A rural Minnesota football team excels on – and off – the field

Stephen-Argyle captures its fifth nine-man title in a row. But the values instilled on the field extend way beyond the gridiron.

Farming is life here in Marshall County, where sugar beets and wheat grow thick across the flat landscape and small towns simply grow smaller. But in the midst of the troubles that plague much of rural America, two neighboring villages here take great pride in something that is forever etched in the ethics of work, play, and praise.

Football. More specifically, nine-man football. Kids from the towns of Stephen (population 708) and Argyle (656) attend Stephen-Argyle High School, which has become synonymous in Minnesota and the upper Midwest with championship small-town football. Stephen and Argyle became temporary ghost towns over the weekend as townsfolk made the 5-hour drive south to Minneapolis. The Metrodome, home of the NFL's Minnesota Vikings and baseball's Twins, has also become a November playground for the Stephen-Argyle Storm.

The Metrodome is the site of Minnesota's annual slate of state championship games, and the Storm rolled to its fifth consecutive nine-man title Friday with a 43-32 victory over the Waubun Bombers. Stephen-Argyle, undefeated since 2002, extended its winning streak to 67 games – a state record. The Storm's streak is the ninth-longest in US high school football history and ranks second among current streaks. South Panola of Mississippi has won 72 games in a row; the all-time mark is 151, set by De La Salle of Concord, Calif., from 1992 to 2003.

Stephen-Argyle has reached the state semifinals every year since 1996, but the Storm's success goes beyond winning. Coach Mark Kroulik, who also is principal of the 102-student high school, does not dwell on the winning streak or the inevitable defeat that will someday end it. "The record is an elephant, and it's not a bad elephant," he says. "But it's going to end and you don't want that elephant falling on high school kids."

As senior quarterback Kip Thorstenson says: "This team is a family. It's not so much about the wins, but about being out there together."

True to the farming lifestyle, the Storm is an early-to-bed, early-to-rise family. Football practice is held before the school day begins, with the players taking the field by 5:45 a.m. and spending two hours working on their game. Until sunrise, the lights that stand atop wooden posts around the practice field are needed.

But morning workouts are not considered adversity at Stephen-Argyle. Just ask one of the team's senior stalwarts, who plays with a prosthetic left leg. "We like having practice in the morning," says 6 ft., 1 in., 235-pound lineman Kolby Gruhot, who lost his leg below the knee in a farm accident when he was 3 years old. "Then we have lots of time after school for homework or whatever's going on."

In the 1960s, football players often had to miss after-school practices because of their harvest-season farm duties. The problem was solved by morning workouts. Few of the current players have heavy farm responsibilities, but no one wants to mess with success. There are other advantages, as well. "That early in the morning, none of the boys are thinking about girls," Mr. Kroulik says.

After practice, some of the players head home for a quick breakfast and others eat breakfast at school. By the time the first bell rings at 8:30 a.m., the day's football chores are done.

Predawn practice also means early bedtimes. Student manager Johnny Cleem is usually the first one awake, rising as early as 3:15 a.m. He watches ESPN's "SportsCenter" ("The guys always ask me what happened in sports last night") before arriving at school and flipping on the field lights.

•••

Nine-man football is not vastly different from the traditional 11-man version. The field, at 40 yards wide, is 13 yards narrower than a regular field. In explaining the nine-man game, a routine phrase is "you take out the tackles." In other words, there are three offensive linemen (a center and two guards) instead of five.

Stephen-Argyle is not a flashy team. The Storm pass the ball, but its bread and butter is a traditional running offense. A week ago, they rushed for 342 yards and five touchdowns in a 35-14 semifinal victory over the Verndale Pirates. In Friday's title game, the Storm ran for a Prep Bowl-record 426 yards.

After graduation, many Stephen-Argyle graduates go away to college or jobs in Grand Forks and Fargo, N.D., or Minneapolis-St. Paul. Few opportunities exist in this part of Minnesota, where the closest city of any size is in a foreign land: Winnipeg, Manitoba, 120 miles away. The loss of young people, coupled with an aging population, means an uncertain future. The average age in Marshall County is 40, which is 10 years older than the average for Minnesota as a whole. Nearly 20 percent of the county's resident are older than 65.

In turn, the enrollment at Stephen-Argyle is falling. The number of students in grades nine through 12 is likely to drop below 100 in the 2008-09 school year. Stephen-Argyle is already one of the smallest schools playing football in Minnesota. But almost every boy participates. The roster carries 51 names, and when you add in several student managers, nearly all of the 58 boys in the school are involved with the team.

The guide for all those boys is the football playbook. This isn't your normal playbook, with diagrams of offensive formations and defensive counters. The Storm playbook contains no plays at all. It is 16 pages of goals, rules, expectations, guidelines, nutritional tips, and inspirational quotations from a wide variety of philosophers:

• "First say to yourself what you would be. Then do what you have to do."

– The Greek philosopher Epictetus.

• "Football is like life ... it requires perseverance, self-denial, hard work, sacrifice, dedication, and respect for authority."

– Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi.

Players aren't the only ones who receive playbooks. A similar version goes to families. It includes "12 Commandments for Storm Football Parents." No. 1 is "Thou shall insist that your son do his very best in school." No. 4 is "Thou shall not allow envy or jealousy to poison your son's attitude."

Those reflect Kroulik's dedication to education and teamwork. He doesn't like to compile individual statistics. "It's a team game and there's only one ball," he says. "Why should the guy with the ball get credit for running 1,000 yards or whatever? He's got the easiest job. And we don't keep track of tackles, because who makes the tackle isn't necessarily the person who made the play."

Stephen-Argyle superintendent Chris Mills says Kroulik does more than coach football. "He coaches to develop young men. He stresses class, respect, and doing things the right way."

After the Storm was awarded yet another championship trophy Friday, the players traded hugs and posed for a team photo. They held up five fingers, signifying their string of state titles. They then all reached up into the Metrodome stands to trade handshakes with classmates and family members. A few minutes later the Storm gathered in a locker room. They wore gold medals around their necks. The trophy sat on the carpet in the middle of the room.

Kroulik, who had been busy with media interviews, was the last person to enter the locker room. Stepping over sweat-covered equipment, he walked to the middle of the room to give his final postgame address. He thanked the seniors for their years of hard work and dedication and for the example they had set for younger players. He thanked the underclassmen for working together during a long season.

"I hope you do what I do every day," the coach then told the entire group. "You should all thank God for the health, the ability, and the opportunity to be part of something like this."

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