It’s late November in northwest Wisconsin. The fall colors peaked over a month ago, we’ve had several inches of snow already–most of which has melted, for now–and on Saturday, the first day of the gun-deer hunting season, our forests were filled with men and women, boys and girls, all decked out from head to toe in blaze orange and all of them stalking the elusive buck. Most will settle for a doe. With our state’s deer population pushing two million (more than a third of the human population), we can easily handle the estimated 200,000 that will be “harvested” over the nine-day season.
The deer hunt is one of the few things that has been, or at least is anticipated to be, “normal” in this year of the COVID-19 pandemic. The state’s health authorities, overwhelmed with nearly 350,000 cases of the virus and almost 3,000 deaths as of Friday, have been pleading with citizens to wear masks in public, stay socially-distant when we do have to go out and forego late-November traditions like deer camp and large Thanksgiving dinner parties. The hunters will head to the woods anyway–you can’t get too much more socially-distant from one another than on a hunt–but we will see if they can bring themselves to stay away from deer camp, where by tradition hunters will gather in the evening for a meal, cards and endless stories about the day’s hunt and those of yore. If you’re unfamiliar with the hunt and the camp, this might help explain its allure: 5 reasons to love deer camp.
I’m not a deer hunter, but I understand the tradition. As a boy down in Grant County in the state’s southwest corner, I learned to hunt small game with my grandfathers, one of whom gave me a .410 shotgun for my 12th birthday, with the proviso that I pass a hunter-safety course. (I did, and still have the gun.) But in those days, deer weren’t that prevalent in the far south of the state; serious hunters would make the long trip way up north, which for us meant anything above La Crosse, just 100 miles away. I was never on one of those treks, so when I moved up to the northwest in 1991, I was quickly introduced to the traditions and rituals of the deer hunt. Often perplexing and sometimes troubling to outsiders, especially those in urban centers who seem to consider us country folks to be little more advanced than aborigines, the deer hunt can still be enjoyed vicariously by those of us who don’t actively participate in it.
But before the hunt begins, another Wisconsin tradition must be adhered to: the end of the high school football season. And that’s a tradition I have participated in for a long time. After an absence of several years, I returned to it this season, and it was bittersweet indeed.
The football season that almost wasn’t.
When I returned to radio broadcasting in the late summer of 2019 after a 29-month hiatus, I was assigned to call football games in the Heart o’North Conference, a very competitive league of schools ranging from about 250-450 students in the Rice Lake area. Like most small-market radio stations, WJMC will use a stable of announcers that are a mix of full-time employees and free-lancers, as I was, to cover local games. They had hired another announcer to broadcast Rice Lake High School games, after the employee who’d covered the Warriors for several years decided to hang up his headset. Several weeks into the football season, the station’s owner, a longtime friend of mine dating back to our college days at UW-Platteville, asked me to take over the broadcasts of the school’s teams for the winter sports. So it was that for the 2019-20 basketball and hockey seasons, I covered some 30 games of the school’s boys and girls hoops teams along with the hockey team, which ended its season with a surprising and exciting run to the state semifinals at the Dane County Coliseum in Madison.
It was a busy season that ended prematurely when the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association, the state’s governing body for high school sports, shut down everything late on the evening of March 12. The hockey season had ended on schedule the week before, and Rice Lake’s basketball teams were eliminated in the first rounds of their respective playoffs. I was assigned to cover the girls team from a small school in our listening area, Clear Lake, in the state finals in Green Bay. The Clear Lake girls were on the verge of an unprecedented achievement. Four months earlier, their volleyball team had finished an unbeaten season with a state title. Now, the basketball team, with many of the same girls, was also unbeaten and ready to take the floor in the same building, UW-Green Bay’s Resch Center, on the morning of the 13th in the Division 5 semifinals. Winning the state title would mean those girls had gone through not just an entire volleyball season but then a subsequent basketball season without a loss. Nobody had done that in the 40-plus years since the state had sanctioned playoffs in girls sports.
But it was not to be. I woke up on gameday morning to read an email from the radio station, telling me the plug had been pulled on the entire tournament and to come home.
By 6am I was on the road, heading west.
Shortly after my return from Green Bay, the radio station put me on the payroll as a studio announcer. Since then I have been the staff’s “designated hitter,” filling in when other announcers go on vacation or miss work due to illness–and like virtually every other business in the country, we have had people on the shelf due to COVID-19. Fortunately, none of our cases were serious and all were back to work within a week or ten days of showing symptoms.
As we slogged our way through the summer, sports fans saw things they’d never seen before: pro basketball and hockey in August, Major League Baseball playing a schedule nearly two-thirds shorter than normal. And nobody allowing fans into the arenas or ballparks. How would football proceed? It was anybody’s guess.
On the professional level, there was never much doubt. Nothing has ever stopped the National Football League, not World War II, not 9/11, and, as it turned not, not a pandemic, either. The NFL made some adjustments; the league scrapped its four-week exhibition season, slapped teams with strict testing and isolation protocols, and banned fans from stadiums, at least for the first few weeks. The regular season began as scheduled on September 10. Tonight the league will conclude the 11th week of its 17-week regular season, and so far only a few relatively minor adjustments have been made to its schedule.
Even though the Packers fell to 7-3 with the loss, at least they’ve played all their games. In a bureaucratic boondoggle of epic proportions, back in August the Big 10 delayed the start of its season, then canceled it, and then reinstated it with a further delay. The Badgers were scheduled to play eight games, plus either the Big 10 title game or a “crossover” game on December 19, and then a bowl game, giving them 10; last year’s team played 14. They’re already down two; after blowing out Illinois in their opener on October 23, the virus ripped through the team, causing the school to cancel its next two games. Now they’re down to eight games at the most, with more cancellations possible. They should consider themselves fortunate; small-college teams, like my alma mater, won’t have a season at all. And in Wisconsin, the high school football season has been chaotic, to say the least.
The way of the Warriors.
The season was scheduled to start on August 21. Teams would play a nine-game regular season, and then about half the teams would enter the playoffs on the third weekend of October. In a system that has worked very well since it was instituted in 1976 (and later expanded), teams would be divided into 7 divisions based on enrollment, with 32 teams per division, and play off over four weeks to determine the finalists, who would then meet at Camp Randall Stadium for a two-day jamboree of championship games. That’s always set up for the Thursday and Friday before the start of the gun-deer season. Last year, the WIAA added a division for 8-player teams, with a smaller group that would have its championship game at a high school stadium prior to the 11-man title week.
The WIAA gave schools the option of competing in fall sports or opting out and participating in a hybrid spring season, beginning in March. Last year, not only were the climaxes of the girls and boys basketball seasons canceled, so were all spring sports, like baseball, softball and track and field. So they will be trying to squeeze in some kind of football season, followed by delayed and truncated spring sports seasons. About a quarter of the state’s high schools chose the spring route, but the betting right now is that they won’t be able to pull it off; too many football players who also run track or play baseball will not want to risk injury on sloppy fields in March or April, and the overall logistics will be too difficult to manage. Also impacted are girls volleyball and boys soccer, which will face the same challenges.
In Rice Lake’s eight-team league, the Big Rivers Conference, three schools chose to opt out of fall football. The WIAA announced that the fall season would begin on September 25, which ordinarily would be Week 5 of the 9-week regular season, and there would be no playoffs at the end, just a two-game regional grouping that would basically exist to give teams an extra couple of games before the season ended. So it was that on that warm early autumn night, I was in New Richmond to broadcast Rice Lake’s delayed season opener.
Despite giving up two long touchdown runs early, Rice Lake came back and had a chance to win the game in the final minute with a two-point conversion. The Tigers stuffed the run a yard shy of the goal line and the Warriors went home with a 28-27 loss.
Thus began a five-week run of nail-biting close games that all went against Rice Lake. I had never seen things like this happen in all my years of broadcasting high school and college football. It started with New Richmond’s first two plays from scrimmage resulting in long touchdown runs. In the home opener against powerhouse River Falls a week later, the Warriors failed to convert a fourth-down play by a foot and fell, 19-14. The next week at Chippewa Falls, on a warm 70-degree night (thankfully, as I was sitting outside the press box due to virus spacing restrictions), another two-point try fell a yard short in the last minute, resulting in a 27-25 defeat. A week later at conference powerhouse Hudson, I was once again outside the booth, this time shivering on a 34-degree night made worse by a dampness left over from a snowfall that morning. Trailing 25-19 in the fourth quarter, Rice Lake faced a fourth-and-five near midfield. Punting the ball away would almost surely allow the Raiders to run out the clock, so the only real choice was to go for it. The lines clashed, the running back struggled forward and a huge pile-up ended the play. I then had to make the agonizing call of the measurement, which showed the nose of the ball one inch short of the stick. Hudson ate up the rest of the clock and added a score to win, 32-19. Finally, the five-game conference slate came to a close against another powerhouse, Menomonie, when a late rally by the Warriors fell another play shy of tying the game and the Mustangs pushed a late touchdown across for 28-13 victory.
Some football sage once said, “It’s a game of inches.” That was certainly true for the first five games of Rice Lake’s season. Not only did critical runs fall literally inches short of the first-down marker or the goal line, a field goal attempt at Hudson went inches wide, and an extra-point kick at Chippewa Falls clanged off an upright. A few inches in the other direction in each of those five games, and the Warriors would have been 5-0 and one of the top-ranked teams in the state.
Other schools didn’t even make it to the end of the five-week league slate. River Falls wound up playing only three games due to COVID outbreaks before calling it quits. Schools in other leagues were hit hard, too. Eau Claire Regis, the runner-up in the Division 6 playoffs last year, roared to a 5-0 start and then had to shut down its season. But Rice Lake played on. Following the Menomonie loss, the Warriors brought in Medford for a game. The Raiders, who had blown through the Great Northern Conference without a loss, came in ranked second in the state in Division 3, but Rice Lake put it all together in a dominant 27-6 win. A week later, the Warriors headed east to face Wausau West, a much larger school that was 2-2 on its season. Playing on a 60-degree night at venerable old Thom Field, Rice Lake finally caught the breaks, kicking a field goal with eight seconds left for a 26-23 victory.
Then came the cobbled-together playoffs-that-weren’t-really-playoffs, or the “un-playoffs,” as my WJMC colleague Adam Hutton called them. Grouped into a four-team “pod,” Rice Lake’s first game was a rematch with Medford, this time on the Raiders’ field on November 13. The Warriors took an early lead and held on for a 20-14 win, their third straight. That set up the season finale, at home on November 19 against St. Croix Central, a smaller school from the Middle Border Conference. The Panthers had established themselves in recent years as one of the top teams in this part of the state, with three consecutive Division 4 title game appearances from 2016-18, one of which produced a championship. They came to Pug Lund Field with a 6-2 record and something more to prove, and they did, scoring with 1:20 to play to win, 21-14.
Their quest to end the season on a four-game winning streak had been stymied, but these Warriors truly lived up to the meaning of their nickname. They fought every step of the way, often outnumbered against larger schools, fighting the elements and long road trips and COVID-tracing benchings and the whole uncertainty of whether they’d get to play from one week to the next. There would be no conference championship; the Big Rivers had said that with three of its members opting out (River Falls, slated to compete in the Mississippi Valley Conference, was brought back into the Big Rivers), they would not award a trophy this season, a decision I felt was patently unfair to the kids who chose to play, and their schools and communities who supported them under harsh circumstances. Likewise, I thought it was wrong for the WIAA to penalize the schools who did choose to play by not having some sort of playoff to crown legitimate champions. And I said so on the air. The WIAA, always attuned to whichever way the political winds are blowing, likely heard from some of the schools who’d opted out of the fall season, almost all of them from larger towns and cities, who probably let it be known that they really wouldn’t appreciate having other schools compete for state titles without being able to participate themselves. But hey, that was their choice, wasn’t it?
Some years back I read a book by the fine author Stephen Pressfield called The Warrior Ethos. Pressfield knows something about the subject, having written the classic novel Gates of Fire, about the Spartans’ last stand at Thermopylae against the invading Persians in 480 BC. In Ethos, Pressfield examines the warrior mindset and code of personal honor, which has been with men (and now women) on battlefields throughout history:
Each of us struggles every day to define and defend our sense of purpose and integrity, to justify our existence on the planet and to understand, if only within our own hearts, who we are and what we believe in.
Throughout our history, America has produced a great many warriors who have proven themselves on real battlefields, some of them paying the ultimate price to defend us back home. The rest of us have to content ourselves with playing or watching games in which combat is only simulated. Football has become the most popular of these, by far. Millions of American boys and young men (and now even some girls) have played organized football, and hundreds of millions have watched games, in person and on television, and listened on the radio. Legends have grown around many of the game’s greatest competitors. In Wisconsin, our football tradition is almost as important–many would say more important–than deer hunting.
Everybody here knows about our state’s greatest-ever practitioner of the game of football: Vince Lombardi, the legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers from 1959-67. During his tenure, Lombardi resurrected a moribund franchise and won five NFL titles, plus the first two Super Bowls. Obviously, he knew a lot about how to motivate players, as any successful coach does, but he took it to another level that few others, in any sport, have even approached, much less equaled. Bill Belichick, current coach of the New England Patriots, has won six championships, but it took him 18 years to do it. Lombardi only needed half that time to win five. He did it by finding and developing great players, but also by inspiring them to be something better than themselves, to collectively work and sacrifice to reach the zenith of their profession, and as a result, to become better men:
“A man can be as great as he wants to be. If you believe in yourself and have the courage, the determination, the dedication, the competitive drive, and if you are willing to sacrifice the little things in life and pay the price for the things that are worthwhile, it can be done.”
The record book now says that the Rice Lake Warriors finished the 2020 football season with a 3-6 record, but like all statistics, that won-loss mark doesn’t tell the whole story. Doesn’t even come close, in this case. No RLHS football team had ever faced adversity like this. Down on the field before the last game, I joked with Dan Hill, the head coach, that the team should get a trophy, win or lose. They’d made it to the final game, nine weeks into a season that didn’t look like it might be played at all, and then could’ve ended at any moment, as it did for so many other teams. The trophy could show one solitary player, the Last Man Standing.
All during the season, I’d spend some time on the field before the game, talking to the coaches and observing the players as they warmed up. While the coaches were sometimes nervous, the players always seemed to be loose and having fun, even as the gut-wrenching defeats piled up. I truly had never seen such spirit. By the end of October, these kids could’ve been just playing out the string, waiting for it to be over so they could get on with their lives. But they hung in there, got three impressive victories over quality opponents and almost one more. They were well and truly warriors to the very end.
Throughout the season, I was well aware of the responsibility that I faced in bringing the broadcasts to the fans. Because only parents of players would be allowed in the stands–and in some cases, only the home team’s–I knew that our listenership would be large. The year before, the team had struggled to a 1-8 season and the quality of the broadcasts had been substandard. The coaches worked hard to improve on the former, and I was brought on board to correct the latter. I think we both succeeded. Just as the players trudged off the field after every game, having left almost every bit of their energy on the turf, I left the stadium exhausted, too. I really felt that I’d “left it in the press box.” Throughout the season I got nice comments from listeners, and as it always is with broadcasting, it was a team effort. Putting a sports broadcast on the air involves everybody at the radio station, not just me. Without everyone pulling together, the games would never get on the air in the first place.
I have broadcast hundreds of games, from all over Wisconsin and, during my days covering UW-La Crosse from 1983-89, from California to Pennsylvania. My run includes three national championship college games and four state high school title games, a record of which I’m quite proud, but I can honestly say that I never enjoyed a season more than this one. It was a joy to be on the air every Friday night, describing the action for the fans at home who were hoping with all their might that the boys would come through, and I assured them often that the boys were, indeed, giving their very best. Ten years from now, twenty, thirty, that 3-6 record won’t mean anything when the lads get together at reunions. They will talk about how they banded together and persevered, how they struggled and fought for every inch on the field for nine weeks of unrelenting pressure, and they made it. They were truly the last men standing.