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The Season That Wasn’t

Photo of football players practicing defense
John M. Glionna

Football is more than mere sport in the small Northern Nevada town of McDermitt

Sustained by long-ago football glory, a troubled Northern Nevada town struggles to recapture its gridiron dreams — and its identity

MCDERMITT—The skies are still smoky from stubborn Western wildfires on this late August afternoon as the boys of fall take the field for the season’s first football practice. A few teenagers throw wobbly passes, stretch tightened calf muscles on the grass, moaning as they hit the ground during drills. As a team, they’re sons of farmers and ranchers, and brown-eyed boys from the nearby Native reservation. Even though they’re still out of shape, these McDermitt Bulldogs hold out cautious hope that this season will be better than the last — that they can make tackles, score touchdowns, win games, and make this community proud.

For generations, isolated communities across rural Nevada have played a scaled-down brand of football with eight players instead of the traditional 11. That’s so even the tiniest whistle-stop hamlets like this one can join America’s autumnal rite of rooting on a scholastic football team as brisk September gives way to a colder October.

Two seniors in particular have plans to make the year special. Starting quarterback Lane Barnett is a soft-spoken 17-year-old and recent New Mexico transplant who hopes a good showing will attract the eye of small-college talent scouts. And Tristan Bitt, a mercurial teen from the Paiute-Shoshone reservation, has trained all summer to take the big hits as the team’s go-to running back. (Come winter, he’ll play scrappy point guard for the school’s basketball team.)

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In towns like this, the few kids who do play sports are pressured to play them year-round — or entire seasons could be canceled. Counting just 28 students total in grades nine through 12, McDermitt Combined School is the smallest school in the state’s lowest-level football league, with just five graduating seniors in the 2022 class.

Everybody who goes out for a sport here gets to compete. No one rides the bench.

The result is that few residents can remember the last time a graduating senior went on to play college football, let alone garner a scholarship. Lane Barnett and Tristan Bitt aim to change that.

Glory days

For half a century, McDermitt has set a lofty standard for its football Bulldogs. Since it first built a roughshod playing field here in 1965, this once-bustling town on the Nevada-Oregon border has been a bastion of gridiron success, where able-bodied farm boys baled hay at first light before school and on weekends made smash-mouth tackles on the football field.

Long before the Pahranagat Valley High School Panthers made Alamo proud (and made national sports-page headlines) in 2016 with a 104-game winning streak that included eight consecutive state titles, the McDermitt Bulldogs ruled rural Nevada football. Not only were the original Bulldogs going to beat you, opponents knew, they were going to hit you as well — and hard. The Bulldogs won a few state championships, and folks here loved them for it, honking car horns to send the team bus off to an away game, throwing parades and block parties when they brought home another trophy.

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Then came McDermitt’s economic fumble. In 1992, the local mine closed for the second and final time, and a once-thriving population of a thousand residents began its decline to the few hundred who live here today. Company-hired families who provided the newest crop of football freshman moved away in search of better opportunities — taking their boys with them.

Since then, the Bulldogs have become a team that rarely wins, populated by kids who wouldn’t make it at any other high school. Most are too timid, too small, too overweight, too out-of-shape. For almost a decade, the depleted Bulldogs have been led by Richard Egan (right), a tribal coach of Shoshone-Paiute heritage. Standing at 6-foot-1, he’s a proud man who sports the athletic build of a one-time ranch cowboy. He played on McDermitt’s undefeated 1982 team that won a state championship in the eight-player division.

His could well be the toughest high school football coaching job in America. The Bulldogs haven’t been back to the playoffs in almost three decades — since the year the McDermitt mercury mine closed. And, unlike their opponents, they don’t even have a cheerleading squad to root them on. This spring, in a COVID-delayed football season, they lost all four games, failing to even score a single touchdown, losing by a combined total score of 300 to 2.

Without wealthy benefactors as in towns with thriving mines, the Bulldogs play with hand-me-down uniforms and equipment. Their field, which sits north across the Oregon line from the Nevada school buildings, is a lonely outpost surrounded by dirt roads and wild horses. A single set of bleachers serves both the home crowd and visitors alike. It’s one of the few fields across the league without those vaunted Friday night lights that are part of a young football player’s fantasies.

Still, Egan will not allow a culture of losing to develop here. Following each game, he and assistant coach Jack Smith gather their boys at midfield, reminding them to keep their heads up, pride intact. Their strategy: learn to lose without seeing your spirit crushed. Ignore the scoreboard and the taunts of the other teams. Just play. Have fun. And learn.

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During one recent season, Egan brought his Bulldogs to play the Eureka Vandals in their lush new stadium along U.S. Highway 50, a gleaming sports temple complete with a state-of-the-art weight room, field lighting, and synthetic playing surface — all built by local mining money. The McDermitt boys marveled at a world far more privileged than any they knew. But Egan wouldn’t let them feel outclassed by another boy’s entitlement.

“Sure, these kids are lucky to have everything they have,” he says. “But they can only put eight players on that field, just like us. So once we step off that bus, we represent our community, our school, and our families. But mostly, we represent ourselves.”

The Bulldogs lost that day, 64-12. But the coach had made his point.

This spring, a high school referee was so impressed with how the Bulldogs handled a lopsided defeat at the hands of their arch-rivals, the Owyhee Braves, that he wrote a letter to Humboldt County School Superintendent Dave Jensen. The boys didn’t curse or complain or quit, even when down by 70 points.

“My name is Alden Donston and I’m sending you this quick note to share with you my experience with the McDermitt football team this past Friday,” he began.

I was an official for their game and all I can say is that McDermitt should be very proud of those eight boys and the way they carry themselves on the football field. Even when the scoreboard was not in their favor, they continued to compliment their opponents on their play, help them up after each play and displayed a very positive no-quit attitude.”

Egan is teaching them how to lose gracefully. “Some coaches, if they’re not winning, they won’t stick around,” he says on that first day of practice. “But I’m part of this program. As long as they come out to play, I’m not going to give up on these kids.”

Yet one thing Egan cannot control are the numbers of players he inherits each year. In 2013 and 2019, the Bulldogs were forced to cancel their entire season because not enough boys showed up to play. During the good times, McDermitt could count on 30 players. But on this day in August, the coaches have only six. The Bulldogs need eight to compete, and the first game is less than a month away.

Ghosts from the pastTo understand McDermitt’s love affair with eight-player football, it’s not enough to hear the story of the boys of the present. You’ve got to include some ghosts from the past.

And when it came to cheap-steak toughness, no Bulldog was as leathery as Todd Murrah. He grew up here playing kickball, booting that rubber spheroid over the tops of buildings. He never liked the idea of playing formalized football because he was, quite frankly, afraid of taking those big hits. His father, Tuffy Murrah, a business owner and scrappy, would-be boxer, made Todd try out for the team. The coach made him kicker, a position he played all four years. Back then, the state line crossed right through the Bulldogs’ home field, the southern end in Nevada, the north in Oregon. A referee once told the young Murrah he was the only player who could kick a ball from one state and have it land in another.

But Todd Murrah did more than kick. He also played running back his last two years, making the all-state team each season, running for 26 touchdowns as a senior, the year the Bulldogs won the 1973 state championship. Along the way, he invented the McDermitt strong-arm. “I used to run real low and when a guy came up to tackle me — doink! — I’d come up and hit him in the face mask with my free arm,” Murrah recalls. Rather than dodging tacklers with any fancy footwork, Murrah bulldozed them. He sought out contact.

That strategy resulted in broken bones in both hands, but Murrah kept on playing. They took off his casts before games and taped him up tight. After tackles, he often struggled to get up off the ground because his hands throbbed with pain.

“He’s the toughest man I know on the football field,” Bulldogs coach Dan Armstrong told Winnemucca’s Humboldt Sun at the time. “He has no finesse but he just doesn’t like to go down.”

As a senior, Murrah was voted both class flirt and most athletic, a potent combination. There was talk of college scholarships from both Idaho and Nevada, but Murrah moved on from football after that. He married twice, had two kids, and for three decades owned the Say When casino in McDermitt. Years later, Murrah helped establish a Little League football club in town, where boys in grade school and junior high learned how to play the sport. By the time they were freshman, they knew the game enough to propel the varsity team to state champions. Murrah coached one group of Little Leaguers for six straight years, leading them from the third to eighth grades. In that span, they never lost a game, finishing 55-0.

The junior league was eventually disbanded. Now, three decades after Todd Murrah coached, his son Ryan restarted football Little League in 2019, leading a new generation of McDermitt kids — boys and girls alike — to winning ways. “I’ve got big shoes to fill,” Ryan says.

Looking back, could football have been Todd Murrah’s ticket out of McDermitt? Does he regret not taking the game to the next level?

“I didn’t really like football, not until I was a senior,” the old running back says. “I didn’t think I was good enough or even big enough to play college ball.” He pauses. “I think I could have been a good kicker, though.”

‘What it’s like to lose’By far, Tristan Bitt is the best athlete on the 2021 Bulldogs, the fastest and most willful. He’s a latecomer to football who dreams of making the all-star team as a basketball player this winter, so he’s worked out hard to drop 15 pounds over the summer. Tristan is always the first to complete his practice laps, and gently encourages younger players when they start to lag in the intense August heat. As a boy, he spent a few years in Alaska and still has clan there. When he graduates next spring, he’ll be torn between staying in Nevada to qualify for free college tuition or returning north to figure things out on his own, closer to relatives.

For now, he’s a Bulldog. And he’s not ashamed of those final scores.

“What does winning teach you?” he says. “To prepare yourself for the world, you’ve got to know what it’s like to lose.”

Tristan is mercurial — one moment he’s moody and quiet, the next he’s laughing, slapping backs, howling at the moon. He’s the youngest of six, and rankles his father inside their one-story reservation home. Like the son, the father can be matter-of-fact. When Tristan irritates him, the words are few, the punishment swift. “Pull weeds,” he’ll say.

Probably more than any other player, Tristan adulates his coaches. He even calls Egan “Dad.” One afternoon, during practice, Tristan silently walks up to Smith and embraces him. It’s a surprising moment.

The boys watch. They know that Tristan and Smith — the school’s head basketball coach — train one-on-one year-round to keep the boy in shape for basketball season. Smith is like a second father to Tristan. The grasp is short-lived. Then Tristan, as though realizing he has hugged one parent and not the other, walks over and gives Egan a quick hug.

Nobody says a word. They all know what has just occurred. A boy thanking his two mentors for their continued guidance.

Still, for the coaches, starting quarterback Lane Barnett (right) remains a work in progress.

 During the spring games, Lane was continually sacked by oncoming rushers, who busted through the Bulldogs’ weak front line. “I’m too slow playing for a team where the line can’t hold them for more than one second,” he admits. “They’re on me pretty quick.”

Lane went to a summer quarterback camp so the coaches anticipate results, yet at the first few practices, they watch him amble around the track. With their arms crossed, they scrutinize his form.

“He doesn’t run very hard,” Egan says.

“He’s got one gear,” Smith adds.

“Half of it’s mental,” adds Egan.

Lane admits that all the Bulldogs are out of shape. “We can blame ourselves for that,” he says. “It takes an individual to do the work to get in shape. Not only at practice, but at home and on the weekends.”

‘We’re better than that’As August turns to September, with the boys preparing for their season opener against the Carlin Railroaders, the Bulldogs never quite reach the required eight players needed to take the field. One day seven appear, the next just five. Egan can’t explain it: The boys lack energy and desire. His generation came to play, to hit hard and win, while these kids are softened by junk food, TV, and video games.

But with only eight players, his kids must play both offense and defense. Many have described the amped-up, high scoring eight-player affairs as basketball on grass. There’s no rest, no breathers. While bigger teams have replacements to spare, the Bulldogs must compete on every play of every game. That makes for a long, tough, exhausting season, and Egan knows that. But what can he do? He’s got to make these boys football-ready for another campaign.

After one lackadaisical practice, the coaches bring up the springtime horror story, being outscored 300 to 2. “We want to be better than we were last year,” Egan says. “I don’t want to be standing out here on the field after another loss, saying, ‘We are who we are.’ We’re better than that.”

Within days, the fortunes of the two top Bulldogs Lane and Tristan profoundly diverge. Lane begins to step up. His passes are crisper. He’s assuming the role as a team leader. When a freshman skips practice, Lane gets on his case. “Either come to practice or quit,” he tells him. “Make up your mind.” The kid shows up the next day.

Then, on Labor Day weekend, Tristan informs his coaches that a medical checkup has revealed he may have suffered a concussion, the result of a brutal hit at practice.

“My head aches,” he says. “Loud noises bother me. Even the gym noises are too loud.” He has scheduled a CAT scan and must wait for the results, so he’ll miss practice for at least another ten days. Now Tristan stands with the two coaches on the practice field, no longer in uniform.

Egan turns to his star athlete. “We need to get you back out here,” he says solemnly. “We can’t win without you.”

Days later, the coaches call an emergency huddle. Their season has reached a crisis point. Only six players regularly show up for practice. League rules say each player must practice for at least 10 days before the first game. They’re not going to make it.

The boys hold a private, players-only meeting as their season spirals out of control. Some perch atop helmets. Others lay on the grass under the goalpost. Tristan confesses that his possible concussion made him consider quitting the team. “This stuff is serious,” he said. “You have to be on watch all the time after one concussion. I wanted to quit, but I couldn’t do that to myself or to you guys.” He pauses. “Guys, this team is in trouble. Hell, we’re McDermitt. Kids don’t want to practice. They don’t want to be forced to play.”

Lane speaks up.

“That’s no excuse,” he says. “McDermitt is the best opportunity all of us have to play. If you go to a big school, you never even get put into the game, because you’re usually not good enough to get on the field.” He looks at the others. “We’re all friends here,” he adds. “We’re a team. We can do this.”

King of painBefore he became a paternal coach, Richard Egan was a paragon at issuing pain.

“Other guys dreaded even practicing against him. He brought the heat,” says Nick Wilkinson, the Bulldogs quarterback during the 1982 season, who now runs a ranch outside town. “If you weren’t watching, with your head on a swivel, you were going to get hit, hit hard, and hit mean.” As Wilkinson recalls, Egan broke the legs of two opponents, boys with the misguided idea that they could bring down a freight locomotive as it rumbled downfield. The 1982 Bulldogs not only won all their games, but they held opponents scoreless for the entire first half of the season, in the end outscoring other teams 282 to 34.

Egan grew up on a reservation in Owyhee, the Bulldogs’ perennial football rival, but moved in with relatives in McDermitt because he saw opportunity here. Back then, coach John Moddrell took one look at his new running back, 195 pounds of meat, bone and gristle, and told a friend, “We’re gonna win a championship this season.” They won, and won repeatedly, because of Egan’s pure grit.

“Once, I ran the ball on a play that started on the 15-yard line, a T-formation,” Egan recalls. “There was a kid playing defense, standing on the goal line, and I must have knocked him backward five yards.”

Touchdown, Bulldogs.

“The field was slick, and I got tackled by my jersey and hit the ground hard,” Egan recalls. “I was dizzy.”

“You okay?” coach Moddrell asked him on the sidelines.

The young running back told him that he’d landed on his head.

“He reached into his pocket, took out some smelling salts,” Egan says. “Then I went back in.”

‘We’ll call it a season’

At 3 p.m. on Sept. 7, the day after Labor Day, coach Egan addresses his seven Bulldogs. The last holdout player has finally decided he will not play.

Their season is over.

The other boys knew this was coming, but they’re gut-punched just the same.

The coach holds out a last possibility. “We’ll give him until 3:30,” he says. Maybe he’d change his mind, come walking through that door. “If not,” Egan says. “We’ll call it a season.” His face is red.

The holdout is young, yet he holds the key to the fate of the older boys. Still, the coach cannot let him take the blame. “Maybe he has some personal problems we don’t know about. When the time comes, he’ll straighten everything out.”

Tristan and Lane sit on the bench, downcast.

At 3:15 p.m., Lane volunteers to call the boy at home for a last-minute plea. It’s like phoning the governor for an 11th-hour stay of execution.

He walks into the coach’s tiny office and closes the door behind him. He sits in the coach’s chair and leans over as the phone rings. You can almost feel a boy’s dream leak from the room. Finally, he puts down the receiver. “He’s not answering,” he says.

It’s 3:23 p.m. A few moments later, the two coaches stand with their backs to the showers. The boys sit in a single row, like in a Norman Rockwell painting that evokes both the hope of youth and its disappointment.

“It’s a pretty tough one to swallow, guys,” Egan tells his players. “I thought we’d be making memories, so you’d have stories to share 20 years from now, something you guys could talk about as you grow older together.”

The players slap backs, shake hands and take selfies.

And then, these Bulldogs pack up their belongings and filter out of the locker room, a final, disheartening end to their season that wasn’t.