Up in the Air

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

In the fourth quarter, Dan looks at the scoreboard: 48-6, Eagles. He's missed a few easy catches, causing Jones to holler, "What's wrong with you?" as he pulls him off the field. "Halftime hands" is what Dan's teammates jokingly call him. He's always coming through on the catches nobody makes, snatching the ball out of the air in gravity-defying, jaw-dropping ways on key downs right before the halftime buzzer. "But with the easy catches, I'll just drop it," he admits. "I think it's mostly mental."

Last year, Dan caught 49 passes for a total of 1,060 yards and ten touchdowns. But right now, he's dehydrated and his legs are cramping.

Off the field, Dan is a 6'2" bundle of kinetic energy, all rapid-fire gestures and remarks. He's loved football ever since he made his first touchdown as a five-year-old kid in Aurora. He'd been nervous when his wild-at-heart mom moved him up to Nederland at the end of sixth grade, but then he discovered that Nederland Middle Senior High was located right next to a gridiron, and he knew everything would be okay.

Eric Hernandez (foreground) and the Knights, Kyle (left), James and Jesse, keep football in the family.
Anthony Camera
Eric Hernandez (foreground) and the Knights, Kyle (left), James and Jesse, keep football in the family.


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

In truth, it's hard to call what Dan and his teammates experienced a football program. In the 1990s, Nederland's school population temporarily swelled, so the middle-high school added new sports programs they hadn't had before, like soccer and cross country. The number of students has declined since then, but the athletic programs stayed in place, so football now competes with other fall sports for enrollment.

As a result, the Panthers got used to looking across the field at opposing teams with double or triple the number of players and coaches. It wasn't a question of trying to score a lot of points; in those days, Nederland fans cheered if the Panthers managed to make a first down. To make matters worse, the team was part of such a wide-ranging division that they would travel four, five, even six hours to get massacred in far-flung locales like Wray, Rocky Ford and Holyoke. Everyone, even their old coach, expected them to lose, and sometimes Dan wondered if he should give up, too. But he couldn't let his long-suffering teammates down — and he couldn't give up the game.

Now, as the clock winds down on the first game of the season, a long pass puts the Panthers within sixteen yards of the Eagles' end zone. Waiting for the next play, Dan knows the ball is meant for him. After the snap, he sprints forward, and, sure enough, the ball spirals toward him. He launches into the air and twists his body around to meet it. An Eagles player is practically hanging off his back, but it's no matter. Dan wraps his arms around the tan leather and comes back down to earth — in the end zone.

Halftime hands.

But it's not enough. Dayspring scores again, and the final score is 54-12. After the game, Jones takes stock of the players wilting in the end zone in the afternoon sun. He could tell they'd written off the game as soon as the Eagles scored their first touchdown. "I saw a typical Nederland reaction when we got down early," he says. "That's not playing to win." And it's not going to happen next week when the Panthers play their first home game, he adds. It doesn't matter that, with their own field not yet completed, that game may have to be in Broomfield. "Whether we play in Broomfield, in our field or a parking lot," says Jones, "we'll put the football down their throats."

Riding the bus back to Nederland, Dan hopes so. Winning games last season made him realize that he and his teammates could actually accomplish something. As a senior, he'll be off to college next year, but he wants the underclassmen to experience winning, too, and knows they probably won't when the Panthers move back into eleven-man football in 2008: "Being successful in eight-man made us feel better about ourselves. What if we had gone our entire time in school and never got to win a game of football?"

September 8: Victory Christian Academy Conquerors vs. Nederland Panthers

This is it: Gage Hamel's big moment. It's late in the scoreless first quarter of the Panthers' first home game, and Gage has intercepted the ball. He'd been playing defense, covering one of the Conquerors' wide receivers when Gage snatched the opposing quarterback's overthrown pass. Now the fifteen-year-old sophomore, who plays wide receiver himself when he's on offense, is tearing down Nederland's brand-new field of pulverized rubber soil and artificial grass — finished just in time — and he's breaking a tackle here, faking out an opponent there. Forget the official dedication this morning; this is the field's real christening, and Gage is the master of ceremonies.

Freedom. That's what Gage feels as he leaves the Conquerors in his synthetic dust. As a born-and-bred mountain kid, he knows that feeling well: The freedom to snowboard every winter weekend at Eldora Mountain Resort right up the street, the freedom to mountain bike through his neighborhood all summer long.

Gage became part of Panthers football at exactly the right time. The year before his freshman season, the Colorado High School Activities Association passed a bylaw allowing highly unsuccessful high school sports teams to play for two seasons in a lower classification, to give them a chance to rebuild.

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