Up in the Air

Once the laughingstock of high school football, the Nederland Panthers have climbed the mountain. If only they could stay there.

Football up here looks very different from the game Jones played at a large Wisconsin high school, where the auditorium was bigger than Nederland High's entire educational facility. But, he says with finality, "It's still football."

He's an expert in such matters; he was born into the game. Jones's childhood was spent on the sidelines, shadowing his father, who was also a high school coach. Dad took a break when Jones reached high school so he could be in the stands on Friday nights, cheering on his son, a six-foot, 175-pound 1992 Wisconsin Football Coaches Association All-Region Quarterback. That distinction earned Jones a spot as a scout quarterback at the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse. But the school was facing increasing pressure to provide equal athletic opportunities for men and women, Jones remembers, and about a month into his freshman year, it cut forty football players so it could redirect the money. Jones was one of those cut, and it crushed him. "I think equity for girls in sports has been great," he says, "but I feel I was one of the sacrificial lambs for it."

After graduation, he returned to his high school alma mater as an assistant football coach. He liked being known around town as "Coach Jones," just like his father, the type of guy the kids looked up to. "Coaching football is different than any other sport," he says. "Your decision can blow the game or win the game. I feel like I am going against the coach across the field and I want to beat him. Really bad."

Senior Will Forrest is the heart of the team
Anthony Camera
Senior Will Forrest is the heart of the team
No one is a bigger fan than Tim Plumb's mom, Monica.
Anthony Camera
No one is a bigger fan than Tim Plumb's mom, Monica.

Details

To view select scenes from Nederland's unlikely year, click here.

That passion fueled him through seven seasons as an assistant coach for his old team until he realized if he didn't get out soon, he might never leave his home town. He'd started applying for coaching jobs elsewhere when he got a call from a college buddy living in Nederland, saying that the local high school was looking for a football coach.

Jones liked the sound of living in Colorado. He'd often visited his uncle, who owns a restaurant at the base of Copper Mountain Ski Resort, and he'd been to Boulder for a Widespread Panic show. "Colorado is a cool place to move to when you are from Wisconsin," he says. He hadn't been to Nederland.

Jones first saw the mountain town — often associated with aging, reclusive hippies, Rainbow Family gatherings and the annual Frozen Dead Guy Days festival — in the spring of 2006, after the school had already hired him. He drove his Dodge Ram west out of Boulder, up the eighteen miles and eighty twisting turns of Boulder Canyon until he emerged at the edge of a great forested bowl ringed by hills and adjacent to a strikingly blue reservoir. He parked his pickup and snapped a photo of the community nestled at its center: a tiny hamlet populated by fanciful Swiss chalet-style architecture and crisscrossed by old fences decorated with pieces of rusty mining equipment, remnants of the town's long-gone tungsten boom.

"This is a really cool place," Jones said to himself. "I think I can do this."

He met the football team that day and walked them to their field's end zone. Get used to this spot, he told them: "Plan on spending a lot of time here." The words may have sounded strange to a team used to losing. But Jones turned out to be right. In 2006, under his direction, the Panthers won six of their nine games.

Now, watching his players practice, he knows this year will be even better. As practice draws to a close, Jones calls the players around him. "I'm starting to see something click," he says with excitement.

He doesn't mention the worries running through his head, such as having no idea when the guys will be able to practice on a real field, or not being sure who will be playing quarterback. And he doesn't need to bring up his biggest fear; it's on the minds of the players as well. Eleven of the 21 Panthers will graduate in the spring, and there may not be enough players to field a team next year. Worse yet, their two-year, spirit-building turn at eight-man football is set to end after the season, meaning the team will be thrown back in with the state's high school powerhouses in 2008.

But as Jones looks to the sky, there are more immediate black clouds building, and he hurries the players on a bus waiting to take them back to the high school. As one assistant coach quips, "We can overcome a great many things, but not lightning."


September 1: Nederland Panthers vs. Dayspring Christian Academy Eagles, Greeley

It's hot out here. Too hot. Beneath his pads and his blue-and-white away jersey, senior wide receiver Dan Brokos is getting baked alive. When seventeen-year-old Dan and his teammates arrived in Greeley this morning for the first game of the season, steam was rising from their opponents' freshly watered field like smoke from a griddle. It was an appropriate welcome: As the game begins, Dan and the rest of the Panthers start feeling the heat.

The Dayspring Eagles rank as one of the state's top teams in eight-man football, and the team has enough guys to rotate key players in and out of the game; Nederland's meager lineup means that most of their first-stringers have to play offense and defense. The Eagles score a touchdown in the first few minutes and never let up.

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