Calvin Coolidge came to tiny Verdi, Minnesota once. It was in 1926, when the presidential train made an unscheduled stop at the depot, but most of the people Silent Cal waved to on that proud day are gone now. So is the depot. So is much of the town: the 26-room hotel, the dance hall, the blacksmith shop, the lumberyard and the bank—in fact, almost everything except Verdi (pronounced VUR-die) High. It's so small—only 35 students in grades nine through 12—that it has to play nine-man football. So small, in fact, that its continued existence is in question. And the town (pop. 250) might not survive the school's demise, but if Verdi does go—oh, damn the clichés—it will go with a bang, not a whimper. The Trojans of Verdi High were 7-0 last week, having completed the first undefeated season in their 26-year history, and they were getting ready to play top-ranked Starbuck in the first round of the Minnesota nine-man championships. The Trojans had beaten schools up to three times their size and outscored their opponents 340 to 24. Verdi—tiny, vanishing Verdi—is agog.
Nine-man football—there are no offensive tackles, and on defense the cornerbacks are eliminated, but aside from those differences and the fact that the field measures 80 x 40 yards instead of 100 X 53‚Öì, the rules are the same as for 11-man football—is played only in Minnesota and the Dakotas. Minnesota has 113 nine-man schools, and Verdi is the smallest of them. It survived the season with 15 players, but two of them were seventh-graders, one weighing 115 pounds, the other 88; another was in eighth grade. The future of Verdi football is problematic itself, unless Minnesota inaugurates five-man competition, which is how many players will remain when the Trojans' 10 seniors graduate. As Coach Joel Determan says, "Other coaches ask me, 'Will you be having a football team next year?' and I say, 'Probably not.' "
"We've thought about that all year," says Verdi senior Flanker Randy Hunter. "That's one reason why we're playing so hard."
The enrollment of Verdi High is so much smaller than even those of its nine-man Minnesota neighbors that it was forced to cross the South Dakota border, six miles west of town, to find all its regular-season opponents. Even there, the first school on the Trojans' schedule, Elkton, had 93 students in its top four grades. But Verdi won 55-6 and triumphed again the following week, 52-6 at Rutland. The week after that the defense really tightened in a 58-0 shutout of Lake Preston, a school with 88 students. On that day the sons of two Verdi dairy farmers did more than their share: Senior Defensive Tackle Dayle Grooters had 10 tackles, and Quarterback Deven Houselog, also a senior, rushed for two TDs, passed for another and scored a fourth on an interception return.
Verdi kept rolling along, winning 36-12, 70-0 and 38-0, until The Trojans were 6-0 and facing their most important game ever, last Friday night against the Rockets of Ramona.
Verdi was named for a local Catholic priest, or for the Italian composer, depending on whose story you believe. It is situated on a country road two miles west of state highway 75, in southwestern Minnesota, and to reach it from the main route you must pass through a grim landscape of steep little hills, with cows standing on the ridges, nibbling, it seems from a distance, on mud. In Verdi there's one main street, a row of surprisingly lovely cottonwood trees and a store-restaurant-gas station named Kit's Korner, where some of the world's friendliest people spend part of each day sipping coffee. There is very little else to do in Verdi. As the school janitor, Don Kuehl, said last week, "The biggest thing to happen in this town? Oh, once in a while the kids get in their cars and tear around. And in summer there are softball games all the time. But of course those won't compare to the Ramona game."
The center of Verdi is one-third of a mile square, and 45 people live there; the rest of the residents live on nearby farms. The town is ringed by fields of soybeans, corn, alfalfa and, in this wet fall, much mud. The school is on a muddy street a block and a half from Kit's. The gym, a Quonset hut, was used to store grain in nearby Ruthton until it was trucked to Verdi in 1966. There are no Nautilus machines, and the gym is 15 feet too narrow for a basketball court, so Verdi plays its home games across the border in Elkton.
On the eve of the Ramona game, most of Verdi's football players were, as usual, tending the cows on their fathers' farms. Houselog milked 23 Holsteins that evening, getting about three gallons from each. All summer he had baled hay. There are 35 acres of hayfields on the Houselog farm; at 100 bales per acre that is 3,500 bales weighing 75 to 100 pounds each. Most of them had to be piled in the barn by hand, jerked upward with the thighs and lower back. That may not be scientific weight training, but it isn't sitting in front of Hollywood Squares with a package of Twinkies, either.
At 6:30 the following morning—game day—a reasonable choice of activity for Verdi's favorite athletes would have been sleeping. It was 25° outside. But Verdi is no country-club suburb. Lights flickered on in local barns, and Grooters was out there, with his father, hauling pails of ground corn and silage for 50 dairy cows. After feeding the livestock, father and son milked each cow. All the while, cows came lumbering in and out of the barn doorway. Grooters, at 155 pounds, deftly shunted them aside. They weren't aggressive, but some of them weighed 1,500 pounds, and they moved surprisingly quickly.
At breakfast, Grooters' mother pondered aloud, "We've got four sons. Which one gets the farm?"
"Are you the one?" a visitor asked Dayle later.
"I don't know," he said.
"Maybe you'll let a little time pass, and see how you feel about it," it was suggested to him.
"I guess so," he said.
Grooters wasn't the only Verdi player who seemed uncertain about his future.
Houselog was asked, "Do you want to go on to school?"
"Maybe if we get to the state championships I'll get an offer," he said.
The unspoken issue was money. Verdi is a farming community, not a wealthy center of agribusiness.
In the late afternoon, with three hours to game time, most of the town's citizens gathered in front of Kit's to have their picture taken with the team. It seemed like a huge extended family, and when the players climbed aboard their bus for the 50-mile ride to Ramona, nearly 150 townsfolk got ready to follow in their cars and a rented bus. In the dressing room, Determan was taking no chances. His biggest man was 275-pound Right Guard Doug Peterson, who is called The Gentle Giant by his teammates because he's afraid of killing someone. Determan said, "Doug, you've got a 145-pounder out there, and you'd better push him back 10 yards every time."
Then, half an hour before game time, the dressing room fell silent. "We've got to have this game," Determan said soberly. "You know what you have to do. These guys are going to be pumped, so on the first few plays you go out there and beat the crap out of them. You do that, you'll win tonight, and I guarantee it will be the greatest night of your lives.
"Are there any questions?" he asked. There were none.
"Get intense," he said.
Then he doused the lights and Houselog's tape deck blared out the team's favorite song, Eye of the Tiger, from Rocky III. Possibly eight or ten words from the song were intelligible, among them "survive," "fight," "hanging tough" and "staying hungry," and when the Trojans ran to the field they, too, were pumped—maybe overly so.
Verdi Back Scott Hager scored a touchdown and ran in a two-point conversion to make the score 8-0 in the first quarter, but he and his teammates seemed overanxious. Another touchdown was called back; the flag kept falling for Verdi penalties. At the half the score was only 11-0, though Ramona had gone nowhere. In the second half Houselog increased the Verdi lead to 19-0 with his passing and then to 25-0 with a 38-yard punt return for a TD. Finally he made it 31-0. On the last score he set up to pass near midfield, was nearly sacked by four defenders, stumbled, recovered and then threaded through everyone for another 38-yard TD run. Grooters had six tackles, six assists and two quarterback sacks. And Determan was saying, "Listen, you guys, we didn't look our best, but we won, and we can beat Starbuck."
The next morning at Kit's the great events in Verdi's history were being recalled: How Herman Voltz's dog had fallen into a well in 1904 and had had to be shot where it lay; how an elephant had escaped from a circus west of town in 1915 and also had had to be shot; and, of course, there had been Coolidge on his train. So where on that list did Houselog and his teammates belong? The question may have been rhetorical, but someone piped up, "Calvin Who?
The Trojans, with managers, coaches and cheerleaders, are backed by most of Verdi.
Houselog copes with cows and cats...
...and, on this game night, with Ramona.