SB Nation

Jamie Rogers | December 10, 2013

The only game in town

8-man football is a way of life in Eastern Montana, where small towns fight to survive

On a recent Saturday afternoon, 12 miles from the Canadian border, the hometown Scobey Spartans prepared to kick off to the Wibaux Longhorns in an 8-man high school football game. The Spartans were 0-6 coming into that game, but they had not always been bottom feeders of Montana's Class C Eastern Division. Only 10 years ago, they won a state title and in the 1990s they regularly played close games against the Longhorns. Corey Begger, who played offensive and defensive end for Wibaux back then, remembers one game when the wind gusted so powerfully across the prairie, punts landed behind the kickers. "There were dust clouds blowing across that field," he says, gesturing north toward Canada. "People parked busses and trucks behind the end zone to block the wind." He says Scobey had more kids going out for football then. He says it "was very different." Wibaux only won by two.

Montana 8-man football is played on a field 80 by 40 yards. All but three linemen are eligible to receive passes, and most teams run far more than they throw. When either team is ahead by 35 points or more, a mercy rule takes effect, and the clock runs without stopping until the end of the game.

making a living solely from raising beef and growing wheat has proven more difficult with each generation tasked with trying.

So far this year, Wibaux has mercy-ruled six teams in a row. None of the players or coaches or any of the 20 or so parents who made the three-hour drive north expected the game against Scobey to be any different, and soon after the Spartans kicker sent the ball end-over-end into the waiting arms of the Wibaux return man, the game was already over. Senior Jake Bakken, who also plays quarterback and safety, paused to let a wedge develop, and took off. His blockers slammed into Spartan players and kept running. Junior Trent Farnworth, who sports a mullet and who everyone calls "Boz," lowered his shoulder and flattened an undersized opponent. Wyatt Miske, a 235-pound lineman, did the same, clearing a route for Bakken, who seemed to glide through space. Ten seconds and 76 yards later, he was in the end zone. Two minutes after that, the Longhorns were up 16-0.  A quarter later, with nine minutes remaining in the first half, the score was 42-0.

Wibaux is like Scobey. It's the same as Plevna and Ekalaka and Hysham; a no-stoplight town on the extreme eastern side of Montana, the flat, dry side, where making a living solely from raising beef and growing wheat has proven more difficult with each generation tasked with trying. In a county with barely a thousand people spread across nearly 900 square miles, half live in Wibaux.

By nearly any metric — population, school enrollment, the age of the people who live there — Wibaux and so many other towns in that part of the state are dying. But Wibaux is also different. Of the eight schools that originally played in the Montana Class C Eastern Division, seven of them are now too small to field 8-man teams and have either dropped to 6-man or quit playing altogether. Only one team has bucked the trend. In one way, at least, Wibaux still thrives.

***

Sbnation-wibaux_-_24_medium

storefront bars where you can buy a box of bullets with your beer.

Beaver Creek meanders through the center of town like a snake in tall grass. Wibaux was built around its curves, and there was a time when residents were sustained by its slow current. It's as wide as a tennis court and people say you can catch walleye and northern pike in the deep holes. It flows under Highway 7, past an old grain elevator, the fueling station and a dirt-pocked little league field with a rusted chain-link backstop. The creek comes within a block of downtown — its storefronts mostly vacant but not yet shuttered — and the trucks parked outside of the Shamrock and the Rainbow clubs, storefront bars where you can buy a box of bullets with your beer and where wall calendars track the birthdays of the regulars and their families.

Today, Beaver Creek is mostly used for cooling off in the summer. Wibaux is sustained by something else.

Veterans Memorial Field lies within the footprint of a dilapidated gravel and clay track on the opposite side of downtown. On the rare days when the wind doesn't blow, you can hear the growl of semis on Interstate 94, and the whistle of a coal train miles before it speeds through town without slowing down.

The week after beating Scobey, the Longhorns returned home for the final game of the regular season against a mediocre co-op squad from Froid and Medicine Lake (high schools combining student bodies to field teams is common practice in Montana Class C). As is usual during the regular season, no one in Wibaux expects much of a game — since 2001 they've only lost six times — but, like parishioners outside of their church, people still gather.

An hour before kickoff, Dodge and Chevy pickup trucks are backed up to the edge of the track, camping chairs unfolded in their beds. The adults, some parents of players, huddle around tailgates. Young girls sit in the bleachers and wear hoodies and lean into one another to fit under blankets. Younger boys roam the sidelines in packs. Behind the uprights, they play games of two-hand touch that seem never to begin or end.

Sbnation-wibaux_-_08_mediumThe LaBelle brothers.

"They don't want to let the older generation down by having a losing season."

South of the field, below a soft rise at the top of which stands a statue of Pierre Wibaux — a prominent rancher, who in 1895 decided Mingusville was an unsatisfactory name for a place — a group of blue-and-gold faithful gather between trucks and under a party tent and eat sausage and chili. Among them is Tracy Bakken, wife of assistant coach Shane Bakken, and mother of Jake, Jeff and Joe, all of whom play or played quarterback for the Longhorns. She stands with her mother, Sally Witkowski, a self-proclaimed "sports buff," who has lived in Wibaux all of her adult life. When asked how a town that in most years has fewer than 30 teenage boys can win so often, Witkowski replies as if anyone who didn't already know wouldn't understand the answer. "They're winners, they all are," she says. "They take football real seriously."

Tracy responds by describing her family. She says that when her middle son Jeffrey was in junior high, he stood on the sidelines at games, heard the crack when his older brother, Joe, slammed his helmet into the helmets of his teammates and watched as he ran onto the field and led the Longhorns to victory after victory after victory. She says her youngest son, Jake, did the same. "It's just pounded into their heads," she says. "They don't want to let the older generation down by having a losing season."

Senior lineman Heath LaBelle knows this pressure. His teammates call him Vito — for his resemblance to the MTV reality star — and at nearly 300 pounds, he's of typical size for men in the LaBelle family. His oldest brother, Jordan, graduated in 2007 and played for a state championship in 2006. Their middle brother, AJ, played for three titles before graduating in 2010. When the three of them sit together, they make furniture seem like playthings and Longhorn football seem like the center of the universe.

"It's expected. It's weird to say, but Wibaux football is just expected," says their father Greg. "We're expected to do well, and it doesn't matter who's on the team," he adds, pointing out that this pressure gave all his sons an edge. "Jordan will always say he's better than AJ and AJ says Heath isn't as good as the other two. It's community wide — that's your competition."

No LaBelle boy has lost more than five games in four years of football. And while no LaBelle has won a state title, they continue to measure success on whether or not the team finishes as the best in the state. When asked if it's possible that the Longhorn brand may be changing — considering that in 2012, Wibaux High was the smallest high school playing 8-man football in Montana and three of the four teams that made it to the semi-finals that year drew from students bodies more than twice Wibaux's size — they are incredulous. "They've said it for years, ‘They're not going to be as good, they're not going to be as good,'" says AJ. "I think Wibaux has the mentality. I don't care how many kids are in your school. Being in Wibaux is different. We have the tradition. It's a football town."

Today, that tradition and the power it wields over younger generations is evidenced by other familiar names on the Longhorns roster. There's a Bakken and a Bertelsen, a LaBelle, two Miskes, two Nelsons, two Dschaaks, two Schneiders, and a Quade — Jhett — whose uncles were Longhorns. His father, Kevin, also played and is remembered by people in town as the consummate Longhorn fan. In 2006, during a semi-final home playoff game, he hired a plane and a photographer to take aerial photographs of the 3,000 people in attendance. In photos from that day, the field is unusually green and surrounded by people on all sides. It seems to be the only thing in town still growing.

***

The tallest structure in Wibaux is a water tower, at the center of which the word "Wibaux" is painted in red so that it faces the interstate. Second tallest is the grain elevator on the other side of Beaver Creek. Otherwise, Wibaux creates a squat horizon line of two-story buildings and trees. Driving south on Highway 7 or east on I-94, it's a matter of seconds before Wibaux disappears in the rearview mirror.

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When head coach Jeff Bertelsen was in high school, he and some friends plotted to climb the tower. There was nothing much to see, they just wanted to see if they could get all the way to the top. Their plan, though, was foiled by a passing deputy sheriff, and the group scattered, running down streets and through yards to escape. Only a single member of his crew got to the top. Bertelsen laughs when he tells the story. The water tower itself is empty.

Bertelsen moved to Wibaux from the mountains and trout streams of western Montana when his dad got a job as a county agent in 1987. His freshmen year of football was the last year for then-coach Rob Bushman, the man who most Longhorn fans credit with inventing the Wibaux brand of football. "We ran the ball," he says. "Up the gut, hard-nose football." The next year, under a new coach, Wibaux suffered its first losing season since anyone could remember. It would be their last.

Everyone in town — including his players — calls him Bert. He has a face like Paul Giamatti, but he has the physique of someone you wouldn't want to mess with. He wears khaki cargo shorts to every game, no matter the weather, and when you ask him if he would change anything about his job with the Longhorns, it'd be painting the fields. He is not just the coach, but also the grounds crew. "That's the worst thing I do at this job. I measure and paint that field before every game," he says. "It used to take me six hours."

Thirty minutes before the Froid/Medicine Lake game, Bertelsen addresses the Longhorn players in a cramped locker room beneath Wibaux High's gymnasium bleachers. The game is meaningless; Wibaux has had the Eastern Division's No. 1 seed clinched for weeks. Some teams would take the starters out in the first half in a game like this, no matter the score, to preserve them for the playoffs. Not Wibaux. Bertelsen searches for a way to motivate — to remind his players that even in games that don't matter, final scores transcend win/loss columns. Complacency, not the opposition, represents the real challenge to Bert's boys.

"They're gonna come, and they're gonna come hard. You have to take that out of them. They got nothing to lose. This is their state title game for their seniors. It's the last high school football game they'll play," he says and reminds them that they, too, will someday take the field for the last time. "Think how'd you play that game."

Sbnation-wibaux_-_20_mediumHead coach Jeff Bertelsen in his signature khaki shorts.

Bertelsen knows what it's like to play that game, and unlike anyone else in the locker room, he knows what it's like to win it.  In 1991, his junior year, the Longhorns cruised to the school's first state championship. They did it again the next year, and although Bertelsen had already left to play at Dickinson State, the Longhorns did it again in 1993. Bertelsen was a star defender, and he still remembers the rush of bringing home the state title. "Once you know what that feels like, there's sort of nothing else like it," he says. "You want to have that feeling again. I want these kids to have that feeling."

The Longhorns won the program's fifth state title in 2001, Bertelsen's first year as head coach. Since then, they've gone 125-18 and have made it to the championship game five more times, but have yet to win again. "It's title or bust every year. I've heard people say, ‘Oh, he can't win the big one.' You feel the pressure and you know it comes with the job," he says. "I think sometimes I just try to be naive about it — to protect myself. Just do what we do every day and try to get better."

After Bertelsen addresses his team, Rob Bacon, a first-year assistant coach, speaks to the players. He played for the 2006 Longhorns, which Bertelsen describes as "the best Wibaux team to not win a title." After winning a semifinal game, the Longhorns lost the title in overtime. Bacon remembers returning to Wibaux late the night after the loss, the fire engine escort for the Longhorns' bus and the people who had stayed up to honk truck horns and welcome the boys home. "It was bittersweet," he says. "If you grow up saying you want to be good at football, that's one thing. But we grow up saying we want to win state. We know we're going to be good at football. We want to win state."

"We know we're going to be good at football. We want to win state."

Sbnation-wibaux_-_01_medium

When Bacon talks to the Longhorn players about their opponent, he channels the frustration that comes with coming up short in the face of extraordinary expectations. "They have a new coach this year and maybe he thinks things have changed, but they haven't. It's gotten uglier ... Take some pride in that, you are the guys who are going to be knocking their dicks in the dirt. Make them get it. Make every member of that team get it," he says. "Let them know what we're about."

The players stand up and touch hands and count to three. They march out of the locker room and turn right to exit the building and run across a parking lot onto the field. Turn left instead, stairs lead to the polished wood surface of the Wibaux gymnasium, where five state title banners hang from a cinder block wall: '91, '92, '93, '00 and '01. Most people in Wibaux find it disappointing there aren't more, but most people in Wibaux, like assistant coach Shane Bakken, also think it would be cheap to hang runner-up banners. He played quarterback in the '80s and has watched his sons play in four state title games. He believes there is only one way to measure a successful season. "Once you get a taste, that's the drive. You want to get back there again, and we have it. If you're not playing to win it every year, why play?" he says.  "No one remembers second place."

***

The Longhorns score on the first series of the game against the Red Hawks. They proceed to recover the ball on an onsides kick and score again. On the first Red Hawk possession, they struggle to crack the line of scrimmage and are forced to kick from inside their own 5-yard line. The punter receives a low snap as blue jerseys crash the backfield. He doesn't appear to panic so much as make a calculation and then a quick decision. He turns his back to the field, drops the ball to his foot and gingerly boots it out of the back of the end zone. The first quarter ends with the score 38-8.

When the Longhorns are playing well, it's like watching a video game between a committed gamer and someone who left the controller on the coffee table — something doesn't quite seem fair. On a special teams play, Chase Bertelsen, who has the same stacked-brick physique as his father, Jeff, draws gasps from the sideline when he topples a Red Hawk gunner flat on his back. Jake Bakken fields a kickoff and moves through traffic like a spooked antelope, his strides covering more ground than seem possible. The Red Hawks don't tackle him so much as shoo him out of bounds.  Although every team has its stars, not every team wins so gaudily game after game, year after year. Not every team is the Longhorns.

A few minutes into the third quarter, the score is 57-8, and Bertelsen begins to take the starters out of the game. Bakken and Bertelsen, LaBelle, Miske, Farnworth and Colton Tousignant, the starting running back who is as adept at breaking up passes as he is at running around tacklers, have their places taken by underclassmen.

Colton's younger brother, Chas, a 100-pound freshman, gets in at running back. He receives a handoff and is knocked over before he makes it to the end. He is promptly taken out. When he was younger, Chas watched his older brothers play football at recess. He remembers they would pretend to be Longhorn players of the day — Travis Bertelsen, Rob Bacon, Derek Hartse — and when his brothers got to high school, Chas played recess ball himself and pretended to be his brothers — superstar athletes playing on the biggest stage in the universe. As a ninth grader, he only sees the field when the Longhorns have mercy-ruled a team, if at all. But wearing that jersey is a dream realized, and he's already experienced the chemical surge of winning and the rush it gives him. "It just comes to you," he says.

Nearly to the end of his first season, he does not yet know what losing feels like.

***

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The pavement of Hodges Road ends just after it passes the football field on the western edge of town. From there, the county uses crushed red rock to cover its clay surface. Four and a half miles west, Hodges intersects Ranch Access Road. Ranch Access winds over gentle rises and across dry creek beds for almost nine miles before dead-ending in a gulley of ash trees at the Tousignant family ranch. It is here, on land like this, land the family refers to as the "home place," where the boys who have always played football at Wibaux are born.

Bill Tousignant's mustache frames the corners of his mouth, and he is fond of telling the story of how he met his wife, Lisa, on horseback, a few miles from where they now live, just before a hailstorm. He says that despite the county's efforts, the road to his family's home is sometimes impassable. When it rains too much, the clay turns to wet cement and cakes on truck wheels until they no longer spin. When it snows, the road is sometimes unplowed for days, and his boys have to clear stretches of it themselves. It's not uncommon, he says, for his family to be stranded on their ranch "for a day or two."

Sbnation-wibaux_-_33_mediumThe Tousignant brothers.

when the weather is right, they work for 20 hours a day.

Hours before the game against the Red Hawks, Bill and his sons, Colton and Chas, woke before dawn. The boys each have a mat of tightly curled hair and electric blue eyes, which never shy from eye contact. That morning, a veterinarian was due at the ranch to do a pregnancy check on their stock of heifers. As dawn became day, the Tousignant men guided the 1,200-pound animals down a shoot of wrought iron fence, at the end of which each head of cattle was examined with an ultrasound wand. They had to work quickly, because the boys had a game.

Bill and Lisa are proud of their sons. As did their older brother before he left for college, Colton and Chas do every job the ranch demands. In February and March, they take turns waking up every two hours throughout the night to check on the pregnant cattle, and if one is in labor, they help relieve her of the 80-pound calf. They have never been on a spring vacation, and they spend their summers cutting hay and rolling it into enormous cylindrical bails. Some weeks, when the weather is right, and the grass is neither too wet with dew or too dry and brittle, they work for 20 hours a day.

On a recent Sunday morning, Bill drives his Dodge up a steep, dirt incline and gestures across a draw to where a church-sized stack of bails slumps in the wind. "That's no small feat," he says of the work his boys do each summer and adds that there are more stacks around the ranch. He says Colton and Chas cut 2,500 acres of grass last summer and put up 7,000 bails of hay. Sometime in the following months, when snow covers the ground, they will unfurl the bails one-by-one. The Tousignants' cattle will survive through the winter because of the work the boys did in the summer.

Ranch life is cyclical. Every task — preg-checking heifers, branding calves, trucking steers to auction — exists on the rim of a wheel, pushed around its axis by the changing of seasons. A job is completed only so the next one can begin, and some jobs, like mending the 40 miles of fence on the Tousignants' property, are never finished. The Tousignant boys aren't football fans — there is little time for that luxury, and these are not boys accustomed to sitting around. They show no allegiance to any team other than the one they play for. On weekends, when they are not playing football and if there is no work to be done, they'd rather play paintball or ride ATVs or hunt than sit and flick between televised football games. Colton doesn't care about Peyton Manning's comeback or concussions or who will win the Heisman. He'd rather show you the skin of a bobcat he trapped in a snare not far from his house. The pelt is silken and mottled tan and gray with dark spots. He says it's a female and rubs a hand over the teats on her belly. He says it might earn him $500 but a big tom could get $1,000. "They kind of dock you because she was milking," he says.

In Wibaux, the Tousignant boys are called "ranch kids," and while they are not the only ranch kids on the Longhorns, they are of a vanishing world. Corey Begger, the team's statistician, remembers just a few decades ago, when he was playing, there were more boys like the Tousignants, himself included. "There's not as many farm kids now as there used to be back in the early '90s. When I grew up, we were always on the farm," he says. "Wheat and putting up hay, working cows. We always had other kids helping us." He's not sure why, but he thinks that families are smaller than they used to be. And, he says, "Kids just aren't coming back to work on the farm." Wibaux, where nothing ever changes, is changing in this way.

The ways small towns die are unmistakable.

Sbnation-wibaux_-_26_medium

The ways small towns die are unmistakable. One day, a family moves away, and no family moves in. The next day, the closed sign in the window of the town's only restaurant stays facing the street, and the post office announces it will only be open four days a week. The school shrinks until there are too few kids to field sports teams. So they practice with schools from neighboring towns, compromise on new uniform colors and mascots. They punctuate the team's new name with a slash. Then goes the gas station and the library. And, in time, the school closes because all of the children are gone.

Wibaux is not Ingomar. It is not Opheim or Custer, towns much closer to drying up and blowing away. But it has gotten steadily smaller, its residents steadily older, and the land there is as unforgiving as anywhere else in that part of the state. The median age in Wibaux is over 50, about 14 years older than the national average, and getting older. High school enrollment is down to about 50 students — 30 years ago there were more than 80, and today, in the playoffs, Wibaux routinely plays against school with twice as many students. But Wibaux survives, and compared to so many other towns, almost seems to flourish. Not because of sheep or cattle or wheat, but because of America's appetite for something else.

***

In 1953, four years after engineers in Pennsylvania successfully used a technique for extracting oil from subsurface rock called hydraulic fracturing, a geologist named J.W. Nordquist discovered a shale formation beneath wheat fields belonging to a North Dakota farmer named Henry Bakken (no relation to the Wibaux Bakkens). In time, it was determined that the formation covered nearly 200,000 square miles and stretched from western North Dakota to southern Saskatchewan to eastern Montana. Estimates put the amount of extractable oil in the hundreds of billions of barrels.

Companies like Halliburton, Exxon, and Tesoro laid claims, and in recent years, towns like Williston and Watford City, N.D., and Sidney, Mont., have transformed into boomtowns, full of people from someplace else, where men live in trucks and trailers or else commute long distances to earn a wage.

One hundred miles to the west, Wibaux is sustained by its proximity to the explosion of industry. Bill Tousignant doesn't spend his days on the ranch. He spends about 300 days a year working as a consultant on drill rigs. He says that if he could stay home, he would. Ranching is what he loves, but without the work in North Dakota, he isn't sure his life as a rancher would persist. AJ LaBelle says he'd love to find a job in town, but "they're paying $16 an hour at the McDonald's in Dickinson." He works inspecting and selling tubing for pipelines, while his brother, Jordan, commutes to Dickinson, N.D., to work as a mechanic. Their youngest brother, Heath, wants to do the same.

Wibaux may be slowly dying, but it is also still a living place, with a high school and a post office and, significantly, a line of trucks at the ticket booth on Saturday afternoons in the fall. As long as there is football, traffic passing on I-94 will know the name "Wibaux" on that water tower means something. But what will happen when more people move off the ranch, have fewer kids and the enrollment at the high school drops to 40, to 30? What happens when the Rainbow closes, or the Shamrock? Or when there aren't enough boys to work a ranch when their father is away?

Some people say it will never happen — they refuse to admit the possibility, just as their ancestors once refused to bend before the wind. Jeff Bakken, who played quarterback and graduated in 2008, says Wibaux will never go the way of Terry, Ekalaka or Savage — former 8-man schools who can no longer field 8-man teams. He says the 6-man game, with every player eligible to catch a pass, "isn't even football."

"There is nothing else without football," he says. "I mean, what else is there?"

"If Wibaux had eight players on their football team," he says, "we'd still play 8-man football."

Jordan LaBelle agrees, because without Longhorn football, the place he grew up would cease to exist. "There is nothing else without football," he says. "I mean, what else is there?"

But others acknowledge change is coming. Wibaux High currently has large junior and freshmen classes, but elementary school numbers are critically low. Jeff Bertelsen isn't sure how much longer he will coach, but he says a drop to 6-man would force him to retire early. He is willing to concede the inevitability of the move. "It's a numbers game. Saturdays will still be here. If we're playing 6-man, they'll still be here," he says. When asked what would happen if the Longhorns were playing losing 6-man, he laughs and looks up at the ceiling. "I don't know," he says. "It's never happened."

Begger wears a Longhorn sweatshirt everywhere. He travels to every away game and records every yard gained, touchdown scored and tackle made by the Longhorns. Before home games, he listens to a recording of the 2006 radio broadcast of the playoff game in which the Longhorns snapped the 44-game winning streak of a team from the western side of the state. When he talks about Wibaux football, the corners of his mouth turn up slightly and his eyes widen, as if suddenly awakened. Standing in the lobby of the high school, he takes pleasure in revealing that the longhorn steer whose head is mounted on the wall was raised on his family's ranch.

He doesn't like to think about what may happen to his team. The idea of losing Longhorn football — the thing that in some ways has defined his life — is unbearable. But he knows it's possible. He remembers the days when Scobey played the Longhorns tough for four quarters — when they had more kids out for football. He doesn't want to predict the future, but Begger is willing to imagine it. "I can't even fathom coming into the locker room without thinking we're going to win. Nobody here believes it. It's going to be tough when it becomes a reality. I think all them dreams will — " he says and catches himself. "Once that dream goes away, do you ever start dreaming it again? I don't know."

Sbnation-wibaux_-_10_medium

***

The ceremonies before a high school football game never vary, no matter who is playing or what they are playing for. Hours before kickoff, people mingle in the parking lot and on the bleachers, picking up conversations left off the week before. Some of them are friends and some only know each other because they feel connected to the same school, the same team and the same game. They huddle around each other until their chatter is disrupted by the chanting and shouting of the hometown players as they sprint from the locker room onto the field. It starts again, the rituals that bring them to this place each fall. The captains, sons who were themselves sons of fathers who played on this field, in freshly washed uniforms, shake hands and flip a coin. The ball is placed on a tee and the teams line up on opposite sides of the field. A whistle blows and the ball is kicked into the air and the players hurdle down the field toward one another.

The end of the game, though, has nothing to do with its beginning. Time simply runs out and suddenly the white lines painted on the grass mean nothing. The final seconds tick off the clock and the shrill of a whistle announces that the game is over, the score Wibaux 65, Froid/Medicine Lake 16. The Red Hawk and Longhorn players stand up straight, take off their helmets and reveal mops of sweaty hair. They shake hands. Parents and siblings walk onto the field and wrap arms around their shoulder pads. A group of girls surround a player and hug him so that he smiles awkwardly and appreciatively. The scene is celebratory but also cathartic. It is as if everyone gathers on the field after the game to reassure each other that it is still here — that whatever had been anticipated has come and gone, and that in another week or another year, it will happen again. No one seems to notice the younger boys, whose game of two-hand touch continues and has spilled onto the field and licks at the edges of the crowd.

As the sun begins a slow dip toward the horizon, the wind dies down and trucks begin to pull away from the track. Some folks head downtown, to the Shamrock Club or the Rainbow, to have a beer and talk about the game and prognosticate about the playoffs. Despite another blowout, Longhorn defensive backs were beat twice, resulting in Red Hawk scores. In two weeks, the Longhorns will host a playoff game as the No. 1 seed in the east, and Shane Bakken knows other teams will not be so forgiving. "I was pissed that they scored twice," he says. "We have stuff to work on. Our season really begins in two weeks."

Others drive back to their houses on cracked pavement, past the water tower and across Beaver Creek. And still others, like the Tousignants, pull away from the field and have miles of dirt and clay and red gravel to cover before reaching home. It's a road they drive every day, and they've seen it unplowed and indistinguishable under a blanket of snow. They've seen it turn to muck in a heavy rain and stick to the tires of their truck. Sometimes that road is impassable, but on a Saturday in October, it's clear and cuts through a wind-swept grassland that in a muted autumn light suggests nothing more than a season that may well never end.

On Nov. 23, Wibaux lost the state championship game against Ennis 68-56, the Longhorns' fourth loss in the title game in the past six seasons.

Producer: Chris Mottram | Editor: Glenn Stout | Copy Editor: Kevin Fixler | Photos: Jamie Rogers

About the Author

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Jamie Rogers' work has appeared in the Missoula Independent, Montana Headwall, Wild on the Fly, and others. He lives in Missoula, Montana. Follow him on Twitter: @jgrogersmt.

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