October is one of my favorite months.
The temperature drops, the leaves change and football season is in full swing.
I’ve been lucky in the last decade to cover football at every level and on every stage. I’ve been to seven Super Bowls, countless college games across the southeast, high school rivalries in Florida, and - my personal favorite - homecoming in Arthur, NE.
Arthur is nestled in the rolling and windy sandhills of western Nebraska. It’s not close to any major city or town. No highway goes through it. No railroad goes by it. Cattle outnumber people roughly 275 to 1 (human population is 145).
The town is so small that in order to field a football team, they have to play 6-man football. For those of you, like me, who had never heard of 6-man football, it’s very similar to the 11-man game we’re used to but faster and shorter. The field is 40x80 yards, the ball has to be touched twice before it crosses the line of scrimmage, and virtually every player plays multiple positions (for full rules click here).
Bill and I went to Arthur in the fall 2008 to work on a feature for Sports Illustrated for Kids. Bill had been years earlier - before digital cameras existed - and wanted to revisit with a new eye and new tools.
We had just begun delving into the world of multimedia. To that point we had produced stories on NASCAR fans and the NCAA Men’s Final Four. We were both still figuring it out. Still looking for the right mix of stills and video, still learning how to shoot quality video footage - the settings and setup are very different than for stills - and still learning how to ask good interview questions.
DSLR cameras didn't yet have a video function in the fall of 2008. I instead worked with an actual video camera that recorded on actual tape. Looking back at it now, the footage looks grainy and jerky. The camera wasn’t exactly top of the line and neither was my knowledge of how to use it (I've never been one to read manuals, preferring the “I'll figure it out” method).
That trip to Arthur was one of my first to the great state of Nebraska. In the years since, Nebraska has become a second home, but then it was still a strange place in the middle of America.
It was on that trip that I first began to understand what made Nebraska special.
We spent a week in Arthur, going to school during the day, football practice in the afternoon, and home with players at night.
The town welcomed us with open arms, each person more willing than the last to tell a story, brag about the toughness of their football team, or recommend a local delicacy (note: rocky mountain oysters in no way resemble actual oysters from the ocean).
We had total access. We could go anywhere, take pictures of anything. The town was warm and open. They trusted us in a way most people don't in the modern world. It was disarming and relaxing.
We spent time with the players in and out of school and got to know several of the boys on a personal level.
There was Will Lagey, a 96 pound kid with diabetes who was as tough as the biggest kid on the field and had hopes of someday attending law school (if all went well, he's about the right age now to be doing just that).
Anthony Trimble, the quarterback who also played saxophone in the school band.
There was Jeff and his girlfriend Brittany, the town's sweethearts.
And Brad Vasa, a 15-year-old ranch kid who woke up every morning at 5am to do chores before driving himself fifteen miles to school.
After practice one day Brad invited us to his family’s ranch.
Bill followed in an SUV as I rode with Brad in his navy-blue truck down the long, winding dirt road - nothing but rolling hills and cattle out the windows - to his house. I interviewed him as we drove, asking him about life on a ranch, school and football. He was kind and simple in a way I had never experienced. There was something pure about him that made me wistful for a simpler time. He seemed familiar in a way I couldn’t put my finger on.
We got out to the field just as the sun began to set behind an overcast sky. Brad’s chore that night was to count and feed the horses.
The scene was amazing; like something from the past. A teenage boy in an old truck surrounded by horses under a dark sky.
Lightning danced across a distant horizon. The sky glowed with building electricity. The air was cool yet warm. Bill and I quickly made images in the increasingly low light. Then, suddenly, the wind picked up and the distant lightning became rapidly closer.
It’s a moment I will never forget.
I could feel the pressure drop as the storm grew nearer. We made images as long as we could then ran back to the car, throwing cameras and tripods in the back. We got in just as the sky opened. We followed Brad, slowly, back to the barn to park safely and wait out the storm. As we pulled in, hail the size of golf balls began falling. The lighting was so frequent it looked like a stroboscopic daylight outside. The sound was so intense I couldn’t hear myself scream over it.
I felt like I was in a modern day Willa Cather novel. In that moment the Vasa ranch seemed more foreign to me than a temple in Mumbai. Brad and I had grown up in the same country, but worlds apart.
The next day was homecoming. We photographed the parade down main street in the morning then went to the soggy field for the 1pm kickoff (with no lights on the field games have to be played early).
Football in places like Arthur is a community event. It’s not just about the game, it’s about the people. The entire town - entire town being a feed store, post office, gas station and bar - all close down for every football related event.
The Arthur Wolves won the game easy, though I couldn’t tell you the score.
After the game we did our best to dry off, then got in the car to make the long drive back to Denver - the closest major airport (4 hours away).
Bill drove as I edited the multimedia. The car bounced across rough county roads as I attempted to make sense of the world I had just witnessed.