the disappearance of

small-town football

By Dirk Chatelain   //   World-Herald staff writer

Friday night lights across rural Nebraska are going dark. But one town, in its last season of gridiron independence, proved that school spirit is stronger than ever.

On the 407th and final night of Lindsay Holy Family football, a mother bundled on the top bleacher looks out at the 35-yard line, where her son is writhing in pain.

At kickoff, Sherri Frisch had cheered so loud you could hear it across the field.

"Oh, we're gonna listen to that all night?" said one of the dads.

"Shut up," Sherri fired back. "He's a senior. I'm gonna be emotional."

Now, seven minutes into the game, she doesn't say a word, waiting for No. 99 to move his left knee. Waiting for Ben to get off the cold grass.

The image at top is Highway 91 west of Lindsay, Neb. This was the view from Holy Family's bus en route to the Nebraska Panhandle. Photo by The World-Herald's Dirk Chatelain.

Sherri had grown up watching Holy Family football, like most parents on this sideline. She had hoped the school's last season, even if it was just six-man football, would satisfy her nostalgia.

One game they scored 91 — then served the opponents dinner, a Bulldog tradition. One game they played 6 hours from home — the charter bus left Lindsay at 7 a.m. and returned after 1 a.m. The last home game, they honored the school's best teams — 52-year-olds wore their uniforms and told stories till the lights shut off.

But the finale is turning into a disaster. The Bulldogs, 6-1, are running out of players. They came to Newcastle with seven in uniform, including one emergency sub nursing an ankle. They're gonna need him.

Ben limps off the field, removes his helmet and sits. Sherri descends the five wooden bleachers and joins her husband at a rope line behind the bench.

DIRK CHATELAIN/THE WORLD-HERALD

The announcer's booth at the Lindsay football field lists the school's achievements, including two eight-man state championships.

"Be honest with me, Ben," says an assistant coach, examining the knee. "Don't do it for pride."

Pride drove Lindsay to start football in 1972 — against the priest's wishes. Pride produced two eight-man state championships. Pride stiff-armed the forces that tackled Lindsay's peers over the past decade.

Population is dwindling on the Nebraska prairie. And football teams are disappearing. Not in Omaha or Lincoln or Kearney. But out there, off the Interstate, where the only structures taller than goal posts are water towers, grain elevators and church steeples. Out there, where Friday night games still leave the streets empty, and come Saturday morning, the quarterback is up early, vaccinating cattle. Out there, where Ben Frisch calls home.

Across the field, the Newcastle Raiders are celebrating their last-ever football game, too. They score another touchdown: 19-0. Ben winces, lifts his 205 pounds off the bench and tries to loosen his knee. A tear smudges the eye black on his cheek. He knows it's over.

Unless pride intervenes one last time.

19-hour day

In the photo above, Lindsay Holy Family's Ben Frisch prepares to kick off against Banner County. Photo by The World-Herald's Dirk Chatelain.

The charter bus pulls away from school and rolls down the tallest hill in Lindsay, stopping at the highway that bisects the town of 321. It's minutes before dawn — a week before the finale in Newcastle — and Holy Family is on schedule.

The itinerary for the longest road trip in school history: 368 miles to the Nebraska Panhandle, a football game at Banner County High School, then 368 miles back. Nineteen hours, start to finish.

But these next seven days are the culmination of a journey much longer: 41 years touching hundreds of lives in a map dot on Highway 91.

For decades, this two-lane ribbon between Norfolk and Columbus produced some of Nebraska's best high school rivalries. Dodge. Howells. Clarkson. Leigh. Humphrey. St. Francis. All are east of Lindsay, within 45 miles. This morning, the bus turns west toward a setting moon so full, so bright, headlights are optional.

Ben Frisch and teammates have bed-head in the back. Parents and little siblings are sleepy-eyed in the middle. Up front sit two coaches, including a 66-year-old who came out of retirement.

In 2005, Holy Family enrollment, grades 1-12, was 196. Now it's exactly half, 98.

What circumstances put them on this shoulderless road at 7 a.m.? It starts with enrollment. In 1980, Holy Family had 336 students in grades one through 12. In 2003, enrollment had dropped to 201. Now it's 98, including only 16 high school boys. The trend has multiple causes:

Advanced machinery allows farmers to work 10 times as many acres as their fathers did. The demand for help in small towns isn't what it used to be.

Families choose two or three kids rather than six or nine. Kindergarten classes are consistently smaller than senior classes.

The ebb and flow of rural economics leads to generation gaps. During the '80s, for instance, times got so tough that small farmers moved away.

The lure of cities like Lincoln and Omaha, two hours east. More high school graduates go to college and don't come back.

Decreased participation rates in football. Maybe it's the fear of injury. Maybe it's more extracurricular alternatives. Either way, fewer kids are playing.

Of 16 Holy Family boys, 12 went out for football. Good percentage. But compare it with a decade ago. The 2000 state championship photo shows 32 players. The '04 photo shows 29. There's no public school in town. Holy Family has a healthy donor base. Farmers have money.

"But you gotta have warm bodies," says Jim Webster, former Bulldogs coach. "You can't manufacture students."

School consolidations and sports co-ops are sweeping Highway 91. Dodge and Howells now wear the same uniform. Same for Clarkson and Leigh. Holy Family can't hold off any longer.

Last spring, after one-on-one meetings with parents and an open meeting of townspeople, Holy Family decided to merge football programs in 2014 with Humphrey High, 11 miles east. The schools began a co-op for other sports this year. That decision would've been enough change for one decade.

But the Bulldogs, coming off a 9-2 season, couldn't make it to '14. Coaches and parents studied the numbers — including a sophomore class of two boys and one girl — and made another tough call. They canceled their eight-man schedule and dropped to six man, even though most people in town had never seen a game.

Nebraska has only 16 six-man teams, most of which are out west. That's why coaches called Banner County — a school 15 miles from the Wyoming border. They rented the 47-passenger charter for $2,600, expecting to fill it with parents and fans. They came up 13 short. And after draining the football account, Bill Mimick covered the rest.

Mimick, the co-head coach, grew up on a farm near Columbus, the oldest of nine siblings. Each summer they grew five acres of sweet corn to fund Catholic school tuition.

Chuck Hagel, secretary of defense, was two years ahead of Mimick at St. Bonaventure. Hagel was good in football, but the last man on the basketball team. One night, Bonaventure was losing badly when a starter fouled out. The coach looked down the bench and nobody looked back, except Hagel. Coach put him in.

"That taught me a lesson," Mimick says. "Don't be afraid."

He knows these highways better than his playbook. He coached in Monroe, Lynch, Spencer and Newman Grove. His career record: 216-142-2.

In 2010 he retired after buying a few acres near David City. Nice little place with two horses, a mare and a foal. Mimick has yet to live there. Lindsay asked him for football help in '11. Now he teaches PE and rents a basement apartment three blocks from school.

As the bus cuts through Spalding, the moon drops below the horizon and the sun rises behind them. Slow down for three deer crossing the road. Swerve right for a trailer of hay bales hugging the center line.

The boys in back watch a zombie movie, "World War Z." Mimick looks out the left window, where coal trains rumble by every 20 minutes. To his right, the only man-made objects are windmills.

They enter (and quickly exit) towns that once had high schools.

Reminds Mimick of his student-teaching days in the early '70s. His supervisor coached Halsey-Dunning after they consolidated. Early in the season, the coach noticed something odd. At the goal line, the quarterback gave the ball only to teammates from his hometown.

"Coach took over the play-calling after that," Mimick says.

Community rivalries aren't as nasty anymore. But there's still bad blood, mostly among parents. Mimick hears of partnerships ruined because towns can't agree on uniform colors or mascots or where to play home games.

“They don’t want to be known as ‘blank slash blank.’ ”
— Bill Mimick

Elba and North Loup-Scotia broke up and the latter had to cancel its season. Greeley-Wolbach split with Cedar Rapids and will join North Loup-Scotia. Now Cedar Rapids is merging with Spalding, leaving Spalding Academy on its own. It's like a homecoming dance. You don't want to be without a date. You also don't want to give up independence before necessary. A small town's greatest fear is losing the high school.

"They don't want to be known as blank slash blank," Mimick says.

At Thedford, the bus stops at a gas station with deer heads on the wall. Dennis Beller, one of the dads, says the kids will remember this trip forever.

"So will my butt," Sherri Frisch says.

Work for free

In the photo above, John Reichmuth harvests corn east of town with help from son Eric Reichmuth driving the tractor. John graduated from Holy Family in 1970 and now has grandchildren at the school.
The town of Lindsay is defined by two things: a massive irrigation equipment factory, Lindsay Manufacturing, and the Catholic school, Lindsay Holy Family.
Photo by The World-Herald's James R. Burnett.

They call it flyover country. But even at 30,000 feet, a New Yorker can look down on a clear day and see the work of Lindsay, Neb.

Green circles.

That's irrigated cropland. In 1968, the Zimmerer family helped modernize farming with the new Zimmatic pivot. Four years later, they helped invent something else.

Bulldog football.

This was right after Bob Devaney won back-to-back national championships at NU. And Holy Family was stocked with big, strong Germans — Benders and Bellers, Herchenbachs and Frauendorfers.

"All these kids could bench Volkswagens," said Webster, a first-year teacher in '71. "We said 'Why the hell don't we play football in this town?' "

Because the superintendent, Father Newman, didn't want to. The school didn't have the money, he said.

That's where Art and Bernie Zimmerer stepped in. They got a tip that Naper High School had recently shut down football.

One Sunday in '72, the Zimmerers led a voyage 145 miles north. For $500, they packed a pickup with Naper Bears helmets, pads, red practice jerseys, even a few tackling dummies.

"We just cleaned out everything they had," Webster said. "It was a heckuva bargain."

And when the coaches offered to work the first season free, Father Newman couldn't say no. The booster club started a fund drive for uniforms. Volunteers put up lights and constructed an 80-yard field next to the baseball diamond. They welded goal posts from factory pipe.

The public-address announcer called the action from a pickup bed. The scoreboard didn't work. And the Bulldogs won just once. But it was a start.

The next few years, the Holy Family bus blew a tire in Dodge. At Genoa, the drive shaft fell off. At Petersburg, it ran out of gas and the team pushed it into town.

The trip everybody remembers was seven miles away. Newman Grove agreed to a game on one condition: We play 11 man, not eight. That Monday, Bulldog coaches added three to the field and drew up new plays. They jumped to an 18-0 lead and held on.

DIRK CHATELAIN/THE WORLD-HERALD

Lindsay's most well-known creation, the Zimmatic irrigation pivot, helped fund Holy Family's first football team.

"You would've thought we won the Super Bowl," Webster said.

By the time the Bulldogs went 10-0 in '78, football in Lindsay was indispensable. It wasn't the only thing changing.

When Holy Family opened on Jan. 9, 1906, it stood three stories high, overlooking the fields east of town. Now the same brick school overlooks one of Nebraska's largest rural factories.

Lindsay Manufacturing, which boomed in the wake of center-pivot irrigation, sprawls like an industrial suburb. When work starts each morning, Lindsay's population triples — most employees come from out of town. Amid the success, the plant never abandoned Holy Family.

Annual tuition per high school student is $2,150 — and slightly cheaper for younger kids. But that doesn't cover costs. Not even close.

The solution: the Plant Project.

Lindsay Manufacturing has a long-standing deal with Holy Family in which townspeople come in Wednesdays and perform menial tasks. Team One, for example, works the 11th, putting two screws, three bolts and a washer in a bag. Staple and repeat. The plant compensates the parish, which uses the funds for teacher salaries, heating bills, new computers, anything.

It's not just assembly-line work. To support extracurricular activities, parents like Sherri Frisch clean bathrooms at Lindsay Manufacturing. Or paint the walls.

"I'm sick of industrial yellow," she says. "I've painted almost everything in that plant yellow."

Volunteering won't change when Lindsay yields football independence. But Friday nights will. The Humphrey/Lindsay Holy Family Bulldogs will compromise and wear a new color.

Black.

Hometown reunion

The photo above shows the last seven players to suit up for Holy Family's final practice. They are, from left, Austin Preister, Derek Reardon, Nick Jarecki, Logen Beller, Jacob Sueper, Ben Frisch and Scott Jarecki. Photo by The World-Herald's James R. Burnett.

The last home game fell on a Thursday — two weeks before Newcastle. Bulldog alumni watched in their old uniforms, some of which were missing letters — OLY FAMILY. Hasn't been washed in 35 years, one said.

Greg Gasper, quarterback on the undefeated '78 team, sells furniture in Columbus. He hadn't seen Holy Family play in a decade. "I've never been to a six-man game."

It looks like backyard football. Everyone is an eligible receiver. The quarterback can't run, so most plays start with a pitch to a dual-threat running back. First downs are 15 yards, not 10. There's so much open space that one great player can score almost every time he touches it.

At half, 25 old Bulldogs from three decades walked to midfield, where an 82-year-old PA announcer introduced them. As the third quarter started, elementary kids played touch football behind the bleachers. Adults emerged from an old Winnebago, where they drank cocktails.

Holy Family rolled to an easy win. When time expired, a siren wailed. "Thanks for coming and goodnight," said the old PA man.

Gasper and five teammates didn't move. You know, the field used to run straight north and south, Gasper said. The middle was just dirt. Better than the practice field, Rick Korth said. You got tackled and came up wearing sand burs.

They recalled their fundraising methods. "We walked the fields and collected ears of corn off the ground." And laughed at their tight jerseys. "Imagine getting pads under these. It was like wearing cellophane."

For the conference title game, cars were lined to Main Street. The Bulldogs beat Taylor 63-6. Why weren't they eligible for a state title? The nuns turned in the wrong enrollment.

That was Gasper's last game. He didn't play basketball; his hair was too long for the coach. He did maintenance and snow removal on weeknights at Lindsay Manufacturing till 2 a.m.

"I had so much money to put gas in the old Suburban. Then every weekend, we'd burn it up."

"This town would be dead without the plant and the church."

Video: Mimick talks small-town football

The wind picks up and hands slide into jean pockets, the only sound coming from the Lindsay grain elevators. Rick Korth checks his watch.

"Yeah, we were pretty unique back then," Gasper says. "We could run it and throw it. We got good playing in Rosie Ramaekers' backyard. You remember that?"

The first of eight field lights turns off.

"Ohhh, here we go."

"Closing time," says the quarterback.

They head for their cars, the uniform numbers fading in the night. They're still walking across the field when the last light goes dark.

Holy water

In the photo above, Lindsay Holy Family takes on Newcastle early in the season. Courtesy photo by Sue Werner.

Two hours before kickoff, Holy Family reaches mile 368. The charter bus pulls into Banner County High School.

To the Bulldogs, it feels like the end of the Earth. Harrisburg is about 25 houses scattered across a dead-flat half mile. Snow melts on the one-story, K-12 schoolhouse.

"Why do they have 1,000 buses?" a player says.

Actually it's 10, but the school collects students from all over the county. Teachers, too. The buildings north of the gravel parking lot are faculty apartments.

Inside, Banner County is in the middle of a school day. An algebra teacher scans her classroom wall, where TVs connect her to students across the Panhandle. It's not just athletic teams sharing resources.

As the Bulldogs put on pads and cleats in the locker room, Holy Family's entourage quietly enters the gym, where four girls start a volleyball game. Soon the moms join — "Sherri, you still got it."

"Yeah, it's only been, like, 25 years," she says.

Dennis Beller stands on the baseline, tracing his Holy Family roots. He grew up with five brothers (no sisters) and started at quarterback in '89. His dad didn't cut him any slack. Saturdays, Dennis woke up early to care for cattle.

He married a girl from Humphrey St. Francis, back when kids in rival towns didn't mingle on Facebook. "We called them the gooners. They called us greasers."

In 1998, Logen was born. He was 3 when Dennis' parents were killed on vacation by a drunken driver. Back home, the church was so full, they broadcast the funeral in the Holy Family gym. Dennis remembers shaking his dad's hand when he left for vacation. Now he and two brothers run the 1,200-acre family farm, watching over 4,000 cattle.

At 1:45, the school bell rings, but the volleyball keeps bouncing.

"C'mon, Dennis, let's make fun of your serve now."

"Noooo."

"C'mon, Dad."

Eventually there are more players — seven kids, five moms and three dads — than there will be on the football field.

RYAN PFEIFER/COURTESY PHOTO

Players form a huddle at Banner County. After the 368-mile trip to Harrisburg, the Bulldogs turned back toward Lindsay for a 6½-hour drive home.

At kickoff, wind blows hard out of the northwest. Look that direction and there's nothing for 10 miles. Not a tree, not a hill, not a building. Beller's daughter finds a tumbleweed.

Holy Family wins 74-20. But the team has bigger issues. One of the sophomores left the game with a concussion. He headed to the hospital in Scottsbluff for tests. And a senior sprained an ankle, joining three walking wounded on the sideline.

DIRK CHATELAIN/THE WORLD-HERALD

Teammates assist senior Scott Jarecki, who sprained his ankle in the first half of the Banner County game.

"Just think if we were eight-man," Dennis says. "Season would be over."

It's after 7 Central when the bus leaves the hospital and turns east toward the same full moon it chased 12 hours ago. There's another stop in Thedford. Another movie, "Red Dawn." Not much conversation.

Coaches wonder what to do about the finale. They received word early in the week that Newcastle was closing its school at the end of the year. How could Holy Family cancel on them?

But it's not just injuries. On the way to Banner County, the other head coach, 26-year-old Scott Morrison, got a call from home. Two players were involved in an incident that warrants disciplinary action. Does Holy Family suspend them? Even if it means a forfeit?

The bus pulls into Lindsay and the driver hits the lights in the cabin, prompting squints front to back. Sherri Frisch steps into the cold.

"The things we do for our kids," she says.

How far did they drive?

Players grab their bags and walk to frost-covered cars. Mimick climbs behind the wheel of a four-door Ford and fulfills a tradition.

He drives to the church, leaves his car running and the driver's door open. Takes off his plain blue hat. Pulls the glass door. Dips his fingers in holy water. Walks to the candles in the corner.

In Mimick's playing days — and the first 15 to 20 years of his coaching career — he lit a votive before every game and prayed for a win. He won a lot, including a state championship in 1988. About the time he quit drinking in '89, he changed his prayer: Let no player get hurt.

"Obviously that didn't happen today."

Lindsay is a town full of people who were baptized here, confirmed here, married here. They'll die here. Mimick is different. He's a journeyman with friends and stories all over northeast Nebraska. Lindsay adopted him.

When he'll finally move down to his land and chase grandkids, he doesn't know. He's 66 years old and his unbalanced offensive line still works. On Friday nights, kids need him.

He looks at the altar.

"There's two places in the world that give me peace: AA meetings. And this church."

It's almost 2 a.m. He turns for the car, dabs his fingers again and makes the sign of the cross. He leaves the church lights on.

4th and long

In the photo above, Lindsay Holy Family co-coaches Bill Mimick, center, and Scott Morrison, kneeling at right, address the team. Photo by The World-Herald's James R. Burnett.

Ben Frisch, sitting on the bench in Newcastle, wraps himself in a blue coat. He doesn't know it yet, but he's torn his MCL and broken his tibia. He'll spend the next month on crutches. Meanwhile, on the last night of Holy Family football, his teammates have walked into an ambush.

What circumstances put them in a 19-0 hole at Newcastle, a team Lindsay beat 59-6 back home a month ago?

The Raiders' best player, No. 88, missed the first game. Now he's back and Lindsay can't tackle him. Lindsay's best, on the other hand, is in a hunting coat on the sideline, suspended.

With Ben out, six players are left, counting a senior with a bad ankle. They are playing out of position and — worse — they look like that St. Bonaventure basketball team 50 years ago.

They're afraid.

It's 32-15 at half, when Mimick reverts to his eight-man days. Tight formations, power football. A good play in six man typically gains 20 yards, maybe 60. Holy Family doesn't have the firepower. But five at a time is enough. Touchdown.

32-21

Dennis Beller leans over the rope to Ben's ear. "Get in there and be a leader."

JAMES R. BURNETT/THE WORLD-HERALD

Bill Mimick had led four programs in northeast Nebraska before coming out of retirement to coach Holy Family.

Holy Family recovers an onside kick and starts another drive. After each whistle, Mimick takes a few steps onto the field to meet his 140-pound quarterback, Logen Beller. The most important Bulldog on each play is the one in charge of blocking No. 88. Holy Family is executing. A frustrated 88 gets a personal foul.

"C'mon, guys, push it to 'em!" Ben says. He hobbles to Mimick and suggests a throwback pass to the quarterback.

On third-and-goal, Holy Family tailback Austin Preister scores on a pitch. "Hey, nice call, coach," Morrison says, amid the cheers.

On third-and-goal, Holy Family tailback Austin Preister scores on a pitch. "Hey, nice call, coach," Morrison says, amid the cheers.

"That's the old student body," Mimick says.

32-27

Mimick's son arrives just in time from Minnesota, joining his daughter from Kansas. Dad is fired up, yelling at the defense. Freshmen who looked terrified an hour ago are throwing their bodies into No. 88. Injuries are no longer the focus behind the yellow rope; parents want to win. "Good stick, Logen!" Dennis yells.

With 3 minutes left, Holy Family has the ball, fourth-and-7 at its 18.

Logen takes the snap and pitches to Preister, who is swarmed in the backfield. But just as he's falling, he throws back to Logen.

The freshman goes 62 yards for a touchdown. Parents are screaming. Smacking hands. You would've thought they won the Super Bowl.

The freshman goes 62 yards for a touchdown. Parents are screaming. Smacking hands. You would've thought they won the Super Bowl.

33-32, Bulldogs

Moments later, Newcastle has one more chance. It's at midfield — the 40-yard line — with 53 seconds left. The Raiders throw deep, once, twice, three times incomplete. It's fourth-and-15. Last play.

"Logen, back up!" Morrison yells before the snap. "Back up!"

The Newcastle quarterback launches one final deep pass. A senior receiver runs by Logen, catches the ball in stride and crosses the goal line. The home crowd roars.

Newcastle 38, Holy Family 33

Time runs out. The Bulldogs pull off their helmets and stagger to their end zone, dropping to the grass. Austin and Logen are crying.

A tuba blares in the distance as Newcastle students climb the hill and prepare for the last homecoming dance. Holy Family's cheering section enters the end zone.

Morrison, who teaches "Romeo and Juliet" at school, tries to find the right words — "We're so dang proud of you guys." Then Mimick steps in.

"Logen, what'd you learn? You went from hero one minute, then a senior burned ya. That happens. And that's what's gonna happen in life. ... Don't ever rest on what you've done. Because there's always a new challenge out there."

Players stand in a circle and pray.

"Our Father, Who art in heaven ..."

Let's get one last breakdown, Ben says. They throw their hands together.

"1-2-3, Bulldogs!"

Tomorrow

In the photo above, Bulldog teammates walk down the street after their final practice. Photo by The World-Herald's James R. Burnett.

Saturday morning, bright and brisk, they're back in Lindsay. Mimick is off to Cedar Rapids to ref volleyball. Dennis Beller wakes Logen early to work cattle.

Sherri Frisch maintains a white farmhouse north of town, ordered from the Sears catalog in 1929. It came to Lindsay in pieces via railroad, then horse and buggy.

GRAHAM ARCHER/THE WORLD-HERALD

The main hallway at Lindsay Holy Family school, built in 1906.

They've fixed up the house. Added on. Her steps elude the creaks in the floor. In the laundry room, she washes her son's sweaty uniform, savoring the smell.

Ben isn't there. He woke up early and limped in to take the ACT. Next fall he'll attend Northeast Community College in Norfolk and study to be an electrician, like his dad. On Friday nights, he'll watch a 67-year-old coach lead Lindsay and its black helmets into a new era.

Ben will live at home and sleep beneath the helmet on his dresser. Forever white, with a blue sticker on the side:

LHF

Credits

Contact the writer:
402-649-1461, dirk.chatelain@owh.com, twitter.com/dirkchatelain

Web production: Online editor Graham Archer

Photos: The World-Herald's James R. Burnett, Dirk Chatelain and Graham Archer. Courtesy photos by Sue Werner and Ryan Pfeifer.

Video: The World-Herald's Graham Archer and Kyle Benecke.

Special thanks: The World-Herald's Cody Winchester, Stu Pospisil and Jake Anderson and to the staff of Lindsay Holy Family school.

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