Week 1 | Burnt River
UNITY, OREGON – Wayne Wise has never coached football. In fact, he hasn’t picked up a football in 34 years. Six of his eight players are foreign exchange students who have never played the game. His quarterback, from Taiwan, is affectionately called Harry, because few—including us—can pronounce his given name. It’s 90 degrees, there’s no shade, and no substitutes.
Wise knew all this was coming, and still agreed to coach The Burnt River Bulls eight-man football team this season. He did it for one reason; he wanted the kids in Unity to have the same experience as others across Oregon. He wanted them to have the opportunity to play football.
Fielding a team at Burnt River is often a challenge. The K-12 school southwest of Baker City is too remote to combine with other schools as some in their league.
So the 45 person student body and about 60 people from the community turned out to support their team when the season opened this past Friday afternoon against Prairie City.
There were some bumps; seven first quarter fumbles, but they did score a touchdown. The Bulls halftime locker room looked like a train wreck as players gasped for air and tried to process the new game.
Prairie City scored early and often though, and the game was stopped in the third quarter after Burnt River got down to five players. Cramps and dehydration take a toll.
But in the end, Burnt River met a goal; They will play again this Friday.
Week 2 | Santiam Christian
CORVALLIS, OREGON – Just like every one of his teammates, Santiam Christian team captain Matt Scruggs stood up and read his commitment aloud to the group before passing a note card with his promise to another player.
“Commitments, guys, that’s what separates us from everybody else,” explains coach Dave Langes. “When you get up and you make that commitment to the team, that’s what family is. The only thing you have to fear is letting the guy next to you down.”
A knee injury kept Scruggs from fulfilling his commitment to force three turnovers in their loss against Dayton. “Obviously, I wasn’t able to do it, but it fuels you for next week,” says Scruggs.
Week 3 | Astoria
ASTORIA, OREGON – The band was done playing, the grandstand empty, but over on the practice field, in the dark, crisp coastal air, a party was just beginning. It’s this way after an Astoria High School football victory, time for the Fishermen celebration dance. The defending Class 4A champion defeated Estacada 47-30 last Friday, so the team finished the night with rituals that come with a win. Players hauled injured teammates in their arms, circled up together and honored one another for the effort. Then they danced and dived into the damp grass absorbing another victory.
Week 4 | Heppner
HEPPNER, OREGON – Chances are that sometime during your sporting life the word F-U-N has been tossed at you, perhaps when you least appreciated it. Something like this is supposed to be FUN, or it’s not about winning, it’s about having FUN. Well, out in Heppner they practice winning; the Mustang football team has not lost a conference game in something like a decade. But they also practice FUN. They are good at that too. Come on, wouldn’t you love an excuse to belly dive into a pit of oozing cold mud, scream past a blazing bonfire or hand paint the family car for a parade. They do all this and more in Heppner where Friday night football is a town tradition.
Week 5 | Crane
CRANE, OREGON – For as long as anyone here can remember, kids have trudged up the mountain to tend to the large white letter C that stands for Crane High School. They call it C-Day and nearly everyone who has gone to school at Crane has a remembered tale about whitewashing the rock letter. Freshmen, of course, haul the paint, seniors bark instructions and everybody contributes to the annual tradition. But it’s the freshmen who get doused in smurf-blue. And Friday afternoon, as alumni turn down the gravel road for the homecoming football game, they glance up at the “C,” checking it, taking comfort in a Mustang tradition.
Week 6 | Culver
CULVER, OREGON – They will be gone from home for almost 23 hours, travel 552 miles and cross into a different time zone. They will ride from middle Oregon to the Idaho border where they will drop a 40-28 heartbreaker to the Jordan Valley Mustangs.
The football team is not alone though. The girls volleyball matches are scheduled at the same time, so schools can save on expenses. Everyone rides the same bus.
That means on travel days that 28 of the 39 students from Mitchell High School are on the bus. And for some of them it’ll be the first time they have ever been to Burns or Jordan Valley.
Dalton started the morning with $14.00. Money his mother gave him for the two meals the team would eat along the way, but he won another dollar from his older brother Colton by taking a full breath into Colton’s open shoe.
Dalton says the smell nearly turned his stomach but he pocketed the bill, looking forward to the teams stop at McDonalds on the way home. The brothers sat together for some of the trip, exchanging thoughts about what they could see from their window; the absence of trees, the probability of snakes, the happiness a cowboy might find in the geography.
Sports can become an effort all over Oregon’s east side where schools like Mitchell often have to combine with a nearby school to have enough players for a football team. And once they get a team, they often travel long distances just to get a game.
For the past several years, Mitchell and Spray, communities separated by 36 crooked miles along highway 207 in Wheeler County, have combined because neither have been sure of enough players to have their own eight-man football team. Now they come together as the Mitchell-Spray Logger-Eagles. Spray wears the red helmets, Mitchell the blue helmets, but otherwise they dress as one team.
So for away games, like the one in Jordan Valley this past Friday, the Mitchell football and volleyball teams load up on one bus, which departs from their school, and the Spray teams do the same.
At the destination the boys combine to form the Logger-Eagles. The Mitchell girls play as the Loggers and the Spray girls play as the Eagles. All of them play against Jordan Valley.
The games are important, the kids will tell you that, but the long bus rides are part of the social fabric of living in a town like Mitchell. You might think it unlikely that most of any student body could load up on one school bus, but on Oregon’s east side it’s more common than you might think.
Week 7 | Mitchell
MITCHELL, OREGON – The first player breaks through the darkness a little after 5 in the morning. Others trickle behind, their movement stirring the aroma of wild sage, which hangs heavy in the morning air.
Teenage voices float through the predawn darkness as more kids trudge toward the idling school bus waiting to take them on a big adventure — as well as to a football game and a volleyball match.
They will be gone from home for almost 23 hours, travel 552 miles and cross into a different time zone. They will ride from the middle of Oregon to near the Idaho border.
The reason the football team is not alone is that girls volleyball matches are scheduled at the same time so schools can save on expenses. Everyone rides the same bus.
That means that on travel days, 27 of 40 students from Mitchell High School are on the bus. And for some, like freshman Dustin Collins, 14, this trip will be the first time he’s ever been to Burns or Jordan Valley.
Dustin starts the morning with $14, money his mother gave him for the two meals the team would eat along the way, but he wins another dollar from his older brother Kolton, 15, by sucking in a full breath from Kolton’s open shoe.
Dustin says the smell nearly turned his stomach but by the time he pocketed the bill, he is smiling, looking forward to the stop at McDonalds on the way home. The brothers sit together for some of the trip, exchanging thoughts about what they can see from their window: the absence of trees, the probability of snakes, the open country, the happiness a cowboy might find in the geography.
Playing sports can be a major effort east of the Cascades, where schools like Mitchell often have to combine with a nearby schools simply to have enough players for a team. Then they travel huge distances just to get a game. Mitchell, for example, makes round trips of 400 miles or more as many as four times a season when playing schools such as Jordan Valley, Adrian, Harper or Huntingon. The trips become even more frequent during basketball season.
For the past several years, the towns of Mitchell and Spray, separated by 36 crooked miles along Oregon 207 in Wheeler County, have combined forces to make sure they’d have enough players to field an eight-man football team. Now they come together as the Mitchell-Spray Logger-Eagles. Spray wears red helmets, Mitchell blue helmets, but otherwise they dress as one.
Kickoff comes at 2 p.m. MDT and despite a good effort, the Logger-Eagles drop a 40-34 heartbreaker to the Jordan Valley Mustangs. The volleyball team fares no better, losing in straight sets.
Then it’s back on the bus and into the gathering dusk. Just 276 miles to go.
Week 8 | Willamina / Sheridan
WILLAMINA / SHERIDAN, OREGON – Sheridan and Willamina played football again last Friday, just as they have for as long as anyone here can remember.
Neighbors were shoulder to shoulder in the stands, the aroma of barbecue pork ribs filled the air and the promise of rain morphed into a golden fall evening, dry and warm.
No one here seems to know exactly when this rivalry caught fire. Heck, they can’t even agree when the first game between these two Willamette Valley schools was played. Maybe it was 1926, say the folks in Sheridan; maybe it was sooner, say the folks from Willamina.
But they do agree on one matter: They each despise losing to the other. No victory is sweeter, no defeat more numbing than the one against the school five miles down the road.
The two towns are tucked along a stretch of Oregon 18, Business route, so you might miss them as you travel between McMinnville and the Coast. Even if you don’t, there’s not much difference, at least to the casual observer.
But don’t tell that to folks who live here.
Roy Zimbrick, 75, a 1953 graduate of Willamina, says it comes down to this: His town, which once boasted 11 mills, is a logging town. Sheridan, blessed with land, is a farm town. The loggers and farmers see the world differently, according to Zimbrick, and to claim superiority, you have to win on the field.
Zimbrick should know. He played right halfback for the Bulldogs in his last game against Sheridan. Both teams were undefeated that night in 1953, recalls Zimbrick. The winner would be league champion. Zimbrick is so clear about the game that he can pencil out his team’s starting lineup on a piece of paper. And he still carries the juice of that night’s victory, too.
You can hear it in his voice as he cheers this year’s Bulldogs from his seat along the 50-yard line, where he has watched almost every home game for the past 50-plus years.
A few rows away is DeArmond Bockes, 80, a 1947 graduate of Sheridan. Bockes weighed less than a 100 pounds in high school, but still lettered in about every sport the Spartans played. He had dialysis treatment before Friday’s game but the way Bockes sees it, there’s never a good reason to miss a possible Spartan victory against the Bulldogs.
So with both towns’ residents gathered here, the teams played not only for pride but, just like in 1953, for something else, too. The league title was probably out of reach, but the winner of this year’s game would be guaranteed a spot in the state playoffs. The loser would have to wait and see if it would get in.
Sheridan scored the first 12 points, but Willamina the next 29 to secure the win. After the game, the Sheridan players departed the field in a single file line and boarded the bus for the longest five-mile ride of the season.
Willamina players, meanwhile, lingered on their field, bathed in the glow of the best win of the year.
Week 9 | Vernonia
VERNONIA, OREGON – The six seniors stand shoulder pad-to-shoulder pad under their own goal post. It’s raining sideways and an aching chill is setting in, but no one lets on about any of this. Teammates, coaches, parents and friends line up in single file to deliver one last hug to the six.
Alex Lende, Brandon Gilbertson, Zach Dillon, Ryan Cochran, Levi Timmerman and Charels Tungwenuk leave the field for the last time bathed in mud, their bodies steaming as rain smacks their skin. There is no championship for the Vernonia Loggers this year, not even a win, but there are plenty of smiles.
Four of these boys have played together since third grade, and they are all close friends. Despite losing 27-6 to Warrenton, the six agree that the season was a success. It gave them one more opportunity to solidify their friendship, lay a few licks and have some fun.
Their football dreams began in the humidity and grit of late summer when fresh-cut grass clung to the skin and sweat stung the eyes. Summer is a time when all football dreams seem possible. But for all of them, expectations eventually bow to results.
Winning eluded the Loggers this year, luck disowned them. The Vernonia team played the entire season without winning even one coin flip. And in their overtime game against Neah-Kah-Nie, they lost the flip twice. Nine times in eight games, the Loggers’ captains walked to midfield for the ritual to decide who gets or gives the ball first, and nine times they lost.
By the time Friday’s flip rolled around, the result was a foregone conclusion, a nugget of team lore to be rewound when the six friends reunite and talk about the 2009 Loggers.