NOXON — When Noxon football coach Lucas MacArthur talked to his team before its final game of the season on Oct. 19, he had a unique message.
“My pregame talk, I wrote one thing on the board. It was, ‘I don’t like this either. But let’s go out and have some fun,’” MacArthur recalled.
To that point, Noxon hadn’t had the football season it envisioned back in August. The Red Devils lost two games during the regular season, costing them a spot in the 6-Man football state playoffs.
But that wasn’t what MacArthur and his team didn’t like. Their rival and frequent 6-Man power Hot Springs was forced to forfeit the regular-season finale for both teams due to the death of a teammate.
“Hot Springs, they’re not that far away from us," MacArthur said. "A lot of our student body was affected by it. A lot of our student body, they knew the guy and they liked him really well. And they knew his family, they were close with the family. When you look at what the situation was and how it happened, it was sad, it was terrible. We were hurting for them for quite a while, too.”
But MacArthur still wanted to do right by his team. The Red Devils also had their penultimate game of the season against Gardiner forfeited, so MacArthur started working the phones to try to give his players a proper sendoff. He found Lima — a team Noxon defeated 67-0 during the regular season — with an opening on its schedule after its regular-season finale was also forfeited.
“I got the call from the Noxon coaches, and I said, ‘Boy, that’s a long trip, but I’ll put it to my boys,’” said Brian Rayburn, the superintendent, activities director and assistant football coach at Lima. “I went to the boys at lunchtime. … They came to me about five minutes later and said, ‘Absolutely, we’re going.’ There was never a question in their mind.”
But there was one caveat.
“That was opening weekend (of deer hunting season). I told Noxon, ‘I can do this, but I’ve got to do it on Thursday. My boys head up to deer camp on Friday to get set up for opening day. If we’re going to do it, it has be on Thursday,’” Rayburn remembered while laughing.
Lima agreed to make the more than 350-mile trip to Noxon to allow the Red Devils to celebrate their seniors, but the Bears had only seven players. To help balance the rosters, three Noxon players volunteered to suit up for Lima. At halftime, Noxon senior Antonio Lodi switched from the Red Devils to the Bears, and Lima sophomore Kalen Martinell joined the Noxon team.
“The guy that came over from Lima, Kalen, I just called him ‘Dude’ the whole time,” MacArthur said. “We so desperately tried getting ‘Dude’, or Kalen, a touchdown.”
“You kind of just throw them out in a position, you kind of tell them what to do in the huddle, and the rest is on them — they kind of do what they want,” added Sam Christensen, a senior lineman at Noxon.
“The player that we had on our team from Lima, he just kind of jumped right in. He didn’t know exactly what was going on, but we were able to help him in a way that he wasn’t completely lost,” Ramsey said. “It was a little bit difficult, but we were able to work it out and it turned out pretty fun.”
There were definitely challenges to meshing players from opposing teams into one, cohesive unit, and the game at times might have felt like kids on the playground drawing plays in the dirt. And, in fact, the game was a non-counter — an exhibition for both teams.
But once the pads started hitting, none of that was evident to the players on the field, coaches on the sidelines or fans in the stands.
“I guess you could call it recess football or schoolyard football, but it was a real game,” MacArthur said. “Guys were actually hitting each other. Just the dynamic of what was actually happening on the field, that was what changed the whole thing. They played real football, but they played it in a way where there was a lot of love and compassion coming from both sides. That definitely made the feel a whole lot different. I think a lot of people in the stands even recognized that.
“Once the game got going, I think the boys were like, ‘Hey, this is an actual football game we’re playing here, but there’s more to this game.’ Eventually they allowed themselves to have a good time. There was laughing. They were jarring at each other. But when they were jarring at each other, the refs were laughing, the coaches were laughing, the other team were laughing. It was a football game, but it was more than just a football game at that point.”
As the final minutes ticked off the clock in the fourth quarter and the win in hand, Noxon’s coaches signaled their players to kneel the ball to run out the game clock. But the Lima sideline encouraged them to continue playing, urging them to use their timeouts to run more plays.
“The last play, the buzzer went off at the end of the game, and our quarterback was scrambling, even had a face mask (penalty), but got loose and rolled out and was able to make the throw,” said Noxon assistant coach Sean Kelly. “And Sam Christensen, our center, made the last touchdown catch as a senior, so that was an incredible moment, as well.”
After Christensen’s touchdown — the final play of the season for both teams — coaches couldn’t have dragged their players off the field if they wanted to. Players milled about on the field, getting to know their new teammates and posing for photos together.
They ate together, sharing more talks and laughs, before Lima reluctantly started the long drive back. Rayburn said the team wanted to stay in Noxon to watch the Red Devils’ volleyball match that night, but staying would’ve gotten them back home too late. Some of the players have kept in touch through social media, forming new connections with friends from a fellow small-town Montana community.
“I think it was a good thing for the whole community. It was kind of two whole different communities coming together and kind of forming a family and showing that there is good people in the world and we’re here for you and they’re here for us,” said Christensen.
“It felt nice to be able to bring these two communities together even though we’re hours away from each other,” Ramsey said. “I’m really grateful for this community, both communities. I couldn’t ask for anything better, really.”
“A lot of the people around in Montana, especially in these small communities, you kind of just have to be united and stuff to make things work,” Lodi said. “Both communities are really good. I would say having two small towns combine with each other, there was no problem at all. It was all good things.”
What started as a difficult week with a game many were unsure to play turned into an unforgettable Montana moment that bonded two communities who mutually appreciated the other’s selflessness that day. Outpourings of heartfelt support and celebration have made their way across social media, including one post from one of the game officials, who wrote on Facebook:
“Today I was fortunate to be part of a referee crew that covered a game that was so much more than a game. I saw two teams that saw the bigger picture, they realized that there are far more important things in life than who scored the most points, or even which jersey they wore!! Today I saw a community start to heal and return to life as they know it! Today made me proud to have been on the same field as these giants.”
“I think we recognized some of the little things are the big things,” Rayburn said. “Just getting together and celebrating those things we enjoy together, it’s not necessarily one big thing that can define this. It’s all the little things, supporting each other. … It’s a bunch of small things that add up to the big things. Things just kind of fell into place for this to happen. We’re more than 350 miles apart, it was a long day on the bus, but we had fun going up, had fun coming back. Those are the memories that these boys will have for years to come.”
“So many people I’ve spoken with have made comments they’ve just never seen anything like this,” said Kelly. “It’s small communities like this where people rally behind one another, support one another, encourage one another. … I don’t think there was a bad thing you could say about what happened on that day with that football game and Lima coming and rallying behind us and keeping the spirit of football alive in a small community.”