Baggs, Wyo., hosts 1st football game in 56 years
Junior center Alaska Burnell soaked up the moment as he and his teammates on the Little Snake River Valley School varsity football team made use of a sliver of shade behind a set of bleachers.
It was not lost on him, he said, that roughly the entire 348-person population of Baggs, Wyo., was on the other side of the stands, anticipating the town's first home football game in 56 years.
It was about 30 minutes before Friday's 3 p.m. kickoff.
It was hot, the sun was scorching and there wasn't a merciful cloud in sight.
Burnell's team, the Rattlers, was up against Hanna Elk Mountain Medicine Bow Junior Senior High School, and Baggs residents wanted a win to pair with its first homecoming parade in recent memory earlier that day. No one in the stands was exactly sure what to expect.
Little Snake is in Wyoming's new six-man football league, started this year with eight teams from across the state.
It's the first state sanctioned six-man football league in Wyoming since 1953, referee Lane Buchanan said, and even he needed some education about how the game works.
Burnell might have been excused for being a little nervous under the circumstances.
The stands were full when the town's sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders took the field at 1 p.m. for the junior varsity game, and even though people probably had work to do, no one was leaving before the varsity game started. Still, Burnell didn't need any pre-game reassurances.
"Their strength is our strength," Burnell said about the people in the stands, many decked out in crisp, new purple and gold "Rattlers Football" shirts and visors.
"I know we're the ones playing, but we're all on the team - the whole town," he said. "I think that's what we're feeling more than anything, the love."
The Rattlers faithful never stopped pouring on the love, even when the game became out of reach in the second half.
The Rattlers lost a sometimes chippy, never dull game by a final score of 68-28.
But what happened on the football field seemed secondary to the fact that there was something happening on a football field.
Hundreds of people, from parents to students to locals and out-of-towners, roared and stomped and stuck their fists in the air for every Rattlers tackle.
It didn't matter if a Little Snake player stuffed a tailback for a four-yard loss or pulled down a receiver after an 18-yard gain - it was a good hit to the crowd and deserving of cheers.
Lonnie Hedges, 50, who came to see his son, Ben, play nose tackle for the junior varsity team, said he wasn't surprised to see people leave work. Not when there's football to be played.
"Everybody got off," he said. "Everybody's here. They worked for it. They wanted it. This town has wanted football for years."
It took everyone to make it happen, too, Little Snake athletic director Ann Wille said.
"This whole town made this football program happen," she said as four teenage girls ran by with purple wigs and purple shirts. "This was all weeds, and people donated their time to mow it, paint the field, donate gravel."
The school bought one bleacher, students repaired a few broken ones and a local rancher donated another, Wille added.
Devon Energy, one of Baggs' major employers, donated hundreds of dollars worth of electrical equipment, she said, and sent two of its electricians over to the field to rewire the press box.
"All you have to do is ask this community, and they'll do anything," Wille said.
As important and appreciated as the donations were, they were not what filled her head during the game.
"I just love seeing the kids' enthusiasm," Wille said. "Most of them are second-generation here, so they've grown up with that pride, and they have it. They really have it. It's just amazing to see."
It was good for Tom Cobb to see, too. Cobb, 73, was a halfback on one of Baggs' last six-man teams before the school canceled football.
There were seven players on the team then, which meant each one played offense and defense, otherwise known as ironman football.
"Oh God," Cobb said. "I was so darned tired during those games, I couldn't see straight half the time, much less run straight."
As he watched players young enough to be his grandchildren run up and down field, he couldn't help but think how much good it did them to play football.
"The world's a little tough," Cobb said, "and if you get out there in pads and get hit, you know a little bit about tough it is."
One look at the faces of the Rattler players as they left the field Friday evening made it seem they knew something about tough losses.
Junior Sean Rietveld - who played mostly defensive back, but also took snaps as halfback, quarterback and was the team's field goal kicker - looked defeated.
"I don't think we did anything really wrong," he said. "We'll just go back to the basics and try to get better."
He recorded seven tackles, one fumble recovery and, offensively, a handful of gutsy plays on third-and-long situations that kept Rattler drives alive.
He and sophomore Miles Englehart formed a gruesome twosome of power-hitting safeties who flew around the field on blitzes and in pass coverage the entire game.
Englehart had six tackles and forced multiple fumbles.
They weren't the only Rattlers making an impact.
Sophomore Rex Stanley caught two touchdown passes, one a dazzling one-handed grab in the endzone with a corner piggybacking on his shoulders.
Junior Colton Orchard emerged as Little Snake's short-yardage specialist, and ran for a seven-yard score.
Head coach Michael Bates said the team is only going to get better. "Most of these kids have never even played football before," he said. "We need to work on the basics, teach them fundamentals. Once that happens, we'll be there. They've got the athletes. We'll be right there."
If Friday was any indication, the town of Baggs believes, and it can't wait.