The high school football game is the center of life for small towns in much of rural America. And one town, in western North Dakota, is celebrating the return of that ritual for the first time in over a quarter century.
The Alexander Comets are a six-man football team (the school is still too small to host the 11-man game). On the day before their home opener, against a small town in eastern Montana, they’re going over plays and their warm-up routine.
“I can’t wait for tomorrow to come,” says wide receiver Jayy Morgan, “my head’s going to explode right now.”
Morgan is new to football, and new to Alexander. His mom came out here from Bakersfield, Calif., to work in one of the new truck stops built in the Bakken oilfield, and last April he came, too. New kids like Morgan are the reason why Alexander could bring football back, says coach Kevin Clausen, an oil worker himself.
“Because of the oil boom, we now have a football team,” he says.
Before development of North Dakota’s Bakken oilfield began, in 2008, there were only 55 kids in the entire K-12 school. Like so many small towns in the Great Plains, Alexander was shrinking as young people moved away and farms grew larger and more mechanized. Indeed, this is still happening in the parts of North Dakota that are outside the oil-producing areas.
Tenth grader Grace Nelson remembers when her parents were talking about the possibility of closing the school.
“It’s kind of shocking to hear, ‘you don’t have enough people so you can’t be a school,'” she says. “Because school is family. That’s like saying you can’t be with your family every day.”
The oil boom has changed all that. The town has grown by 40 percent since 2008, and now, there are over 200 kids in the school. And the kids are still coming, despite low oil prices and thousands of layoffs.
But Nelson says there’s a downside: teenagers from around the oilfield are dying in car crashes on busy oilfield highways. In Alexander, the quarterback’s older brother died in a car crash, as did another would-be football player.
That gives Nelson, who manages the football team, a pretty complicated relationship with the oilfield, not unlike many people I met in Alexander.
“I hate the fact that I can drive places where there was never anything and it’s nothing but solid pumping units, and roads, and traffic. It’s changed the landscape,” says Mayor Jerry Hatter.
But, he adds, it’s given him a job working with oilfield company Nabors Drilling.
Hatter is nostalgic about the way things were, but he admits that the return of high school sports to Alexander is unequivocally one of the best outcomes of the oil boom. Back in the day, he played football, too, for a much larger high school in Sidney, Montana. But he wishes he could have been on a small, tight-knit team like the Comets.
“I mean, these kids here, they have the ultimate experience. They’re going to play every down of every game,” he says, and then starts to laugh. “I hope they do good. It’s gonna be a tough year for them, really tough.”
If the Comet’s first game was any indication, Hatter’s prediction could come true. The Comets got walloped by the Grass Range/Winnett Rangers, 65 to 18. But that didn’t stop the crowd from cheering at every tackle, even if the Comets let the Ranger player run 30 yards first.
Between cheers, fans sat on the back of pickup trucks, watching the game. They held each other’s babies, visited about their cattle and wheat yields, and hollered at the referees.
It’s this sense of community that was missing during those 28 years Alexander didn’t have football, says LeAnna Halverson-Dean, who grew up in Alexander.
“Farmers, ranchers, you get caught up in your lives and you lose track,” she says. “It’s nice to have everybody back.”
- Read writer Timothy Egan’s piece on demographic trends, oil booms and depopulation, in the heartland.
- Hear about how farmers and ranchers in another small oilfield town (Killdeer, North Dakota) are dealing with the influx of energy development.