In 1971, freshman were not allowed to play varsity basketball. Having never played any type of organized AAU competition, Brent’s talents were only known on the local St. Louis scene. His coming out party on the national stage would be the pre-season Jacksonville Varsity vs. Freshman scrimmage game. In the fall of 1970, the Dolphins returned not only 7’4” Artis Gilmore, one of the era’s top big men, but also 7-foot 1 inch Pembroke Boroughs III, plus two other starters from the previous year’s national runner up team.

Brent dominated the game and in doing so opened the eyes of the basketball world. He hung 45 points on an embarrassed Gilmore and blocked 11 shots. Brent stayed through his sophomore year at Jacksonville and then took some bad advice and bolted for the cash dangled by the Memphis franchise of the American Basketball Association. The still teenage giant had not the emotional maturity to be cut loose on his own with a group of seasoned pros. He immediately picked up some bad habits.

So, where is David Brent today? After a five-year tour of constantly shuffling between pro practice squads and a seat on the end of the team bench, in 1976, the Los Angeles Lakers released his contract rights. No one answered his agents many calls. The kid with all the talent was at the age of 25, washed up. He said at the time, all he knew was basketball.

Public records show David Brent, since retiring from basketball, has lived off and on in St. Louis for the last 40 years. There are several addresses and cell numbers listed for him, over 40, none active. I can find no death certificate for him. He has become, to my search, a ghost of playgrounds’ past. There was one human interest story on him I found written in a local newspaper over 15 years ago. What I took from the article was that adult life had not been kind to the once man-child. I heard from a source a few years ago that Brent was a street corner preacher in North St. Louis, performing for the coins of by-passers. A former PHL star from the early 70’s told me recently, when I relayed to  him of what I heard, “I don’t know man, preaching on the street corner? That don’t sound like David, but I haven’t seen or heard of him for years, so it might be true.”

Thursday, December 27, 2018

The Junction Boys

“If you quit here, you will quit on the goal line.”  Paul “Bear” Bryant, Junction, TX, August 1954

 Coach Paul Bear Bryant
In October, 1954, Coach Paul "Bear" Bryant brought his first Texas A&M football team to Fort Worth, TX to battle Texas Christian University. Twenty-seven players stepped off the bus. "Coach," a local reporter asked in amazement at the small squad, "is that all the boys you have to play?" "No," Bryant answered, "This is all the boys I want to play."

Junction, TX: it is striking how barren this place is, even by West Texas standards. I have driven 350 miles south on US Highway 83 from Canadian, TX, burning a full tank of gas in the process, just to reach this particular patch of arid Texas rangeland.

I am here to pay homage.

An elderly grounds keeper told me he was "pretty sure" this is where the practice field was located back in 1954.

I am standing on ground that 63 years ago was witness to perhaps footballs’ most legendary ever two weeks of summer practice. Coach Paul ”Bear” Bryant brought his 1954 Texas A&M team, his first at the College Station school, to this 400 acre “campus” to conduct for his Aggies a pre-season training camp. The Bear intended to find out quickly who of the 114 prospects he brought west to Junction wanted to play football, and who didn’t.

The facilities for the camp, as Bryant had demanded, were Spartan. In 1954, this area of West Texas was in the midst of the worst draught anyone could remember, in a summer that had seen the thermometer climb over 100 every day for six straight weeks. In 2002, when the movie The Junction Boys was made, to reconstruct the environment of the camp, the filming was done in the Australian Outback.

Bryant’s methods were brutal, maybe even inhumane. By today’s standards, they would be considered criminal.

Practices started before dawn and with only a few breaks throughout the day in barracks lacking air conditioning, lasted until dark. Water breaks were not allowed during practice and it was not unusual, due to the sweltering heat and humidity, for a player to lose 10% of his body weight in one day.  Bryant’s methods were not for the meek. According to, during the camp, Bryant head-butted tackle Henry Clark after a blown assignment, leaving the player on the ground, dazed and holding a broken nose.

Dr. Arnold LeUnes is today an A&M professor of sports psychology. He was an A&M undergrad during the years the Bear ran the Aggies football program and has studied Bryant’s methods. According to LeUnes, Bryant’s word was the law in a time, especially at a military school like A&M, that authority was not questioned by subordinates. "He was strict, enforcing iron discipline," LeUnes said. "At the time, a coach could get away with pretty much anything. You wouldn't find something like that today."

LeUnes is correct. The sport will never again see the likes of Bear Bryant.. The lawyers will see to that. Legend has it that of the 114 players who went to Junction in August of 1954, by the end of the two week camp, the roster had melted away in the West Texas desert sun to only 27. The hand full of survivors became the legendary “Junction Boys.”

Four busses took the squad to Junction. Only one was needed to transport those left back to College Station. Those who did persevere through the two weeks of pure torture at Junction, two years later, formed the core of A&M’s only national championship football team.

It was a time when the legendary football coach, especially in the South, was a symbol of unquestioning and unbending discipline. He was often larger than life. His word was the law. This strong jawed, no nonsense coach was often viewed as unapproachable by parents, players, boosters, and in extreme cases, even the college president. The 1950’s were the peak decade for the limitless power of coaches like the Bear. As the nation rode the wave of the radical 60’s into the “me generation” of the 70’s and 80’s, the likes of these giants disappeared from the college and high school football landscape, many, like Bryant, riding off into legendary status.

It is surprising that Junction’s local chamber of commerce has not attempted to cash in on the famous events of over 50 years ago that occurred in their back yard. The civic boosters of Junction are not exactly working with the Garden of Eden when attempting to convince outsiders to spend their tourists’ dollars in this barren land. Yet, the county tourism web site does not even mention the Junction Boys. It does promote the area’s hunting, fishing, canoeing and other outdoor activities; and plugs the area museums that depict early life in the west Texas desert; but not a hint of the Bear and his legendary two weeks spent in Junction. There is not even a small marker at the site to recognize what took place here.

 Texas A&M 
In 1979, the survivors of this football style death camp held a 25 year reunion. Bryant was invited back as a special guest of honor. Some of these men - his boys- Bryant had not seen since his coaching days at A&M. He was not sure as to what kind of reception he would receive. He need not have worried. The reaction of the players to their demanding old coach was one of, if not love, then of genuine respect. A ring had been minted for each of the players and Bryant. It was a memento that linked these men and their coach together in a special bond. As a group, they had endured a living hell that would forever bind them as one. No matter  how great the life accomplishments of these just over two dozen men, they would forever and foremost known as a legendary Junction Boy.

Bryant went on to win three national championships. Yet when he died in 1983, his wishes were that the only piece of jewelry commemorating his great career that he would wear into the here-after was his Junction Boys ring.

After asking directions, I locate what I am confident is the site of the camp. A few out buildings still stand, a former mess hut and several barracks are upright, but crumbling. The open area is over grown with weeds and littered with trash. It takes some liberal use of my imagination to picture in my mind how this neglected piece of desert could possibly have been the setting for the legendary events of the summer of 1954.

The sun is setting, the dry desert wind from the south beginning to pick up. If I close my eyes and use my imagination, I can hear a shrill whistle from 60 plus years ago, blown by a no nonsense and focused coach determined to build champions under a relentless West Texas desert sun, no matter what the cost; calling a dwindling group of exhausted but determined non-quitters to the next descending level of a football hell.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Its Just Different in Texas

 Coach Koetting
I have spent the last few days in Dallas, TX attending the state high school football championships. In Class 3, my favorite team, the Canadian Wildcats, took to the ATT Cowboy Stadium field in search of their third state title in five years. It was a great game, but the Wildcats fell to a talented flock of Eagles from the east Texas town of Newton, 21-16.

There's high school football, and then there's Texas high school football. I attend as many Texas football events as a 600 mile round trip will oblige for. To appreciate the feeling of this carnival of town pride and dreams come true, you have to experience the atmosphere. The state championship weekend oozes with feel good moments. For me, it is a retreat to restore hope, to rejuvenate my spirit and to check my approaching old age cynicism.

Football is an American sport in a serious downward spiral, especially at the high school level. In terms of participants, attendance and community status; the numbers are a reality slap that the sport is sliding into second page news, but, not in Texas. Here, the sport is, always has been, and always will be a cultural gem of almost religious proportions.

 AT&T Stadium  Dallas
The rest of America’s football fans are envious of Texas. But, the image set in the glitter of the affluent suburbs of Dallas and Houston, renowned for their gridiron excess of 6 million dollar high school stadiums that seat 40,000, is not true Texas High School football.  

The player talent in these urban areas is for sure five-star, but the community grit is lacking. No, football in the Lone Star state belongs to the small burbs of the Panhandle, the Hill Country and the West Pecos, isolated lands with the magic Wild West feel of a Larry McMurtry novel. For three hours on game night the locals fall into a time warp where all that matters now is all that has mattered any fall Friday night over the last 75 years - get that damn ball into the other guy’s end zone. The predictability is comforting.  

 Canadian Stout Defense
The victors are enshrined in town lore, the losers move on. The legacy of Texas high school football is as much about the mass legions of losers as the few who become legends. Rural Texas has always been a hard life, bound and determined by a boom or bust attitude, endured in towns as gritty as the sand that kicks up in the wind. Life here is physical, seasonal and cyclical. To survive requires both a stoic view and a bounce back spirit – and the ability to problem solve. Those are the gridiron lessons that support so well the independent spirit of Texas.

Weather and oil dominate the local economy and both are a fickle mistress. The “bust” years are always looming, the “boom” years, fleeting. The Old Coach used to say, life is just like football: “Boys, you got to learn from your errors and move ahead. When you're down is when you've got to get up even faster.” Those words of wisdom are timeless advice- have been spoken to five generations of young Texas men by first a depression era cigarette smoking coach capped in a fedora to today’s coach, poured into body tight under-armor attire. The message never wavers.
 4th Qt. TD 21-16

Every Friday night across the vast landscape of Texas high school football, one half will drag bruised bodies and egos back to a quiet locker room where they strip off bloodied jerseys vowing redemption come next Friday night – until that day there are no more Friday nights, no more childhood. Next man up.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

The Golden Rule

It really is not that hard but we sure have managed to screw it up. At a time when both sides of the political spectrum attempt to use the bible to justify repression and hate directed at whatever group they feel is a threat to their slice of “America,” we ignore a simple verse of biblical wisdom: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” In a world full of Takers, Givers are like finding a Coupe deVille hiding in the bottom of a Cracker Jack box – rare.

 Steve and Kay McConnell
Mrs. Kay McConnell’s late husband, Steve, had a longtime love affinity for the McCook, Nebraska High School football team, the Bison. The retired Red Willow County Sheriff’s deputy, his wife said, “seldom missed a Bison football game.”  Both of their grandsons are MHS football alum, but their allegiance to the red jersey clad team, says Mrs. McConnell, runs deeper than blood. “We know the boys’ parents; we know their grandparents and in some cases even their great-grandparents. Steve was so proud of not only the players on the team, but the whole town. Here, we do what’s right and we might squabble some amongst ourselves, but (if) one of us is in trouble, watch how fast we are there to help.”

In this picturesque High Plains hamlet of 8,000, as Red Willow County Prosecuting Attorney Paul Wood once told me, “Up here, we still got the bad guys outnumbered.”

So, it was totally unexpected when one October Tuesday morning, three years ago, her husband said, “We (Bison) play at Scottsbluff Friday night - that is a long way – I hate that drive. Let’s go down to Canadian (Texas) and watch them play.”

 America's 50 Yard Line
In 2011, I spent the fall up and down US Highway 83 observing three towns with outstanding long time high school football teams; Linton, ND, McCook, NE and Canadian, TX. I wrote about my experience in the book Prairie Blitz: A season of high school football on America’s 50 yard line.”          ( The McConnell’s, like most in McCook, had bought a copy of the book. “Steve loved that book and I guess he just wanted to see one of the other towns,” his widow said.

The directions for a road trip from McCook, NE to Canadian, TX are not complex: go up to Pizza Hut and hang a right on to highway 83. You will travel south through a series of small towns, all resemble the last; a clutter of small stores that have somehow found a 21st century Walmart proof niche of survival. You will be slowed by a diabolical stop-light system that funnels traffic in intermittent jerks, but, in reality is a blessing. (If you are in a hurry, get back on the interstate and bypass all of the Highway 83 Main Streets. You will get there faster, non-burdened having seen nothing). Wildcat stadium will be the 31st football field you pass on your right, about 300 miles- five and one half-hours if you can draft off an empty semi not afraid to push the pace.

 Highway 83, Canadian, TX
With a sister in nearby Dumas, TX, the trip to the Texas Panhandle, although unexpected, was not a hard-sell to Kay. “Thursday morning we headed south and it was a beautiful drive,” Mrs. McConnell recalled. “We got there (Canadian) Thursday afternoon. We spent that evening and Friday morning, you know, just looking around with nothing to rush us. It was very enjoyable. We had lunch downtown (Friday).  Beautiful town, it was just like we pictured it would be from the book.”

Early Friday afternoon the McConnell’s went to the stadium. “We were walking around the empty parking lot (the stadium is located six blocks from the high school). A man came out of the (field house) building and asked if we needed any help.”

After Mr. McConnell informed the helpful stranger of the purpose of their trip, he introduced himself as Chris Koetting, head football coach of the Canadian Wildcats.

Koetting was headed back to the high school for the last period game day Pep Rally and insisted the McConnell’s accompany him as his guests. “The pep rally was just really fun,” said Mrs. McConnell, “the spirit was everywhere.”

The couple from a Nebraska town that most in Canadian would recognize as “one of the other towns in the book” were treated like foreign royalty. “We know how busy the coach must have been, but he even took time after the pep rally to have us into his office to talk about football and our town. He was just so gracious, when he had no reason to be, it just made us feel so good. My husband even got him to sign our copy of the book.”

 Highway 83, McCook, NB
With her sister and brother-in-law in tow and seated in “Bison” stadium chairs, the word spread quickly through the festive pre-game stadium that this was the couple from “that town from Nebraska in the book.” Many locals stopped by to introduce themselves, to offer a big Texas style welcome to the pair.

A diagnosis of cancer last May was followed by Mr. McConnell’s rapid decline and quick passing only three months later. It was a punch in the collective gut of the close knit McCook community. “He wanted so bad to make it to the first home (football) game this year,” his wife remembers. “He knew we were going to have a good team, but he just wasn’t up to it. He passed away a couple of days later.”

“Up until the day he died, Steve loved to talk about his visit to Canadian. I am so glad we made that trip. It is a very good memory we shared,” Mrs. McConnell says.

 Chris Koetting and
the Canadian Wildcats
Tomorrow, Chris Koetting, with a ghoulish like head coaching record at Canadian of 115 wins and 11 loses, will lead the Wildcats on to the million dollar turf of Jerry Jones’ gluttonous AT&T Cowboy Stadium. Twice the number of residents from the dusty Panhandle town will be there to support a coach and his team in pursuit of a third Texas State Championship in the last five years.

But, the final score is already in. You see, Canadian, TX is another of those special places full of Givers, where “we still got the bad guys outnumbered.”

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

McCook Redux

Mc Cook is a town defined by the remote prairie that engulfs it, a contrasting landscape that is at once barren but subsistent, harsh but forgiving. To appreciate the simplistic beauty of the “high lonesome” surrounding the southwestern Nebraska town of 8,000 residents is a taste that takes time to acquire. At first sight, the far off horizon is one of unnerving wilderness; empty and devoid of any anchoring structure to give the eye a perspective of distance. No shapes or shadows, only the blinding sun in a clear blue sky stretching onward for as far as a traveler can squint; a grand statement of nature’s beauty and awe, of God’s simplistic intent.

When I gush to friends of my love affair with the isolated High Plains, they are confused, “There is nothing to see?", they say in exasperation.  In time, I explain, the answer will become spiritually obvious to the soul as a clear eternal and timeless masterpiece of light, sky and land emerges.

Weiland Field
I like small towns and since my first visit in 2011, Mc Cook has become one of my favorites. In a small town everyone has a role to play; King or pauper, young or old, socially popular or placidly ignored; you settle into a niche - your own personal cog in the overall big wheel of civic purpose. It brings a contentment of caste balance, no pressure to try and be someone you are not: for every saint, a sinner; for every savior, a lost soul. 

Secrets are shared and the resulting soap opera like drama (in a somewhat perverse way) is part of the allure that will hold many to their native homeland roots from cradle to grave.  There are no secrets in a small rural town, but there are no strangers, either.   

A childhood spent in a small town can be like living in a large family of somewhat contentious relations. Growing up in a large city is more like being an only child with lots of secrets.  A small town has as many eyes as a fly.  

Often, the pact to forget is as important as the promise to remember, binding neighbors to a lifetime of unspoken support. Small towns can, in a head spinning speed, both suffocate the soul or nurture inter-ambition - and the flip can be as sudden as a western Nebraska weather change.

Climate dominates life in Mc Cook. The past has made the locals respectful of the awesome power nature is capable of unleashing, often without warning. Locals know to always keep a wary eye upon the horizon. 

In 1935, on Mc Cook High School’s graduation weekend, the community was hit with a double barrel attack of nature’s deadly wrath.  After an already heavy spring of rains had saturated the ground, on Friday, May 30 and Saturday, May 31, 12 ½ inches of additional rain fell on Mc Cook in a 24 hours span. The Republican River that runs through the town’s center was forced from its banks. The resulting high waters caused 14 deaths. The crest of the flood reached Mc Cook around 1 PM on May 31.  At approximately 4:30 PM that afternoon, with  rescuers desperately already locked in a fever pitch of lifesaving activity, an F4 tornado hit the city. The killer storm added five more citizens to the weekend’s list of fatalities and seriously injured another 35. To co-exsist with a fickle and deadly force like mother nature, sometimes all you can do is grab a root and growl.

I am in Mc Cook to attend a Friday night high school football game. The Mc Cook Bison are the long time pride of a town totally smitten with its high school football team. This will be my wife’s first pilgrimage to Mc Cook, my fifteenth . Tonight, I promise her, will be a throwback to a slower and more naive time, when winning a high school football game in a small town really meant something, where little boys dreamed of future gridiron glories, where old men reminisced of past battles now encased in honor memories and where teenage boys are bestowed a hero’s status they will all too soon find short and fleeting.

Tonight, the locals will entertain the team from Waverly in a quarterfinal round bracket match-up in the 2018 Nebraska Class B State playoffs. Mc Cook enters play with a record of 9-1 and a state #3 ranking. They have earlier this fall defeated York, the owner of the past two years’ state championship trophies.

 Coach Jeff Gross
Jeff Gross is in his 21st season as the head coach of the Bison. He is the conductor of a Mc Cook grid-iron symphony that for two decades has made him the face of the community. If ever a man has been in the right place, at the right time for the right job, it is Gross. The gods of football fate were in a good mood on a day late in the last millennium when they steered the unknown Hays, KS High School assistant coach to a job that had already been turned down by two more experienced coaches.

As an untried rookie  head coach, Gross’ first two teams, in 1998 and 1999, were at best, mediocre, finishing 4-6 and 4-5, respectfully. Since then, Gross has known nothing but football success in Mc Cook.  

Over the last 19 years, his Bison have compiled a gaudy record of 185 wins and 25 losses, an incredible winning percentage of .881. Along the way, the Bison have won two state titles (2002 and 2003), just missing a third consecutive title in 2004, when they, in heartbreaking fashion, lost the title game on a last second play. A third straight state championship would have been a Nebraska state record, a huge accomplishment in a state that ranks success on the high school football field right behind God and family. His teams have finished state runner-up twice. From 2001 to 2008, Gross led the Bison to a state record  72 game regular season winning streak. His teams have made the state playoffs for the last 19 consecutive years.

Long time Mc Cook businessman and Bison Booster Bob Elder tells me that Gross’ strength goes beyond X’s and O’s. “He just seems to have a way of getting kids to play above their level. You see a group in Junior High some years that looks pretty thin, but then by the time they are seniors, they are a solid bunch.” I ask about next year’s prognosis as the Bison will be graduating a deep and talented senior class. “I am telling you, Jeff will find a way.”

Elder is also a long time area high school football official. In the past, he has had limited opportunities to see the Bison play as he will be working a local game. He tells me that this year, although he has registered with the state association, he has only called one game. This evening he will serve as the host for the assigned officiating crew. "I have really enjoyed watching this group play," he says.

As we do every Friday afternoon when I am in Mc Cook  to attend a Bison home game, Coach Gross and I have lunch on the town’s quaint courthouse square at the Citta' Deli. Today, we are joined by our wives. Coach orders his traditional game day meal of Runza, a popular ethnic German sandwich stuffed with ground beef, onions and cabbage.

 Diana and Jeff Gross
Gross is a tailor-made fit for coaching football in Mc Cook, NE. After my first afternoon spent observing the Bison program back in 2011, it was obvious to me that he had earned the high rank and esteem of the locals, a task not easy for an outsider to accomplish as a football coach in a small town. He is engagingly glib, thoughtful and considerate. Gross is in many ways a re-creation of everyone’s favorite uncle - a huggable  personality that makes the day better and lightens the mood for all around. But, his moods swings are of lore among former players and assistant coaches and he can reverse  roles between bites of a Runza sandwich. Gross has mastered the balance between a control freak and a warm and caring people person - and make no mistake, he is both.

Jeff Gross is supremely confident in his own ability to build and maintain a championship level high school football program. He wears his belief in himself in a comfortable and transparent way. Setbacks, he once told me, he has learned over the years, are not an occurrence necessitating self-doubt, but an opportunity for self-improvement. Gross is simply a master teacher of the game of football. As well as any coach I have ever been around, Gross has a philosophy of what it takes to win football games that he clearly understands and believes in, thus he does not, and will not, vary the prescribed course.

If you want something done right assign it to someone who is already busy. There is a reason they are busy. Two years ago, Gross accepted the additional duties to his already substantial work day by agreeing to become the high school’s Principal. He says it has been a smooth addition to his day, that multi-tasking is something he enjoys.

At 50 years of age and with 20 years of head coaching experience under his belt, Gross is today at the apex of his coaching abilities. Not yet a worn and burned out second hand lion hanging on too long to the glory days of old, but, instead, an aged but energetic  fox, poised to pounce. What could possibly happen in tonight's game that he has not already seen?

Pressure, it has been said, is something you feel when you don’t know what you’re doing. Jeff Gross enjoys our playoff game day lunch, not a nervous twitch of uncertainty to be seen, as cool as a nun’s libido.

Gross is, at this juncture in his career, locked into his craft with razor sharp focus. Our discussion of tonight’s upcoming game is tactical and unemotional. Gross is hot-wired to live for just such moments as these, the hours of intense buildup before the big game. He thrives on the anticipation. It is in his eyes - he can never get enough of it, there's no grind to it, but instead, an intoxicating sense of empowerment permeates our conversation.

We talk of the whereabouts of former Mc Cook players and coaches. The four of us discuss our kids and their developing lives. Several locals stopped by our table to give their best wishes and support for the Bison. It is a state of nirvana for a man such as Gross – one who was put on this earth to be a football coach, to mentor young men. 

 State Quarterfinal Action
I, as any coach would, envy Gross’ current universe.  It is surreal rhythm. Time slows and before he knows it, practice is over. And then it is game day. And before he knows it, the game is over. And then the season is over. And now the calendar says it is time to get ready for next year. It is a success-inspired Zen state of confidence for a coach in charge of a program that has hammered out over the past two decades wins over the teams’ of its Prairie neighbors at a ratio of 9 for every 10 played.

The coaches’ wife, Diana, could write a “how to” book for coaches’ wives. When we first met in 2011, I knew immediately that she played a key role in facilitating a semblance of normal balance for her family. A native of nearby Phillipsburg, KS, the 53 year old is employed in an administrative role at the local hospital.

“I get the kids where they need to be. I am the facilitator,” she told me seven years ago.

The wife of a small town football coach is never an easy role to fill.  It is a path with many potential pitfalls, compounded by the drama that comes with the closeness of a small town – especially, when your spouse is arguably the most recognized and accountable person in the community.

“I enjoy my role as the coach’s wife,” Diana once told me. “The time demand for not only football, but all the other things Jeff is involved in is tough,” the coach’s wife admits, “but Jeff does a great job of keeping family involved. DJ has, since he was little, been very involved in helping his dad with coaching duties and we never fail to make Thursday night family night. We are all invested in the team, just in different ways.” For the Grosses, Bison football is not a hindrance to the family but an enrichment they have all grown with through the years.

 Second Half Kickoff
Mrs. Gross has evolved over her years in Mc Cook from a companion of the assistant coaches’ wives to today a mentor and a role model for the younger coaches’ wives. She is confident and friendly in a non-threatening, non-condescending way. The Grosses’ are viewed in Mc Cook as a couple in tune with the needs of the community. Her contribution to her husband’s success over the years cannot be overstated.

Twenty year old daughter Lexie Gross is attending nearby Fort Hays State University in her dad’s hometown of Hays, KS. “She is really doing well,” Diana informs me. “She is into video media, writing and production and just loves it. She did some work here in Mc Cook last summer between terms and she is really good at it.” Her dad concurred. “I still have a lot of family in Hays so we were very comfortable with sending her there. We are very proud of her.”

Seventeen year old son D.J. Gross is a senior at Mc Cook High School. He recently broke the school record for career tackles. He has been a nationally ranked discus thrower in track and field since his junior high years. He is today recognized as one of the best football players in the state. In addition to his football and track commitments, D.J. also plays on the basketball team and the town’s summer baseball team. He was a water boy for his dad’s team by age 6 . In Junior high, he was promoted to student manager.  DJ has been present at every Bison varsity practice since second-grade.

The younger Gross has already committed to play football next fall at the University of South Dakota in Vermilion. “He decided last summer,” Coach Gross says. “He wanted to get it out of the way and focus entirely on his senior season here. We have had several players in the recent past choose to go there (South Dakota) and have had good experiences. I am comfortable with his choice.”

Win or lose, tonight will be D.J.’s last game to be played at historic Weiland Field. “It is hard, kind of bittersweet,” his mom told me. “Football, Bison football, has been such a big part of our family’s life. It is going to be a big change for us. It is sad, but we are also very proud.”

 The Schlager's
It is heavily rumored around town that long time defensive coordinator Russ Shlager will be leaving the program at the completion of this fall’s season and returning to his native Colorado. All three of Schlager’s sons were standout Bison football players.  The eldest, Jake, has in 2017, completed a four year career at Colorado State University. The youngest, Zach, is a freshman defensive back for Colorado State. Middle brother, Joe, is a sophomore running back on the roster of South Dakota, spending the past fall as a red shirt rehabbing a serious leg injury.  He will be joined next season at the Vermilion school by former high school teammate D.J. Gross. 

Coach Gross says his longtime right hand man, Schlager, if and when he does retire, will be hard to replace. Gross embraces the many longtime relationships that run deep through the veins of the Bison football family. Coach Schlager’s longevity and service sit on the top rung of the Gross loyalty ladder. “We have some very good young assistants on staff now who played here for me,” the veteran coach states. “But the successful experience Russ had for so many years and the faith I have in him is not something you just switch over.” Eldest son Jake gave heart felt testimony to his father. “(He) no doubt will go down as one of the best (coaches) at this level. I’m lucky to have been able to call (him) my coach and my Dad and (I) couldn’t be more proud.”

The community of Mc Cook  proudly claims ownership of the Bison.  Mc Cook’s home football stadium, Weiland Field, has for close to 80 years served as a proving ground for many Mc Cook young man’s mettle.  There is tradition in the venerable WPA built stadium that hangs like the crisp smell of fall. Years of remembrances of unbridled joyful triumphs and heart crushing defeats linger, clinging to the Stadium like grit. This is to many a Mc Cook man, both young and old and many in between; hallowed ground.

 Standing Room Only at Weiland
The stadium lies in middle of the local community college’s campus. When the stadium was first built in the 1930’s, the local school board had jurisdiction over both the high school and the college. In the 1960’s, the high school and the college split, with the college now having its own elected board of directors. The high school moved west to a new campus while the college remained on the original campus. This makes for an awkward situation, in regard to Weiland Field today. Since the split, the local school district has maintained ownership and kept up the maintenance of Weiland Field which is located on the college campus. In the post-World War II years, Berlin was a city split in two with the American controlled section of the city, West Berlin, surrounded by the Russian puppet state of East Germany. This cold war standoff led to the building of the Berlin Wall and high tension levels between Russia and the United States that held for four decades.  

No wall was ever been built around Weiland Field, but, sporadically over the last 50 years, some controversy has arisen. The local school administration, a number of years ago, built a stadium with bleachers, lights and a track on its campus, as well as two football practice fields. Sub-varsity games are played there, but never a varsity encounter.

The late Max Broaderson was perhaps the most avid Bison supporter, and in this town, that is saying something. “I came to Mc Cook in 1970 to coach football at the college,” Broaderson said in a 2011 interview. “The next year, the college dropped the football program. But, we liked the town and decided to stay and raise our family (here). I went to work in the banking business and then real estate.”  Broaderson told me that at one time the local school board had floated a rumor in the community that the Bison varsity home games would be moved to the campus stadium and Weiland Field would to be torn down, the historic  gridiron  converted to a class room building and a parking lot for the college.

Weiliand Field lacks many modern amenities, true, most notably a lack of much off-street parking, poor and outdated locker room space and the logistics of getting the team and the band from the high school and over to the college on game nights. On paper, the move had merit. But tradition cannot be measured within the two dimension limitations of paper. Weiland Field has character. In the subterranean locker room before the game, as the Bison players and coaches endure the last minute twinge of nerves; they can hear and feel the energy of the crowd above them. With no running track surrounding the playing field, the closeness of the stands and the steep seats allows the crowd to be near the action and interact with the players.  The sounds are festive: cheering, the school fight song, the celebratory cannon blast after each Bison score - just reverberates, a priceless and unforgettable atmosphere for the unique experience of Friday Night Lights – Mc Cook style.

The leaking of the possible moth balling of the historic, old field created a hail storm of immediate protests and backlash. Threats of retaliation from well-connected civic leaders were made to local school officials. Broaderson said it was made crystal clear that if Weiland Field was abandon then the school could forget about any future support from the Mc Cook business community. You don’t tear down Fenway Park because of the lack of parking space, nor do you Mc Cook’s Weiland Field. The proposal died a fast and inglorious death.

 The Escort
The necessity of getting the team bus the 10 blocks from the high school to Weiland Field on game nights, while perhaps inconvenient, has spurn a unique Mc Cook tradition: the motorcycle escort. For the last decade the Mc Cook Bison football team’s bus on home game nights has had a woolly group of five to ten leather jacket dressed Harley riders to clear their path to the stadium.  

Just before the group started their duties on one game night, I spoke to a heavily tattooed member who seemed to be the gang’s leader. He would not give me his name - something to do with warrants or statute of limitations - something legal, he said. The group is not school sanctioned, "never heard of those guys" a school administrator tells me with a wink.

The number of bikes for the escort is normally between 6 and 10, "depending who is in jail already by 6 on Friday," the man in charge told me. In addition to riding shotgun for the team bus, they are also in charge of security for the game officials, in a way. "If we win, we protect them to get them out of town, if we lose, we are the ones who chase them out of town," he explains. I am sure he was just kidding. They seemed like nice boys just supporting their team. But, who in Mc Cook does not support the Bison?

Perhaps, no modern industry has changed as drastically over the last two decades as the traditional media, in particular, small market independent radio stations. The evolving of the internet and social media has turned our world of communications upside down. In some ways, it has brought isolated towns like Mc Cook more into the world, similar to 140 years ago when the Sears and Roebuck mail order catalog brought to the isolated small towns of the High Plains almost any modern good any rural person wanted, as long as they lived where a railroad could deliver. But, last week, Sears announced it was going into bankruptcy.

Technology gives us the ability to lessen the barriers of time and distance – and will continue to do so, but, at what price?

Small town radio is a social facilitator; one of the key cornerstones of a supportive community; in essence, the town’s bulletin board. It keeps locals informed at home and at work, and that will never be replaced by Web sites and blogs.

 KICX's Rich Barnett, right
Rich Barnett, since 1989, has manned the long hours’ jobs of sports director and morning news director for Mc Cook FM radio station KICX. Rich’s portfolio would be a fine template for anyone wanting to run a professional small town radio station.  I would bet when Rich was a kid he had hid under his bed a $10 transistor radio, a cheap pair of ear phones and a stash of AA batteries that magically carried through the wonders of the AM airwaves and into his darkened bedroom the magic of far off ball games. I would also bet he had a cheap tape recorder into which he broadcast imaginary games to an audience of none.

Every fall Friday night I put on my Bison sweatshirt and “dial” my laptop into Rich’s detailed call of that night’s game. Streaming brings Rich and the Bison to the world.

In 2013, two years after I had written the book Prairie Blitz, I was contacted by a man in New Jersey. He related to me that he had given my book to his dad as a Father’s Day present. Growing up in a small rural Minnesota town, he told me that attending the Friday night games of the local high school football team was a special father/son memory. He had been forced to move his aging and ailing dad to a retirement home in the town where the son now resided. He said the local high school football in his suburban New Jersey area was too painful to watch; played on Saturday mornings with no crowd and no passion. During the 2013 season, his dad wanted to know more about how the seasons of the three teams I had wrote about were progressing. They started streaming Rich’s live game broadcasts. It became a Friday night ritual father and son looked forward to, conjuring up nostalgic memories of small town Minnesota life of 40 years prior. Soon, several other gentlemen in the retirement home joined in each Friday night to listen to the Bison game. Think about that, a New Jersey retirement home hosting a senior citizen booster club for a Nebraska prairie high school football team of teenage boys. Good job, Rich.

It was a great game, but, it was not supposed to end like this.

The tears flowed freely in the Bison post-game mid-field huddle. A senior class who had bonded as brothers since that first day of 5th grade football practice with one goal in mind – get to State – were no more. The Bison fell to Waverly by a final score of 36-30.

The visiting Vikings overcame a 20-7 first half deficit to roar back and claim the upset victory. Bison standout junior quarterback, Cameryn Berry, rallied his team from two scores down in the fourth quarter to set up a last play potential game winning pass into the Waverly end zone. Berry is a dual threat signal caller, who, incredibly, had not thrown an interception the entire season. His game ending pass was picked off. It was just one of those nights.

An estimated overflow crowd of 3,000 saw one heck of a high school football game. In the end, Waverly quarterback Rhett Jordon was just too much for the Bison: too fast, too strong and too smart. On the first play from scrimmage, he shocked the home team with a 69 yard run. One the last play of the game, he intercepted Berry’s pass in the end zone. In between, he rushed for 297 yards and two touchdowns and initiated the play that the game turned on, a 79-yard TD pass to Mason Nieman for the go-ahead score in the fourth quarter.

 First Family of Bison Football
Coaching high school football is like a poker game. No coach wants to quit when he's losing; the community never wants him to quit when he is ahead.

The overriding question on the mind of all in Mc Cook this November is an obvious one: will Coach Jeff Gross be back on the Bison sideline next fall for a 22nd season?

When you are a high school football coach, everything in your life comes after your football responsibilities are met. Can Gross still make that commitment? With his plate now overloaded even more than before with his recently assigned principal duties, a son playing college football next fall four hours away from Mc Cook and the now seeming imminent loss of his defensive coordinator; is this not the most ripe of time for Gross to chart a new course?

Gross does his best imitation of the Muhammad Ali rope-a-dope, when asked about his future plans, bobbing and weaving. “I’ve coached way more games than I have in my future, I know that,” is his coy answer.

It has been my pleasure, over the years, to know several coaches like Gross - coaching lifers. They are a special breed. Most will someday retire from coaching - if they live that long.