Were they looking at him? Glaring at him? Beau Wood couldn’t know for sure.
But the first few practices last fall, the 11th-grader jogged past the football coaches in his T-shirt and gym shorts and felt the eyes of judgment upon him.
Wood, 6-foot-1, 205 pounds, should’ve been Perkins County High School’s starting fullback and defensive end. Instead, he had become a reserve — on the cross-country team.
“I wondered what they thought of me,” he said.
Every school day, Wood walked by the Perkins County photos and trophies. Reminders of an era — before consolidation — when his school was Nebraska’s most dominant football powerhouse.
From 1975 to ’90, the Grant Plainsmen grabbed eight state championships in Class C-2. No 11-man program has ever won more titles in a shorter span.
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One generation later, football wasn’t even the school’s most popular boys fall sport. If there were a participation scoreboard at Perkins County in 2017, it would’ve read “Cross-country 22, Football 20.”
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According to NSAA participation statistics, only one other Nebraska high school — Elkhorn Mount Michael — had more cross-country runners than football players.
Maybe the math makes sense in a place with less gridiron tradition. But here? Who could’ve imagined?
“Not in my wildest dreams,” cross-country coach Paula Wurst said. “For the longest time, I didn’t even need an assistant coach.”
Wurst, who ran cross-country at Doane College “100 years ago,” started coaching the team in 2003. Some years, she didn’t have enough boys to field a varsity. But the roster ballooned the past decade as more boys chose cross-country.
“They discover that football is fun to watch and it’s fun to play with your friends,” Wurst said, “but when you’re out there with 200-pound linebackers who are trying to take your head off, then it’s not so fun.”
She takes no glee from the football team’s roster plunge. In fact, Wurst often recommends that kids try football first. But the numbers keep falling, startling community members like Larry Pritchett.
When Pritchett first arrived in Grant in 1964, there were 89 boys in high school, he said. More than 80 played football.
“If you weren’t out for football, you were a student manager,” said Pritchett, the Plainsmen’s three-time state championship basketball coach. “Football was king.”
The primary problem is depopulation, but fewer kids are participating in activities, too. They’re still finding ways to win.
Last fall, the short-handed Perkins County football team made a run to the Class D-1 quarterfinals. Plainsmen cross-country? They finished eighth in Class D. Their best runner was Caden Waitley, a 5-foot-9, 130-pound junior who, according to his coach, runs as easily as most of us breathe.
Waitley tried football as a freshman, too, because he loves the game — he’s an Oregon fan. He just didn’t like playing it.
“There’s always those people that say cross-country is just for wussies,” Waitley said. “I heard some of that, but it wasn’t terrible. A lot of the football players are good friends.”
Coach Wurst senses some “heat” from the community, especially when a potential receiver or running back joins her team. A couple of boys wanted to run, she said, but opted for football because their dads or grandpas were part of the state championship teams.
Sometimes cross-country is the perfect fallback plan for a different reason: injury prevention. Wood suffered concussions in elementary and middle school.
“It’s not very good that I can’t remember how many,” he said. “I went to a neurologist, and they said one more and I could be a vegetable. It was scary.”
Cross-country was more appealing than being the place-kicker or fetching water bottles, so Wood switched sports. The initial shock of his football friends turned to acceptance, and Wood’s anxiety faded.
“Running sucks,” Wood said, “but the atmosphere is really fun. It’s more like hanging out running than actually a sport that you have to stress about.”
Wood’s teammates take pride in their outsider status. Their self-imposed nickname: the Goon Squad. Whether you finish first or last, Wood said, the coaches treat runners the same.
Many Perkins County runners still attend Friday night football games and root for the Plainsmen. Wood, who won bronze at 182 pounds at the Class D state wrestling tournament in February, tries to keep his distance.
“It just reminds me of something I can’t do,” he said.
Wood is looking forward to his senior year — “besides the running part,” he said — and strives to make varsity. It’s not as easy as it sounds on a team that lost just one senior. The Plainsmen have a goal for 2018. Put another piece of hardware at the front of Perkins County High School.
There’s still room in the trophy case, right?
“Oh, there better be,” Wood said.
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