ESKO – First, some relevant numbers from a fun-filled Friday at a football game in northern Minnesota: 28, 14 and one.
The final score in the Great Polar Alliance White Division contest was the Esko Eskomos 28, Two Harbors Agates 14. The key number, however, is one. As in one community coming together for one purpose. And Friday was the one night when everything culminated in one glorious celebration.
After the game/celebration had ended, I asked Esko senior quarterback Marc Peterson about the day.
“Oh, it was fun,” he said, speaking for the whole town. “It was awesome.”
Let’s go back a few years to where Friday’s story began. In the town that’s 10 miles south of Duluth, Les Knuti Field had been in use since the early 1970s. But it was aging as the new century began and everyone knew something should be done. In 2009 a referendum seeking funds for a facility upgrade failed. In 2012 the field’s bleachers were condemned and the fast-failing stadium lights were removed. The knockout blow came in June 2012, when the old ballyard fell victim to massive flooding, as did nearby baseball and softball fields and other places to play.
At this point, drastic action was needed. A committee called Esko Pride was formed last year. The group put together efforts to raise community awareness of the need for improved facilities, and students pitched in to go door to door, do TV interviews, write letters to the editor and hold events. On election day, voters approved an education levy as well as a facilities referendum. The facilities plan called for a grass field, but people in town wanted to strive for more.
Another new group, the Esko Turf Club, was formed in January of this year with the goal of raising enough money to add artificial turf to the football/soccer field that was under construction. In no time, the goal was reached. Installation of a SprinTurf surface began when the snow melted.
“To see the transformation from before to now, the way we envisioned it and the way it is now, it’s even more grand than what we imagined,” said Esko activities director Chad Stoskopf. “When you see it on paper, it looks nice and it makes sense, but to see it now kind of takes your breath away. It’s better than we could have ever anticipated.”
It is a showplace. The playing surface is raised so it’ll take a whale of a flood for high water to ever reach it. An igloo is painted on the 50-yard line, and both end zones are painted blue with “ESKOMOS” in large white letters. A new metal grandstand sits on one side of the field, topped by a roomy pressbox; new baseball and softball fields are under construction behind the bleachers, and windows in the “back” of the pressbox will allow it to be used for those fields, too.
The scoreboard is behind the visitor’s bench, opposite the grandstand. That’s a unique spot for a scoreboard and it works amazingly well … why didn’t anyone think of that before? On a fence behind the scoreboard is a long line of banners from businesses that supported the project.
The Eskomos played their first four football games this season on the road at Cloquet, Moose Lake-Willow River, Deer River and Duluth Marshall. All that time, finishing touches were being put on the new stadium. A flagpole had not yet been installed by Friday’s game, but local Cub Scouts proudly held the stars and stripes at midfield while the Esko choir knocked out a tremendous rendition of the national anthem.
The Esko football players had not practiced on their new field before facing Two Harbors. In fact, none of the Eskomos had even stepped on the field until early Friday morning.
“We were all hootin’ and hollerin’ and having a good time,” said Peterson, who completed nine of 11 passes for 170 yards. His favorite target, junior wide receiver Aaron Olson, caught four passes for 113 yards and a touchdown.
Imagine that … a football game in Minnesota with a Peterson throwing to an Olson.
The victory gave Esko (which reached the Class 3A state quarterfinals last year) a 3-2 record, and the loss was the first after four wins for the Agates. The Eskomos were thrilled with their dominant victory, in which senior John Carr ran for two short touchdowns and senior Earl Brinkley returned a fumble 51 yards for a score. But the thrills went much further.
“It’s great,” Olson said. “I’m thankful for everybody who donated to the Turf Club and the school and the whole community for giving money.”
The sense of anticipation had been growing since voters approved the facilities referendum, and it grew exponentially when turf became a reality. This is a great big deal for a great small school; Esko’s 9-12 enrollment is 367 students. The only smaller school in Minnesota with a turf field is Sauk Centre (306 students).
“Ever since the flood, ever since the suggestion that they were going to do something like this, we’ve been looking forward to this,” Peterson said.
And oh, what a night it was. The game capped Homecoming week, which is always festive in itself. During the pregame ceremonies, skydivers delivered the game ball, a soccer game ball (the Eskomos girls soccer team played its first game on the field Saturday vs. Princeton) and an Esko flag … although the parachutist carrying the football lost a battle against a strong breeze and landed outside the stadium. Another neat touch: the word "Family" on the back of every Two Harbors jersey.
At the coin flip, four members of the 1946 Esko football team were honored; that was the first football team in school history. The head official wore a microphone so everyone could hear the explanations for penalties (there weren’t many).
There was a long line for food at a mobile barbecue stand. There was popcorn and commemorative T-shirts. The field is located a few blocks from the high school, and one of the most impressive pregame sights was a parade on foot – cheerleaders, football players, soccer players and students of all ages – from the school to the stadium.
And the band. My goodness, the Esko band. I go to a lot of high school events all over the state, and this band is something very special. No uniforms, no marching, but no matter. The orchestra, under the direction of Richard Mowers, was positioned on small bleachers behind the north end zone. And once they began playing, they seemingly never stopped playing. They played during timeouts, they played during halftime, between quarters … they even played between plays. A referee’s whistle would blow, Mower would wave a hand, and we would hear the Flintstones theme song or the Scooby Doo theme song or a snippet of a rock and roll classic … and as the ball was snapped for the next play the music stopped. Only to resume at the next whistle. Amazing. Incredible. Pure entertainment and fun.
After the game, the Esko football players stood in front of their band and applauded. The football team applauding the band. How stunningly cool is that?
That scene was the perfect ending to a perfect celebration that was years in the making. What has happened in Esko is a testament to hard work, commitment, community involvement and reaching a goal through total teamwork. And there’s no better lesson for our young people than that.
Eskomos, you are my heroes.
--To see a photo gallery from Esko, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.
BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 71
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry: 3,638
(*During the 2013-14 school year)
Follow John onTwitter: @MSHSLjohn