The 14-year-old freshman ran alone through the darkness, jogging for several miles at 2 a.m. in the Missouri countryside, his legs pushing him past cow pastures and soybean fields. A few hours earlier, on September 29, the 5'6", 121-pound starting defensive lineman for Northwest High in Hughesville, Missouri, had been on the field when Greenfield (Missouri) High had bludgeoned his team 102-0.
Now Zander Hood's workout was his way of trying to improve his stamina, no matter the hour, no matter how sore he was from facing players in a game of eight-man football who outweighed him by 100 pounds.
Around the same hour, a 17-year-old senior on the Northwest team strode into a Walmart, unable to sleep in his house on a gravel road. Colton Loesing, who is the son of a cattle farmer and has lined up at seven positions on his eight-man team, bought a spray nozzle for a hose. By 6:15 a.m., he was hard at work, using that nozzle to clean animal cages—his way of moving on.
"We're a bunch of farmers' kids, and farmers just keep going, keep working no matter what else is going on," Loesing says. "We play the No. 1 team in the state next week, and I can't wait. Nothing in life that is easy is worthwhile."
Take a moment and ask yourself: How would you react if you played on a winless team that had just endured the third-worst loss in the history of Missouri high school football, a game in which the opponent led 80-0 at the end of the first quarter? Would you quit if your team was 0-7 and been outscored 490-150? Would you dial down your effort in practice if you only had nine healthy players on your team and knew you had virtually no chance of winning a single game?
Here in Hughesville, Missouri—a no-stoplight, no-grocery store town of 183 that is so remote the nearest gas station is 15 miles away—a remarkable story is unfolding: The Mustangs players are acting like every Friday night this fall is as important as a bountiful harvest, treating every game like a state title is on the line.
At this tiny country school that sits across from a cornfield, not one player has quit; in fact, as the losses have mounted—and just when you'd think hopelessness would sink in—the players swear they're having the time of their young lives.
For instance, junior wide receiver Rylan Chamberlain typically watches his own highlights on his iPhone on mornings after losses as he toils in a cornfield with his dad, proudly showing his old man the plays he's made for his team.
And Zander Hood, the 121-pound freshman who goes on late-night jogs? The morning after the 102-0 loss, he was aglow at the kitchen table, telling his father how proud he was to start his first game for his school and how good it felt "to fight with his brothers."
Or what about sophomore Jonathan Slaughter, who, after the loss and four hours of sleep, began building a corral fence on his family's farm and talked a blue streak about the two passes he caught in the game? "That game was the most fun we've had all season," Jonathan told his parents.
Before Northwest traveled three hours by bus to take on Greenfield High, one of the state's top eight-man teams, the Mustangs head coach, Marcus Wolfe, made a phone call. Wolfe knew his team would struggle. He had only nine healthy players—his roster included four freshmen, three sophomores and two upperclassmen who had never taken a varsity snap before this season—and he was starting his third-string quarterback, who had played the position less than two weeks.
What's more, Northwest would be facing a Greenfield team that had 29 players and had throttled the Mustangs by nearly 10 touchdowns a year earlier.
Two days before kickoff, Wolfe phoned Greenfield's athletic director, Nick Engleman.
"I don't need your kids making ESPN highlights with vicious hits against our players," Wolfe said. "If we get two players injured, we'll be forced to get back on the bus and leave."
The 51-year-old Wolfe is in his first season at Northwest High, which has 153 students in grades seven through 12 and draws kids from as far as 20 miles away. A longtime high school coach in Missouri, Wolfe spent eight years in the Army National Guard, where one of his responsibilities was to sweet-talk guardsmen into re-enlisting. Last May he put his silver tongue to the test again when he gathered every eligible male student in the school's gymnasium and asked a simple question: If you are even mildly interested in playing football, will you give me a few minutes to hear my sales pitch?
About 30 of the 45 kids immediately walked out of the gymnasium, including most of the school's top athletes. "A lot of talent went right out the door," Wolfe says. "Right then I knew I had a challenge on my hands."
"I didn't want to play football because I didn't want to get injured for basketball," says Dallin Townsend, a junior at Northwest who is not on the football team but plans to play next season. "A lot of parents around here also are worried about injuries and concussions and don't really want their boys playing football. But now I want to play because I see how hard our team is trying."
Last June 1, the first day of summer conditioning for football, three kids showed up in the school's windowless weight room. Wolfe made phone call after phone call to parents, trying to convince them that football was a sport that forged character. By mid-July, eight boys were participating in the conditioning program.
"That was a big day when we got eight to come out," says Loesing, a senior. "That meant we'd have a team as long as no one got hurt."
Throughout the summer, Wolfe continued to recruit potential players. But it was a tough sell. Most of the parents in the community didn't play football—the sport wasn't launched at Northwest until 2002—and in this rural area, autumn weekends usually mean one thing for teenagers: working in the fields, not watching college or NFL football. "There are a lot of concerns about head injuries and concussions around here," says Lori Lea, whose son, Robert Cartee, plays on the team. "And football just has never been important in this community."
Late last year, two players refused to step onto the bus for a game because they believed they were going to lose. This forced Northwest to forfeit because the Mustangs didn't have the required eight players. And this was for a playoff game.
"I'm trying to change the culture of football around here, and that really starts with the fifth- and sixth-graders," Wolfe says. "We're going to get them interested in playing by spending time with them, building connections and showing them how fun the game can be. ... There's no reason we can't be very good, because if you walk around our hallways, you'll see we've got a lot of big farm kids and a lot of really athletic kids. It's just right now they're mostly playing baseball and basketball."
At just past 2 p.m. on September 29, nine players, two coaches and three team managers boarded a yellow school bus outside the front door of Northwest High. As the engine cranked and the wheels rolled out of the dirt parking lot, the coach spoke, offering his only motivational words of the day.
"Saddle up, boys," Wolfe said. "It's time to go."
The door to Classroom 6 is shut, the lights are dark, and the film is unspooling, frame by painful frame. With the players sitting scrunched into one-piece school desks that require you to squeeze in from the side, they watch the horror show on a large video screen, six days after they had experienced the worst defeat in the history of eight-man football in Missouri. (Two 11-man teams, for the record, have suffered more lopsided losses.)
Up on the screen, on the first offensive snap of the game, a wide receiver for Greenfield catches a quick throw to the left flat. He breaks one tackle, runs directly over another Mustangs defender and glides into the end zone for a 55-yard score. This clearly isn't an evenly matched fight.
Eight-man football is played on a shorter field (80 yards) than the 11-man game. And because there are six fewer players on the field—the offense typically features a center, two guards, a tight end, a quarterback, a running back and two wide receivers—there are more open spaces than in traditional football.
On the game film, assistant coach Chris Stehle notices one of the Northwest players has chased the receiver the entire 55 yards to the end zone, running as hard as he possibly can. "That's the never-quit effort we need," Stehle says. "We need to work on taking better angles to the ball-carrier, but the effort is there."
On their first offensive possession, the Mustangs lose a total of five yards and punt. Two plays later, a Greenfield running back catches a swing pass and zigzags across the field, busting through the arms of several would-be tacklers and scoring on a 13-yard reception.
Less than two minutes into the game, the rout is on. In Classroom 6, the coaches ask their players to watch the film at home that night and write down five plays where they succeeded and five plays where they need to get better. The players then head out into the gray afternoon for practice. Each one is doing the same thing as their cleats clank on the concrete of the school hallway:
They're telling each other it's time to go to work.
At halftime on September 29, the score was 96-0. The notion of calling the game was mentioned on the Northwest sideline.
"But, Coach, we drove three hours," Matthew Slaughter, a 14-year-old freshman and younger brother of Jonathan, told Stehle. "We don't practice every day to quit. We want to play."
The 26-year-old Stehle was overcome with pride. "When I have a son or daughter, I want them to be as brave as you guys are," he said. The idea of quitting was quickly abandoned.
At the beginning of the second half, Greenfield's junior varsity team took the field and a running clock was implemented. The Mustangs allowed Greenfield's JV unit to cross the goal line only once over the final 24 minutes, a touchdown that triggered a fireworks celebration. "If you stick with me, this will all even out," Wolfe told his players. "Our freshmen and sophomores got experience tonight. We never lose. We either win or we learn from it. And trust me, we'll learn."
That evening, Northwest's athletic director, Justin Wiskur, was in his home outside of Hughesville when he received a text from the school's principal with the final score: 102-0. Later, in bed, Wiskur tossed and turned into the small hours, repeatedly asking himself one question: Should we still be playing football?
"Ethically, I wonder if it's right to put nine kids on a bus to get their brains beat in," Wiskur says. "But our kids play hard. They care and they want to play. We just need more kids on the team. And if we don't get our numbers up, the program probably should stop. But now we've got a coach with a great plan. We're going to give him time and see what he can develop."
After the game, the two teams shook hands. A few Mustangs players and coaches noticed the scoreboard merely read 2-0; it didn't have the capability to post triple digits. Just for kicks—and posterity—assistant coach Stehle snapped a photo of the 2-0 score.
Then the farm boys from Hughesville climbed back onto the yellow school bus for the long ride home. There were no tears. They played cards and texted with friends. Then at one point, a player turned up an old Journey song that was blaring out of a player's phone. In unison, on the road together, all nine boys began to sing.
Some will win, some will lose
Some were born to sing the blues
Oh, the movie never ends
It goes on and on, and on, and on...
Don't stop believin'
And on and on they sang, the bus charging into the cold prairie night, smiles on their youthful faces. The fulfillment that comes with trying their best was all that mattered.