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Monday, November 7, 2011

More Guts Than a Fish Market

Six week old Lane Otto is the first grandchild of Linton head football coach Dan Imdieke and his wife Cathy. The young man was in attendance for his first football game as Maple Valley traveled to Linton to take on his Grandpa’s Lions in a state semifinal game. The winner would advance to the North Dakota Class A state title game, to be played the next weekend in the Fargo Dome.

It young Lane lives to the ripe old age of 100, witnessing multiple games weekly every fall for a century, it is quite possible he will never see a more improbable comeback than he did on the day of his first game.

The Linton Lions, on a windy and cold North Dakota day, displayed more guts than a fish market in executing what the 35 year veteran Imdieke called the greatest comeback he had ever seen. In Linton, a school known for 4th quarter heroics, that is quite a statement. “We have had some great comebacks here,” said an emotional Imdieke, post game, while sitting in his office drying his hair after a player induced gator aid bath, “but nothing ever like this, not even close. How these kids pulled together today and did what they did is unbelievable. I can’t express how proud right now I am.”

Down 20-0 and forced to play the second half without their injured all-state quarterback, the win was a true Linton team effort, but the lead actors of the second half miracle were as follows: 1) A tight end turned quarterback, a role he last played in 7th grade, eagerly jumping into his new position with a moxie induced swagger worthy of a Captain Morgan, leading his team out of what seemed an insurmountable half time hole. 2) A center that – since the new quarterback did not know the plays – resorted to the old backyard two hand touch strategy of drawing the plays up in the dirt as the team huddled around him. 3) An injured fullback, conscripted to become a kicker, booting the decisive last second winning kick, but only after a time out so he could have his dislocated shoulder popped back into its socket.

What started as a promising day for Linton and its huge fan following, quickly went south. After forcing a Maple Valley punt following a three and out on their  initial possession, the Lions took over on the 50 yard line. Lion quarterback Tanner Purintun, having an all-state caliber senior season, scrambled down the north sideline for a gain of 20 yards. As was tackled out of bounds, he grabbed his right knee, letting out a loud scream, heard even above the roar of the cheering Linton crowd. 

After Purintun left the field, his replacement, a sophomore, who in his defense had not taken a meaningful snap on the varsity level all season, promptly fumbled the ball on a fullback exchange. The ball was recovered by the Falcons. A sub was put in to play Purintun’s defensive position of corner back. The Maple Valley coaches, smelling blood in the water, on the first play called for a streak pass pattern to be run at Purintun's defensive replacement. The perfect laid pass resulted in a 76 yard  touchdown. 6-0 Maple Valley.

Purintun gamely attempted to re-enter the battle. With his QB reduced to hopping on his injured leg, Imdieke decided to run everything from the shotgun formation, limiting the amount of movement required of Purintun. It was a bad decision. The pain in the gritty senior signal caller was overbearing. In his junior year, on the same knee, he had torn his MCL (medial collateral ligament). He was sure he had suffered the same injury again. Between tears of pain and frustration, he told his Dad, who had come down to the bench area, “it feels just the same as last year.” A short time later, a doctor examined the injury and confirmed Tanner’s worse fears, torn MCL. Purintun would contribute no more on the field this day, but he still would play an instrumental half time leadership role.

The rest of the first half was a nightmare for the Lions. Half way through the second quarter, Imdieke saddled up to me on the sideline and said, “we are in big trouble, this could get real ugly.”

It was obvious that his young sophomore quarterback was in over his head. In the first round of the playoffs, Maple Valley had knocked out the QB of the state’s number one ranked team, Harvey. The injury led to a 15-14 upset win. The Falcons readily promoted their reputation of a tough, hard hitting and edgy team. The image was enhanced by a large number of MV players sporting Mohawk haircuts. Now  was the perfect time to play the bully, and the visitors gladly accepted the role. Demonstrative displays of emotion, accompanied by shouts and chest pounding after almost every tackle, were meant to unnerve the Linton players, and it seemed to be working. The large visiting crowd joined in with several taunting chants. The barbarians had broken down the city gates and the Lions seemed to not have the fight needed to defend their own field. The visitors kept pounding away as the Linton players, both on the field and on the sidelines, hung their heads. The feeling on the Linton sideline was one of hopelessness.

Half way through the second quarter, down now 14-0, Imdieke was desperate. “We can’t move the ball if we can’t throw it,” he said to an assistant, an admission that the Falcons were simply lining up to stop the run with all 11 defenders packed tight in the box between the ends, daring Linton to throw the ball. A lineman had a suggestion, “Coach, Jayden can play quarterback.” Label it as a suggestion for the ages.

Jayden Gross was a senior tight end having a good season, leading the team with nine touchdown pass receptions. “Jayden” asked Imdieke, “can you play quarterback. “I did in 7th grade,” Gross confirmed. Imdieke, in an almost pleading voice asked, “want to give it a try.” Why not, was Gross’ shoulder shrugging response. Like Paul Newman’s character in the movie Cool Hand Luke, it was Gross' cavalier way of saying, “whatever you say, boss man.”

Gross promptly fumbled his first game snap from center in four years. Imdieke raised his eyes to the heavens, seemingly out of miracle solutions and stowing himself for a long second half. Maple Valley took a 20-0 lead into the halftime intermission.

Imdieke, during the first part of the break, huddled with his offense and Gross. “How many plays do you know from the quarterback position,” the coach asked. “None,” said Gross. “Coach, I know the quarterback plays, I can tell him and he can just do what I say. We can do it. I will make it work,” said center Nolan Meidinger.

With no other option available, Imdieke agreed to the arrangement that led to the strange site of each time the team huddled for an offensive play in the second half, number 50 could be seen crouching like a baseball catcher in the middle of the huddle, intensely  scratching out diagrams in the dirt. “In case you couldn’t tell,” Imdieke said with a wink after the game, “Nolan is our smartest kid.”

The talk amongst the players and coaches at halftime was of pride, determination and holding on to some sort of dignity as they accepted their bad luck and dismal fate. The word “winning” was not mentioned until Puritun, assisted to the team's meeting area on the shoulder of his brother, through tears of more frustration than pain, lit into his teammates. “You guys have quit. Hear that word, quit. I will say it again, quit.” His tone was one more of disgust than anger, as he spit out the word seldom associated with a Linton team; quit. “I can’t be out there with you, I wish I could, but I am only one guy. I mean nothing to our defense and you lay down for 20 points to these guys?  We are Linton. We are known for great comebacks, the team that never quits. I will not see my senior class remembered as the team that quit. That is not going to happen. We can win this game. All we need is one score. Then we are back in it. We got to shut them down and we can. We can. You just got to believe, just like we always have. Trust each other. We still got time.”

On their  second play from scrimmage in the third quarter, Maple Valley appeared to salt the game away with a 64 yard untouched run to the end zone by Ethan Preston. The sobering tally was posted on the new Linton scoreboard: Home 0, Visitors 26. The only question left to answer would be could the Lions fight off the embarrassment of a mercy rule running clock that would kick in if the score reached 35-0? But don’t close the casket and start shoveling dirt on the Lion carcass just yet, a small yellow flag lay up the field, unseen by the chest pumping celebrating MV players. Holding penalty, the official signaled, bring it back.

The penalty seemed at the time to be just a minor delay to the inevitable thrashing that was to come Linton’s way, but it turned out to be the play of the game. “If they score there and go up four touchdowns, even as hard as our kids fought, I don’t think we could have come back,” said Imdieke after the game.

The confidence builder, just as Puritun had predicted with his emotional half time plea, came with the Lions first score. With 5:45 left in the third quarter, Brock Nagel found the end zone, Gross ran in the two point conversion and the deficit was now a doable 12 points. The play of the drive was a 30 yard pass from Gross to Dillon Doolittle, converting a 3rd and 7 to a first down. It was Gross’ first completion on the day. As the game wore on, the Linton passing game was reduced to Gross taking the snap and simply running in the backfield as his receivers free lanced, running arbitrary patterns, looking for an area not containing a defensive back. It was back yard touch football at its best.

After the first score, Gross said he and his teammates knew they had a chance. "That touchdown took a lot off our shoulders. After we scored, we now had to depend on the defense. We needed the ball back at least two more times.”

Maple Valley drove deep into Linton territory on the next possession, but this time, the Lions did not break. Led by Jayden’s first cousin, lineman Alex Gross, the Lions were now beginning to shut down the MV offense, fatigue setting in on the larger Falcon lineman. Remember the Hill, the Lions reminded each other. "The Hill" was the legendary conditioning program the Linton teams had followed for years, running up and down a steep incline located next to their practice field. Over the years, many friend and foe alike, credited the training routine with the uncanny ability Linton had for staging 4th quarter comebacks.

Forcing a change of possession on downs at their own 24, the ball was back in the hands of Gross and the offense. He promptly lead the Lions 76 yards to their second touchdown, scoring himself on a 3-yard run. With 10:59 left to play, the lead was now down to 6, 20-14. Gross accounted for 69 of the 76 yards on the drive, rushing for 27 yards and initiating the long distance play of the day, hitting Doolittle with a 42-yard pass that set up the Lions first and goal at the MV 6.

Now, said Gross to his defensive teammates, we need one more stop, get me the ball just one more time.

With 8:02 left in the game, the Falcons had driven into Linton territory, when Gross (who else) picked off an errant Falcon pass at the Lion’s 44 yard line. It was now make or break time for the Linton season.

Imdieke huddled his offense on the sideline before sending them out for the decisive drive. In an excited voice he told his team exactly what they needed to do. “Look, we are going to run it down their throats, you hear me, right down them. 56 yards is what we need. We are going to block and we are going on an 8 minute drive to win this game. We will leave them no time to come back. This is it, right now. What we work all year for. This is Linton football. This is how you play football. This is fun. It is right there for the taking; a chance of a lifetime and we will not be stopped.”

The old coach is a pretty good prophet. But it was not easy. The Lions had to convert on 4th down twice as they drove to the west end zone. The 14 play drive, culminating in a one yard sneak by Gross, left only 39 seconds on the clock and tied the game at 20-20. The stage was now set for one more hero in a maroon jersey to step forward.

As the Lions inexorably drove down the field for the winning score, Imdieke played his hand,  one last trick up his sleeve. “Get the extra point team ready,” he told an assistant, “when we score, we are kicking it.” The reaction of those who heard the coach’s directive was dead silence. Finally someone spoke up and reminded the coach that the team had not attempted a kick in over a month, and for good reason, their kicker, senior fullback Brock Negal was a great blocker but a terrible kicker. He had missed his last six tries. And one further problem, Imdieke was told, Nagel had left the game early in the 4th quarter with a dislocated shoulder. But Imdieke had made up his mind. “We are kicking,” he insisted. “Put his shoulder back in and find the kicking tee,” he ordered.

Nagel’s winning kick into the setting High Plains afternoon Sun will go down in Linton lore as an end over end blast, a rocket shot that finally grounded somewhere west of the city limits. Let it be so, but in reality, it fluttered like a wing shot North Dakota pheasant as it crawled over the cross bar and between the uprights with all of several feet, at the most, to spare. To the Linton crowd, the injured Nagel’s effort was a masterpiece, a fitting end to as improbable a comeback as anyone could ever remember seeing.

Assistant Coach Tim Dockter kidded me after the game that I had brought the Lions “St. Louis Cardinals good luck.” My hometown Cardinals had the week before pulled off a miraculous run to the World Series championship. “Doc” was referring to the sixth game of the Series, when on the brink of elimination, the Cardinals had twice used two out, two strike base hits by David Freese and Lance Brinkman to tie a game they would eventually win in twelve innings. Many had since labeled the game as the greatest comeback in the history of the World Series. I told Doc that the Cardinals win had been improbable and very exciting, but the Linton win was much more spectacular. I based this on the fact that Freese and Brinkman were paid millions of dollars to do their specialty, hit a baseball. For the Cardinal effort to rival that of what we had just witnessed in Linton, the Cardinals would have had to be three runs down with the bases loaded and with no bench players left, having no other options, send to the plate a relief pitcher who has not batted since the 7th grade, but who somehow manages to hit a walk off grand slam home run.

Rebounding from a 20-0 deficit in high school football is a great accomplishment, but it does happen. But to pull off that type of a comeback with a makeshift offense built around a quarterback who does not even know the plays, is simply amazing. To their credit, the Linton coaches all admitted they did not believe at half time they could win the game. “I just hoped we could hold them down better the second half,” said defensive coordinator Paul Keeney. “I thought no way,” admitted Imdieke. “I just wanted to not get embarrassed by the score. I was really down at the half. I mean we couldn’t even move the ball. It is still unbelievable that our kids pulled this off.”

Gross’ was unfazed by his sudden Saturday’s Hero status. “I was always wanted to play quarterback,” he said tying his shoes in the hectic and celebratory Lion locker room. “I was glad I could help out.” Was he nervous? “Not really,” he said.

Imdieke graciously admitted after the game that Gross was not the best of practice players. “He has run a lot of hills over the years,” Imdieke joked. “But maybe that helped today. I don’t think that kid ever gets nervous. He just takes it as it comes.”

Lion assistants, after the game, laughed as they traded stories of Gross, the non-interested practice player, turned unlikely quarterback hero. "Have you ever known him to not to show up on game day? Did you see him out there today. We are dying from the stress and he is having the time of his life. On that last drive, and you know how intense that was, we are driving for a chance to play in the state championship game, to go to the Dome and Jayden is up to the line acting like he is calling an audible, clowning around, just calling out numbers and colors. Our guys are looking at him like 'WTF.' He doesn’t even know the audible calls! Nolan looked like he was laughing so hard he almost couldn’t snap the ball. This is crazy, just crazy.” No, it is small town high school at its finest.

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