On Thursday night in International Falls, a grandfather who played in the NFL long ago watched his grandson catch a touchdown pass while another old-time footballer returned to the field where he had coached for four decades. The next night in Ada, young boys from schools that have been longtime rivals took the field together for the first time as teammates.
Such is football, and all high school activities. They are family, ritual, old soldiers and young pups, forming and renewing the fabric of community, spirit and pride.
I hit the road as the fall season began, driving to the Canadian border to see the International Falls Broncos host the Virginia Blue Devils on Thursday in the very first football game of the year, and then angling southwest to Ada where the Polk County West Thunder met the Ada-Borup/Norman County West Cougars on Friday.
It was glorious, to say the least. I drove 902 miles, listened to fans laugh and cheer, and walked the sidelines during two splendid evenings of season-opening football. Here’s what I saw…Telltale Signs
Sometimes before a game begins you see omens of what may happen. When the team captains from Virginia and International Falls met at midfield for the coin flip, there was a difference. The Virginia captains were Riley Dishneau (6-foot-3, 190 pounds), Beau Foix (6-6, 225), Bryce Kennedy (6-7, 300) and Ethan Youso (6-6, 210). Two of those big Blue Devils had beards.
Representing the Broncos were Taylor Wilson (6-2, 228), Gust Lorenson (5-8, 165) and Gage Wherley (5-11, 185). Gust wore cargo shorts and had his left arm in a sling; Gage was also in street clothes.
The game followed the script. The undersized Broncos lost two fumbles in the first half but hung tough, trailing 8-0 at halftime. Virginia broke it open in the second half and rolled to a 29-0 victory as a line of Broncos went to the sideline with injuries.
“We got a little banged up tonight,” said first-year Broncos head coach Jon Froemke, who is the Koochiching County Chief Deputy. “We’re going to regroup and come back next week.”Making Grandpa Proud
Frank Youso, 81, watched his grandson Ethan from the stands, which he reached with the aid of a walker. Frank is a 1954 International Falls graduate who played football at the University of Minnesota and then with the New York Giants, Vikings and Oakland Raiders from 1958 to 1965. He was the very first player signed by the Vikings.
“It’s definitely special,” Ethan said of playing with his grandpa in the crowd. “I want to do him justice in the sport that he played. It’s definitely big.”
Ethan’s mom, Jody, had the team at her house for a spaghetti dinner on Wednesday night. “They ate a lot of spaghetti,” she said with a smile.
On the first play of the fourth quarter, Ethan caught a 14-yard scoring pass from Jack Zupatz to put Virginia ahead 22-0. Old-Timers Day (And Place)
Sports Stadium in International Falls was a Works Progress Administration project, built in 1942. Stuart Nordquist coached the Broncos from 1967 until retiring in 2008. He returned as an assistant coach this season, bringing 410 games of experience as a head coach.
Stuart’s record of 275-133-2 puts him 11th in state history for football coaching victories. He brought back with him the double wing offense that he used in his time as head coach.
“It’s back to kind of smash-mouth football,” Froemke said. “It’s something the program’s been away from for about eight years. I wanted to bring Stuart back because he’s obviously so knowledgeable. He played a little hard to get but I didn’t have to twist his arm too far.”History In The Making
“Ladies and gentlemen, for the very first time ever, the Ada-Borup/Norman County West Cougars!”
That was the P.A. announcement as the Cougars were introduced before Friday’s game at Ada’s Johnson Sports Complex. This was new ground, with the teams from Ada-Borup and Norman County West in Halstad forming a cooperative football squad for the first time. (The schools also share a superintendent in Shawn Yates.)
The schools already had joined together in other sports, but not all. Once football season ends, the boys will retreat to their respective schools and face off in basketball.
“Football is every town’s pride and joy,” said Ada-Borup activities director Kelly Anderson. “The kids and the coaching staff are on board, and that’s the most important cog.”
The Cougars came out on top with a 43-0 victory that went into running time in the fourth quarter.Special Treatment For Visitors
I was standing near an end zone during the second quarter when someone tapped me on the shoulder. That someone was the Ada-Borup/Norman County West volleyball team, with a question: “When would you like your pretzel and cheese?”
If you don’t follow me on Twitter this is a total mystery to you … which I won’t explain here. My answer was: “Whenever you guys want to bring it to me.” And before long I was munching on a big, warm pretzel and dipping it in cheesy goodness. (Don’t even get me started on the gallon can of nacho cheese they sent home with me … but there are photos on Twitter.)Officially Speaking
One of the officials at the game in Ada was Phil Hansen, who lives in Detroit Lakes and is well-known in the area. Phil played college football at North Dakota State and was a defensive end for the NFL’s Buffalo Bills from 1991-2001, including three Super Bowl appearances. He also is an MSHSL basketball official.Tough, Tough, Tough
Both games were filled with hard knocks and big plays. The toughest player I saw was International Falls junior Armando Barrios. He took handoffs in the Broncos’ old-school offense and slammed into the defense time after time, and never stopped making tackles on defense.
Armando left the game briefly in the third quarter with a painful cramp in his right leg. A few plays after returning, he made a tackle on the Virginia sideline and was suddenly in pain again; this time it was a cramp in his left leg.
One of the Virginia coaches leaned over Armando, grabbed his left foot and began raising it in order to lessen the cramp. Armando smiled through the pain as everyone joked around a little. Teammate Taylor Wilson gave him a verbal, joking jab by saying, “You’re drinking too much soda.” To which Armando replied, “I don’t even drink soda!”
Then he got up and went back to work. Tough as nails. Happy Coaches
Ed Cremer is in his 11th season as the head coach at Virginia. This could be a nice year for the Blue Devils, who are big, experienced and skilled.
“We have eight starters back on defense and nine on offense,” he said. “Four have started since ninth grade.”
Paul Tinjum, who was the head coach at Ada-Borup, is now the head coach of the merged team. Norman County West head coach Nate McCraven is an assistant.
“It’s gone pretty smoothly,” Tinjum said of the situation. “Spring sports have been together for a while so they know each other from baseball, softball, track, golf. But at the same time we were rivals in football and basketball.
“The kids have pretty much bought in. We’ve had a couple to-the-point, to-the-heart talks about believing in the guy next to you, and we’re one team now. We played pretty well. We knew we were going to be pretty good. It’s one win, we’re happy.”
And a new season marches on.--See photo galleries from both games on the MSHSL Facebook page.
Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn