Dallas Goedert's home town of Britton, South Dakota, is so small that the football teams only have nine players and the bicycles only have one wheel.
"You can tour the whole city in about two minutes," says Goedert, arguably the top tight end in this year's draft class, as well as an avid unicyclist. "After that, you're on your own."
The only traffic light is a flasher in the middle of town. The nearest McDonald's is an hour away, though there is a Subway and a summer-only ice cream stand. There are no malls or movie theaters for miles in every direction. Just farms, lakes and game reserves.
Britton is so small that it's hard to tell whether folks from there are pulling your leg when they tell you how small it is.
"Sometimes, our parades are so small that they go through town twice," says Pat Renner, head coach of Britton-Hecla High School's nine-man football team.
Britton is so small that, ironically, it was hard for a Paul Bunyan-sized prospect like Goedert to stick out. Not only did the big colleges overlook him, but even South Dakota State had a hard time noticing him.
But the NFL finally discovered Goedert, thanks to an attentive clergymen and a viral highlight. Now, the 6'5" tight end atop the six-foot unicycle is a likely first-round pick, and he's poised to make Britton more than just an imperceptible speck on the map.
Britton is so small, it takes an act of god to get recruited for football.
Goedert was the star of his nine-man football team, but he was a young man without a position. With just 25 players on his roster, Coach Renner did everything possible to get the ball into the hands of his most talented player.
At first, Renner tried Goedert as a Cam Newton-style option quarterback. But the underclassman wasn't ready for a life of plunging between the tackles on keepers.
"He wasn't real physical then," Renner recalls. "He didn't like to lower his shoulder that much when we tried to run him."
Goedert then began sliding all over the formation on offense and defense. In the red zone, Goedert could usually be found at wide receiver. "We'd just send him into the end zone for jump balls, and he could jump higher than anyone," Renner says.
"He was our go-to guy. But the trouble was that everybody knew that. They would put two or three guys on him."
If recruiters came to watch Goedert play nine-on-nine football on 80-yard fields, they would be more likely to see him getting triple-teamed than scoring touchdowns. And the Britton region is lightly recruited, even by local colleges.
"We average maybe three or four scholarships per year from South Dakota," SDSU head football coach John Stiegelmeier says. "The rest are from outside the state, just because of the population base."
A college football career for Goedert appeared unlikely. Basketball looked like a clearer path toward a scholarship, and Goedert received offers from some local Division II schools.
But Carl Larson, a former coaching colleague of Stiegelmeier turned Lutheran minister, happened to be a pastor in Milbank, a 3,000-citizen metropolis not far from Britton. Larson took in a Britton-Hecla football game and took notice of Goedert.
"When they were going to run the ball, Dallas played halfback or I-back," Larson recalls. "When they were going to throw the ball, they put him out at wide receiver. You could tell where the ball was going from where he was at. And he was the middle linebacker on their defense. When he hit guys, you could see the ball-carrier's neck snap back."
Larson called in the tip to Stiegelmeier, who sought out some game film of Goedert. But the tape was awful.
No, Goedert didn't play badly. The footage itself was just too blurry to see what was happening.
"They didn't have a filming budget," Stiegelmeier says. "They probably had some freshman in the stands."
"It might have been a couple of seventh-grade girls with a camcorder," Renner clarifies, though he is not exactly certain who recorded games six years ago.
Stiegelmeier instead decided to attend one of Goedert's basketball games, but he came away unimpressed.
"Here's the biggest guy on the court, and he's shooting three-pointers," he says. "I told Dallas that he never went and got a rebound, and he joked about it. 'Well, if you make 'em all, you don't have to go get rebounds, coach.'"
"But I thought he didn't play with as much passion as I hoped he would."
Stiegelmeier didn't offer him a scholarship. The Goedert NFL story might have ended right there if not for more pastoral intervention.
Larson volunteered at local track meets in the spring, usually supervising the throwers.
"Here comes Dallas," Larson recalls. "Everybody's throwing at around 100-120 feet. But he rips it out there, power-throws it at about 150."
"So I called J.R. [Stiegelmeier] again."
The rest is history.
Except the big kid from the tiny town who didn't like to lower his shoulder or rebound had a long way to go before he was ready for even the relative "big time" of Missouri Valley Conference football.
The Unicycle Kid
Britton is so small that when the varsity football hero and the circus clown on a giant unicycle parade through the center of town in the summer, it's only one person.
Goedert was about 10 years old when he spotted a unicycle in a catalog and decided he wanted one for Christmas. Little did he know that he was continuing a family legacy.
"I go to my mom and tell her I want a unicycle," Goedert says. "She's like, 'Well, your grandpa's got a lot of unicycles in his old shop.' My aunts and grandpa used to ride in parades. I didn't know about that at the time."
"My dad bought a unicycle in 1973," says Goedert's mother, Mary Carlson. "My four sisters all ride, and my dad did as well. By the 1980s, there were lots of centennials going on at local towns, and we were all riding in them."
The family tradition had died out by the 2010s, but Goedert revived it. He and a cousin retrieved unicycles from their grandfather's shop. And grandpa offered $50 to the first one who learned to ride.
Goedert struggled at first with a vehicle that required better balance and more core strength than a standard bicycle. Then his grandfather added more incentive.
"I got a call from my grandpa: 'You riding a unicycle yet? Because your cousin Drew is,'" Goedert recalls. "I said, 'Yeah, I can ride it.'"
"So I had to do it then. I was able to learn how to ride it that day."
Goedert soon graduated to a six-foot unicycle. He added juggling to his routine. Next came clown makeup and a wig when he began riding in parades, the ones that sometimes roll through town twice.
"Dallas loves clowning around," his mother says. "You're definitely an attention-getter on a six-foot unicycle."
Goedert has a ready reply when asked if unicycle training makes him a better football player: "When you are hit, it helps to stay up."
"If I practice unicycle and juggling," he adds, with a tongue-in-cheek grin, "it will help my coordination even more!"
If the unicycle yarn gives you the impression that Britton is an old-fashioned town where there is little for kids to do aside from playing outdoors, you're right. Britton is surrounded by lakes and fields where kids can hunt, fish and water ski behind their parents' fishing boats (another favorite Goedert pastime). But in the town itself, the municipal pool serves as the primary youth activity center.
"Dallas' goal every year was to be the first kid in the pool when it opened," his mother says. But Goedert did more than race his friends through the gate on the first day of summer. He set his first state swimming record at the age of seven and still holds some local and state youth swimming records.
It wasn't long before Goedert's parents began struggling to find activities to keep him both busy and challenged. There weren't enough kids in Goedert's age group in Britton to field an American Legion baseball team, so he tried out for the semipro team as a young teen (he didn't make the cut). Carlson coached elementary school three-on-three basketball for Goedert and his sisters. Middle school brought flag football. Goedert dabbled in track and dominated events without formal training.
Goedert even played goalie for a town soccer team, but the kid who loves clowning around would leave the net when bored and race across the pitch to get involved in the action.
"The coach would say, 'Dallas, what are you doing?'" his mother recalls. "He would say, 'Don't worry, coach. Just helping out. I'll get back in time.'"
Goedert did not always get back in time. "It was just Dallas' way."
Britton couldn't provide enough competition to keep Goedert challenged. So his mother drove him to basketball tournaments on an Indian reservation in Sisseton, about 40 minutes away. In the summer, she drove him to AAU camps three hours away, twice per week, and then to weekend games in Iowa and Minnesota so Goedert could face some higher-level competition. The available football camps were too distant to be an option, however.
Goedert did everything he could to stand out from the crowd in his corner of South Dakota. But it remained a region where he could win basketball games without rebounding, win track meets without practicing and leave the soccer goal unattended without consequences.
Goedert had to start focusing on football even to make the roster at South Dakota State.
He would then need a miracle—or at least a miraculous catch—to get the NFL to focus on him.
Britton is so small that Goedert's one-handed catch against Drake may be the biggest thing that ever happened to it.
The catch—a 2016 early-season one-handed snatch of a back-of-the-end-zone fade—looked like a scene from an off-Broadway production of Odell Beckham Jr.: The Musical. The Drake-SDSU game stopped so the crowd could admire it on the jumbo screen. Even the Drake bench applauded.
The catch went viral and made every highlight montage worth broadcasting. It catapulted Goedert from small-town sports hero to local celebrity.
"I was getting calls from high school buddies," Goedert recalls. "Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. It was just off the charts for the next few weeks."
"When you went to church, people were talking about it," his mother says. "When I went to work, people were talking about it."
Coach Stiegelmeier wasn't surprised by the lunging one-handed snare. "I thought it was unbelievable," he says. "But if you followed that season, he had a number of catches where you could say, 'Nobody else can do that.'"
But Stiegelmeier still had some coaching points for Goedert after the reception: "They asked me after the game what I told him. I said, 'Use two hands, Dallas.'"
Goedert, you see, wasn't even a starter yet when he caught that touchdown pass.
He was hardly an instant success when he walked on at South Dakota State. "He was a small-school guy who had to find himself," Stiegelmeier says. "Dallas has never lacked confidence, but he wasn't ready to compete initially."
South Dakota State may sound like the hinterlands to most national college football fans, but the Missouri Valley Conference is the SEC of its competition level. It's the conference that gave rise to Carson Wentz and David Johnson, among others. The level of competition is comparable to the mid-majors of Division I. Goedert redshirted for a year and then spent two more years as a role player while he learned to be more than an all-purpose athlete who dominated every small-town field he set foot upon.
Goedert was up for the challenge.
"Being a walk-on, you have to work harder to earn your spot," he says. "The higher recruits settle in right away. But if I settled in, I probably would have gotten kicked off the team. Going in and working hard from the start definitely helped me."
Goedert dedicated himself both on the field and in the weight room.
"Coaches said I had the body style and frame of an NFL tight end," he says. "So I started looking up tight ends online, comparing their times to my times, their size to what I thought I could be."
Stiegelmeier saw a different Goedert by spring practices before his junior year. His staff began drawing up special packages for his new secret weapon.
"Personally, I thought we overloaded him sometimes, with all of the stuff we asked him to do," Steigelmeier says. "But he seemed to get better whenever we asked him to do something else."
Still technically a No. 2 tight end, Goedert lined up all over the field as a junior and caught 92 passes for 1,293 yard and 11 touchdowns, including the acrobatic one-hander against Drake. The Catch may have put Goedert on the media's radar, but those 91 other receptions brought the NFL to South Dakota State.
"Throughout my career here, we've had enough players that scouts were filtering through," Goedert says. "Probably not as normally as the Alabamas, but we had scouts there. They definitely started showing up more my junior and senior seasons.
"That's when I realized: This is a real thing. This is gonna happen. I have the chance to be a pretty high prospect."
So high that scouts were using terminology rarely heard at programs like South Dakota State.
"Late in his junior year, a scout asked me if Dallas was going to come out early," Stiegelmeier says. "I had never heard those words before. I had never thought about it. I said, 'What do you mean?'"
"Dallas was home for Christmas after his junior year of football, [and we heard] from a scout asking if he was going to declare early," his mother says. "That was when we all went, 'Wow.'"
Goedert did not come out early. He stayed at SDSU to rack up another 1,111 yards and seven touchdowns on 72 receptions, cementing his status as one of the top tight end prospects in the draft and attracting another level of fame.
Co-workers now approach Goedert's mother and ask if her son is really going to the NFL. His buddies now blow up his phone when he's mentioned on television, even if he is in the same room as them.
"They'll be right next to me, and they'll point it out to me, then take a Snapchat, then send it to me," Goedert jokes.
And tiny Britton is bracing for Dallas mania. Carlson says the local general store printed some Goedert T-shirts for the family. It then went ahead and produced two boxes of them to sell to customers.
"Oh, I don't think you are ever going to sell these," Goedert's mother warned the storeowner. "I'm sorry you did this.
"Well, she ended up ordering two more boxes."
Last of the Hometown Heroes
Britton is a small town that's getting smaller.
Carlson, who lived in and around Britton her whole life, says families have gotten smaller and farms need far fewer hands, drying up one of the few employment opportunities in the region.
Listening to stories of unicycle parades and summer days at the local swimming pool is a little like staring at a Norman Rockwell painting. It's easy to forget that Britton is a real place and that Goedert plays video games and has traveled to big cities. Goedert isn't Tom Sawyer, and he won't arrive at rookie camp in a straw hat. But small towns like Britton really are vanishing, and small-town prospects like Goedert may start to vanish with them.
Pastor Larson believes the small towns of middle America produce individuals with a different kind of work ethic. While people everywhere work hard, folks in farm communities grow accustomed to a dawn-to-dusk daily life of constant outdoor activity.
"It takes a great work ethic to be a great athlete," Larson says. "But it also takes a well-rounded work ethic."
Goedert grew up so well-rounded that he was almost overlooked. It forced him to take a long, strange journey to the top of NFL draft boards.
It's the ultimate all-American tale, practically ripped from an old dime novel. And it's great to see that such tales can still come true.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.