Up in the Air

October 20: Maranatha Christian Center Crusaders vs. Nederland Panthers

W-I-N. That's the acronym that head coach Aaron Jones has repeated for months to his high school football team, the Nederland Panthers, when they've needed to get their heads in the game. W-I-N: What's Important Now.

And what's important right now is that the Panthers are trailing the Maranatha Crusaders 13-8. It's the last game of the regular season, and there's a minute left to play. Nederland has the ball, but it's fourth down, and the team is stuck at Maranatha's 46-yard line.

The 32-year-old coach, whom everyone simply calls "Jones," calls a time-out and runs onto Nederland Middle Senior High's beautiful, brand-new field, ringed by mountains and clouds 8,442 feet in the sky. If not for his Panthers coach's shirt, the trim, curly-haired Jones could pass for one of the teenagers huddled around him.


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

As he stands here, looking at the dirty, tired faces of his players, his brain goes blank. Over the past few hours, these evenly matched teams traded hard-fought touchdowns before settling into a bruising stalemate, with Maranatha five points ahead. Lately, these late-in-the-game moments have become his team's specialty: do-or-die surges that sometimes work, sometimes don't, causing Jones to lose not just his voice from screaming on the sidelines, but also, temporarily, his mind.

The Panthers have come a long way, and not just in the last few minutes. Between 2003 and 2005, they lost 21 games in a row. They were punching bags, bussed to the far corners of Colorado just to get pummeled by some of the state's toughest 1A teams. When anyone mentioned the Panthers outside of this mountain town of 1,337 residents, the usual response was, "What? Nederland has a football team?"

But in 2006, the Colorado High School Activities Association, which governs high school athletics statewide, allowed the Panthers to move down — for just two years — from division 1A, where football teams have eleven players on the field, to an eight-man division where the guys aren't as big, the teams aren't as loaded and the schools aren't as spread out. The Panthers started winning, and last season, the team hosted its first home playoff game since 1969.

If they don't beat Maranatha in the next minute, though, they won't get to repeat the honor this year. And since most of players are seniors, they may never play on this field again.

Throw a slant to Dan Brokos, the coach tells quarterback Kyle Knight; Dan is one of the best receivers in the conference. No, Jones changes his mind: Dan has been knocked around this game. Run a pass-action play. On second thought, don't do that, either. Run a sweep! No, a screen!

Play after play tumbles out of Jones's mouth, none of them right. The refs begin yelling at him to get off the field; the time-out is over.

"Here we go, Panthers! Here we go!" screams the underwhelming but raucous crowd in the stands. A reporter covering the game for both the Gilpin County News and the Nederland Mountain-Ear standing by the field drops all vestiges of impartiality. "Don't let it end this way!" she wails.

Frantic, Jones looks to his sidelines and sees Mitchell Platenkamp, who hasn't played much this game. A full-time soccer player, Mitchell misses many football practices, but he sure can move. Jones hastily switches him in for one of the running backs. Get the ball to the soccer player, he tells the team. Sure, it's unorthodox, but then again, nothing about the Panthers' success has been standard. Why start now?

The players clasp hands before breaking out of the huddle. It's now or never.

August 16: Nederland Elementary School soccer field

Coaches' whistles and the thump of well-hit tackling dummies fill the air in the warm August sun, echoing among the green peaks surrounding the Nederland Elementary soccer field. "That's good, guys," Jones says as players hurtle toward the blocking dummies, practicing their first full-speed tackles of the season. "Anybody have a headache?" Elsewhere, kids chase down passes, navigating the unruly undulations of the diminutive field while kickers aim punts at a steep, rocky hill near a utility shed strapped down against 100-mile-an-hour wind gusts that sometimes blast through.

The Panthers don't usually practice here, on a grassy shelf several hundred feet above town. But their regular field, next to the sleekly modern combination middle and high school, is a construction zone. Over the summer, workers began replacing the rock-studded dirt with synthetic turf designed to withstand the area's mighty elements.

But the project is running behind, which means that for the first few weeks of two-a-day practices before school starts — and maybe for a few weeks of regular practice after that — the team has been relegated to one of the only other flat surfaces around. It's far from perfect, but at least the weather's nice — never a sure thing here. Last night, practice got hailed on, and the night before that there was lightning all along the ridge line.

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Joel Warner is a former staff writer for Westword and International Business Times. He's also written for WIRED, Men's Journal, Men's Health, Bloomberg Businessweek, Popular Science, Slate, Grantland and many other publications. He's co-author of the 2014 book The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, published by Simon & Schuster.
Contact: Joel Warner