MONTICELLO — On this cold, cloudy day, members of the Buckaroo football team drop to a knee for prayer beneath the school's rusty goal posts. Senior Zach Allred stands and offers solemn words.
Thank you for keeping us injury-free, he says. Please watch over the visiting team as they travel. " . . . And thank you for letting us play this great game of football."
It's game day in the San Juan county seat — and everyone from the convenience store clerk to the city attorney to the school secretary is wearing orange and black.
It is a simpler, sweeter life in Monticello — and a recent visit offers a snapshot of high school football that harks back to a simpler time.
There are 606 households and 2,000 residents in Monticello, according to the 2000 U.S. Census, and 42 percent are home to children under 18. Thirty-six kids play football for the Monticello Buckaroos. And as it is in so many rural towns throughout Utah, the three dozen kids are a team buoyed by the support and finances of this community.
"Football is the main sport, far and away," says Daniel Anderson, who has two boys on the team and is a former Monticello Booster Club president. "It's the sport the community follows.
"The goal of these kids," Anderson said, "is to win the state championship."
Last year, they did, beating Rich High School 30-15 for the 2004 state 1A title. The year before that, they were close but were stunned by Enterprise 18-14 when they gave up a touchdown pass in the game's final minute.
"Last year at that state game (in Orem) the whole town was there," says head football coach J.C. Hall.
It's playoff time again and there's another serious outbreak of Buckaroo fever in these parts.
Senior Krieg Adair, a big red-headed lineman, is the soul and character of this Buckaroo football team. He's getting ready to suit up before his final 1A regular season game against Layton Christian. An hour earlier he called classmates to arms at the school pep rally. Watch what we do in the next few weeks, he says into the microphone. Come along. Come with us on our way to State. "This train ain't stopping!" he yells.
He paid $250 for a 2004 State Championship ring inscribed with "Line Pride" and jersey numbers of last year's five linemen.
"Monticello has never won two state championships in a row," he tells a visitor. "That's what we are trying to do. That's what we're using as fuel."
Longtime friends Justin Keyes and Wes Hawkins are also seniors. They've fueled each other this season.
"I was his first friend," says Keyes, who towers four inches over his slotback teammate. "We've been friends since second grade."
Game after game, the stat sheet shows Keyes handing off or passing to Hawkins for touchdowns. Hawkins scored four times last week. By the end of this day, he will have tacked on four more.
The Anderson household is bustling with activity 30 minutes before the game.
Two Anderson teenagers are playing in tonight's game. Referees tagged sophomore Kevin Anderson for five penalties last week. "Coach promised him a steak dinner if he can keep it under five today," says dad Daniel Anderson.
"Kev is a kid I'd say lives for football," he said. "Football is an interesting sport. The idea is that you go out and hit someone and he really gets into that." Anderson's been working at his law office today but came home early to change clothes. Now he watches his five younger children and a bunch of neighbors who have painted their faces with Monticello's beloved orange and black.
Team captain Justin Keyes' 11-year-old sister Jamie is there. So is center Siale Huavi's little sister Olivia. She paints her face with No. 54 — her big brother's number.
Mom Sue Anderson confesses her mother's predicament, saying she hopes her boys play hard enough that they feel good about it "but not so hard they get injured."
Not after what happened to her son Reed.
The Andersons' oldest son graduated from Monticello last year. He was the school valedictorian and student body president and a good quarterback. This year he might have walked on at Snow College.
But he tore a knee ligament in the third game of last season and missed three games. He rehabbed like crazy and ended the season with more than 1,000 yards passing. He was the 1A division's Most Valuable Player and inducted into the National High School Football Hall of Fame. Surgery followed the season, and today Reed Anderson is helping coach at Richfield.
Reed's injury is why Daniel Anderson says his wife treats each game with a little trepidation. "It's hard for a mom to watch one son get hurt and trot out the next one," he said.
On this fall day, for the next two hours, the Buckaroo football field is the center of this town's universe.
A dozen little kids are playing chase and tossing a football while the teams warm up. The local LDS seminary teacher is right in the middle of the ragtag game. A dog sprints across the field. Moms and dads pull cars and trucks up to the track. They sit with headlights on, waiting to ride the horn when the Bucks' touchdowns start rolling in.
The ramshackle school band, depleted because some of the members are away competing at a cross country meet, is banging out "Comin' At Ya!" and "Cut to the Chase."
Rhett Maughan is the owner of Blue Mountain Chiropractic and operates offices in Moab, Blanding and Monticello. His daughter is a cheerleader, and he coaches the girls basketball team — but he wouldn't be anywhere other than on the sidelines of the varsity football game. "Football is the one sport that really builds community," he says.
Monticello football is a community effort.
Junior Wade Eldredge, who was first team All-State last year and who will end this game with 11 tackles, has fans in the press box. His grandma and grandpa are running the game clock.
Maughan donates chiropractic adjustments and physician's care to the team. Burton Black, who owns Black Oil and operates gas stations throughout Grand and San Juan counties, is a big booster.
Contractor Paul Sonderegger, whose son Chad is on the team, paid for the field's sound system and provides fireworks for the homecoming game.
Even coach Hall's four assistant coaches are unpaid volunteers who hold down other full-time jobs.
Bryan Bowring works for Frontier Communications, the local phone company. Jim Robinson is the golf pro at the Hideout, the city-owned golf course and the only links in the county.
Anthony Giddings is a butcher at Blue Mountain Meat, and Tim Suesue is a counselor at San Juan High School.
"All these people who give so much, it's so important," Hall said. "Our budget is nothing, and sometimes it's hard to raise money in a community like this."
Hall himself works for Questar gas company. He is a soft-spoken man born and raised in Monticello. He played for the Buckaroos and graduated in 1997. He's seen some of the worst and best of Buckaroo football.
Monticello won only two games one year he played.
But his senior year, when Monticello was still a 2A school, the 18 seniors on the team had been together since seventh grade. The Bucks eventually lost to Morgan in the semifinals, which remains the school's best showing in 2A play.
Hall coached baseball for four years at the school and was assistant coach for three. This is his first year in charge. He still gets an upset stomach before games.
What about the pressure on a small-town football coach? Does the community mojo change when you lose to Manti, then Grand, then San Juan, like Monticello did at the beginning of this year?
"This town is very supportive. Those first few games I was expecting a lot worse.
"It's not that bad, but there is pressure," Hall said. "The fact is, if we have a winning season, the whole attitude of the school is better."
Former Monticello football coach Mike Bowring (Bryan Bowring's brother) gets credit for bringing Buckaroo football back from the brink.
Seven or eight years ago a handful of Bowring's football players had what some describe as "problems with alcohol." The boys were all seniors — top players — and Bowring kicked them all off the team for good. He gained a lot of respect in the community for that," Maughan said. "It took a year or so, but things started to turn around after that."
Bowring was likable and connected with the young athletes.
"If he didn't win, he was mad. Losing was not an option, and he got the kids to think that way, too," Paul Sonderegger said. "Those kids would play their hearts out for him."
Today the legendary coach is nearby. In 2004 he was hired as head football coach at Juab High, a 2A school, where his budget is three times bigger.
The 2A/1A conundrum is still tough for some folks in Monticello.
The high school's enrollment was 379 in 1996 but only 297 in 2005. There were only about 200 students in upper grades when the school dropped from 2A to 1A in 2001 and immediately won the title.
Now the regular season schedule includes Whitehorse, Parowan, Enterprise, Duchesne, Monument Valley and Rich.
Today's opponent, Layton Christian, is fielding a varsity team for only the second year. The Eagles are down to 16 players who haven't quit or been injured. The score is 20-0 after the first quarter.
"I'm tired of playing these kinds of teams," assistant coach Bryan Bowring tells someone on the sideline.
At 39-0, the game is a rout at halftime, but coaches warn their players to be humble and remember what's ahead. The young men huddle just off the field in a corrugated metal outbuilding they call "The Shed."
"Our main goal is not to beat Layton Christian," Hall says. "Our main goal is to take state." In the meantime, he tells the team to hold Layton Christian scoreless.
"Hit 'em hard, help 'em up, then hit 'em hard again," offers defensive coach Bowring.
On the field, the passel of kids chased away by the announcer are back, but they clear for the halftime show.
Honors for the Buckaroos' seven senior players and their parents amounts to a who's who of Monticello VIPs. Krieg Adair's dad is the town's chief of police, Linc Pehrson's dad is Monticello's mayor. Pete Anderson's dad is an attorney. Kurt Mantz' dad is principal at Whitehorse High School, 50 miles away on the Navajo reservation.
"In Monticello, it has nothing to do with how nice your house is or what kind of car you drive," says Maughn. "Everybody here is laid back, and the whole town raises every kid."
On the sidelines, No. 10 is watching the score, keeping his fingers crossed. Freshman Daniel Torres is 5 feet 6 inches and 115 pounds soaking wet. He's also the backup quarterback.
His dad, Gary, is shooting the game for the local San Juan Record. He's a Bureau of Land Management employee also running for mayor. This town of more than 2,000 is full of people like Gary — people born in this town tucked under the wing of Abajo Mountain who leave for a while then come back just for moments like these.
"Anywhere else, he'd never get to play," Gary Torres says of his son. "Here, he gets in. He comes home and he's Superman."
At the end of the fourth quarter, with the Buckaroos up 39-0, Torres gets the call. He is QB for three minutes. He doesn't pass but successfully hands off six or seven times. "I got in there," he says proudly, finding a visitor after the game.
It's a good night for Torres, and he's lingering before team chores. It's usually left to the freshmen to haul sideline markers off the field and put them away. "Yeah, I was in there for a second with the varsity," he grins.
"And hey, I didn't get sacked."
Tomorrow: Super-sizing prep football.