Fourth Down

6-man football team clings for life in dwindling county

On the afternoon of Sept. 4, 2015, the Banner County Wildcats began their six-man football season with six total players.

It had three seniors, two sophomores and a freshman. The two juniors were out with injuries.

Home is more than three hours east, in a place called Banner County, home of fewer than 800 people. Behind the Wildcats’ sideline, humid air radiated off a cornfield, flush with green stalks. The Wildcats were not used to the humid air this far east of the panhandle. Where they live, in the southwest corner of the state, the air is dry.

As they walked onto the field, first-year head coach Brady Cross was hoping his guys could just get through a full game.

After receiving the opening kickoff, Cross called a few run plays for senior running back Austin Dolberg, who also played middle linebacker. The Wildcats were stopped on third down and forced to punt.

That’s when Dolberg’s legs began to cramp.

On the next play, senior running back Calyn Werkmeister sprang free for a 61-yard touchdown run for Maywood/Hayes Center. Over the next quarter and a half, the Wildcats played from behind. The Maywood/Hayes Center Wolves would open up a 25-point lead.

With just more than a minute to go in the half, Cross noticed his tight end, Garrett Grubbs, seemed woozy. Both teams finished the half with five players.

During halftime, a delirious Grubbs was loaded onto the ambulance and taken to Community Hospital.

The Wildcats were forced to forfeit, and over the next week, Banner County School administrators would have to decide what to do: forfeit the rest of the season because of the lack of players or continue on.

Superintendent Lana Sides, principal Charles Jones and Activities Director Kari Gifford left the decision up to the players on the football team.

They decided not to continue the season. And for the second time since 2006, there were no Friday night lights in Banner County.

Between Interstate 80 and Scottsbluff sits Nebraska’s eighth least-populated county, Banner County. A 2014 census estimated a population of 764.

Here, there are more cattle than people.

Farms connected by gravel roads scatter the rolling hills of the 746 square mile agriculture production county.

Four miles west of Highway 71 lies the sole town in Banner County, Harrisburg, which is too small to be considered a town by the U.S. Government. Technically, it’s a village. Tucked behind a hill, traffic passes by as if it doesn’t exist.

A one-story courthouse sits on State Street. Next to the fire station, on the west side of town, sits the old Banner County Bank building. Established in 1890, it stayed in business until 1934.

Banner County School stands in the far northeast corner of Harrisburg. Previously known as Harrisburg School District, it was the first countywide K-12 district in Nebraska.

The population of the county and enrolled students at the school has decreased over the last 16 years, according to the Nebraska Department of Economic Development. The 2000 census counted a population of 819 in Banner County, a difference of 55 compared to today.

With the lack of a younger generation, the population could fall close to 700.

In the 2000-01 school year, the K-12 enrollment of Banner County School was 196.

Now, it’s 151.

The high school currently consists of 41 students: 16 boys and 25 girls.

It held 81 students in the 2010-11 school year.

Students not wanting to participate in activities is not the issue. Thirty-three of the 41 high school students participate in at least one NSAA sponsored activity; 27 in at least one sport.

The reality at any school, regardless of size, is that some students do not participate in activities.

The issue in Banner County is the sheer number of students in the dwindling county.

It’s early spring and the middle of calving season. Six miles west of Harrisburg, Brady, 24, and his dad, Joel Cross, 57, load a tagging kit into a Chevrolet flatbed truck.

Joel drives through several herds of cattle in a pasture west of his house, looking for untagged newborn calves.

Brady prepares the tagger as his dad drives the truck next to a calf, closely guarded by its mother. He opens the truck door slowly and approaches the calf with caution.

The mother of the calf inches backwards, giving Brady enough space to place the tag on the ear of the calf. As he finishes, the mother cow lowers her head and lunges toward Brady. He backs away, and the protective mother retreats.

“Well, that doesn’t normally happen,” Brady said.

Brady isn’t a city person. He doesn’t even enjoy driving in nearby Scottsbluff, a town of 15,000.

Along with helping his dad, he tends to his own crops and cattle. Brady is one of a few young men in Banner County who has stayed to run his own operation. Most kids go to college to get degrees so they don’t have to come back. But not Brady.

He graduated from Banner County School in 2009. In 2006, he played on the only Wildcat football team to win a state playoff game, defeating Spalding Academy in the first round, 48-32. At the time, they played 8-man football.

The Wildcats made the playoffs in 2007 and 2008, before winning one game from 2009-11: 46-0 against Creek Valley.

The entire 2013 season was forfeited because of a lack of players.

Banner County School dropped down to six-man in 2014. With 14 players, including eight seniors, the Wildcats finished with a 2-6 record.

Following the season, head coach Heath Johnson left Banner County School to take a principal position at Laurel-Concord School District. He recommended Cross, who was an assistant at the time, to fill his place.

Watching his alma mater fail to win games was tough for Brady. He accepted the position because he wanted to make a difference.

Brady has seen the mental toughness and work ethic of younger generations decrease since he played the game in high school.

He didn’t want to be another coach that yelled at the players and told them how bad they were.

“I was a pretty disciplinary coach, there wasn’t no screwing around for darn sure, and the kids really respected me,” Brady said.

He made sure the kids were in shape, and whenever they would run, he ran with them.

Compared to the 2006 playoff team, Brady said the younger generation of today doesn’t know what it is like to suck it up and push through something.

“We could have broken a damn leg and done our damnedest just to walk back to that huddle,” Brady said.

When the players made the decision to forfeit the season last September, Cross went to the school board to see if there was anything he could do to persuade the kids to play through. The board told him no.

“I had to bite my lip and walk out on the deal,” he said.

He wanted to motivate the athletic kids in the school to go out for football, but they were done.

Jim and Peggy Sandberg say their oldest son, James, is the reason his grandpa, Roy Sandberg, is still alive.

Sixteen years ago, the sophomore quarterback and middle linebacker was born on April 21, 2000. Roy had just gotten out of open-heart surgery.

An improved heart and the emotion of holding his newborn grandson carried him through the recovery process.

Roy graduated from Harrisburg High School in 1943. He still holds the school record for pole vault, an event the school no longer has.

Today, at the age of 90, he travels three hours north from Centennial, Colorado, to watch James compete for his alma mater and the county he was raised in.

James is an option student from Gering, meaning he doesn’t live in the district zone but still drives 22 minutes to school from his house.

Of the 151 K-12 students at Banner County School, 54 are option students.

The beginning of James’ freshman year at Banner County School was difficult. Like any new kid, he wanted to fit in. In one year, he went from being the reserved new kid to a leader on the football team.

James admits he has a passion for sports. Baseball, basketball or football, his competitive attitude drives him to become a better player every day.

During the first couple practices of the season, James was a player that struggled when the team would perform conditioning drills. Halfway through the drill, his sprint turned to a jog, then a walk.

But he never gave up.

Cross kept him motivated and prior to the game against Hayes Center, he hustled throughout the entire drill.

He never complained about the coaching. When Cross gave the kids a playbook, James would have it memorized by practice the next day.

The cancellation of the season was devastating to James. It was supposed to be his first season starting at the high school level. He wanted to change schools, again.

It was tough for his parents too.

As the owner and operator of J.R. Sandberg Farms L.L.C., Jim enjoys taking a break from work to go watch his son play sports.

With the cancellation of the football season, he wasn’t able to do that. Neither could Roy Sandberg.

Football was not the only Banner County School athletic team to forfeit games this year. The boy’s basketball program was forced to forfeit the first six games of the season because of a lack of players.

Even with the constant question of whether or not there will there be enough kids, Banner County School Athletic Director Gifford knows how important it is to provide students with the opportunity to play sports. Not just for the athletic experience, but for the leadership skills and work ethic they can gain. Because of that, in her mind it’s not an option to shut down sports altogether.

“Everybody wants our kids to have the opportunity to do the same kinds of things that maybe they did growing up,” Gifford said.

Normally when a high school’s enrollment is too low to fill a roster for sports, it will consolidate with a nearby school. But for the Banner County School, that’s not an option. The nearest school to congregate with is Gering, 23.2 miles north. After that it’s Redington, 25 miles east.

Then Kimball, 27 miles south.

The closest thing in any direction is the state of Wyoming, 18 miles west.

“It is difficult based on where we are at,” principal Jones said.

According to Jones, enrollment numbers don’t seem to be increasing. In turn, the football team will likely not grow any larger than 10 or 13 in the coming years. Without consolidation, the possibility of a few injuries or mishaps could lead the Wildcats to a fate similar to the one they met this season.

In other words, they’re stuck.

Adversity struck the school and football program again in December when Brady announced he would not be able to coach the 2016 season. His newborn son was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis.

It was decided that first-year Jones would coach the team in place of Brady.

“As far as I’m concerned, Brady is welcome anytime he wants to come back,” Jones said. “I’m not trying to do anything to undermine anybody.”

Jones has 11 years of experience as head coach in six-man football – seven years at Maywood/Hayes Center and four in Colorado. The football program is expecting 10 to 13 players for the 2016 season, a comfortable number compared to 2015.

Expectations are to have Friday night lights return to Banner County next season to compete against the other 24 six-man programs in Nebraska.

But even with the promise of a season and enough players, the school and the county are shrinking.

Eventually, there may not be a Wildcat football team.

“When I was a senior, it was eight seniors, so we obviously had enough to play,” Brady said.

In seven years, Banner County School has gone from comfortably filling a roster for an eight-man team to not being able to put six players on the field.

Despite the adversity, the support from Banner County will remain.

“We are going to keep rolling along,” Gifford said,” and provide the opportunities and see what happens.”