Return of the Comets: Thanks to oil boom, football returns to small ND town after 27 years

As a blanket of gray clouds rolls over the prairie, the grunts of scrimmage, the shrill chirp of the referee's whistle and cheers from the crowd fill the Saturday afternoon air. This is how a small town turns a page in history.

After 27 years, football is back in Alexander. The Comets have returned.

The first high school football game here in a generation comes thanks to the oil boom that's reversed the fortunes of this tiny school. Enrollment is up after years of decline. And 13 young men in cardinal red, gray and white — some recent North Dakota arrivals — are new celebrities in this rejuvenated town.

"High school sports — that's what people live and breathe for in small-town North Dakota," says Jerry Hatter, Alexander's mayor. "It brings back a sense of pride to the community. ... To see football again in our own little town ... I think it's just neater than hell."

Alexander's return to the gridiron is a story of revival and resilience — for the school and the latest Comets team.

Like many rural schools, Alexander has struggled to keep its doors open. Enrollment from pre-kindergarten to 12th grade dropped to just 41 in 2006-2007. The Bakken oil bonanza changed all that, luring new workers and their children to the area. The school, where all grades attend in a single building, now has 210 students, a number projected to grow. But the Class of 2016 — with just four members — is still small enough to fit at a card table.

Now that football is back, there's buzz all around town. Old-timers are reminiscing about their glory days. The new Comets, whose coach is also an oil worker, are bracing for a tough season. And most everyone else knows where they'll spend Saturday afternoons this fall.

"Having a football team to rally around strengthens the community," says Leslie Bieber, Alexander's superintendent, who spearheaded efforts to rebuild the team. "It allows us to have our identity again."

A lot of townsfolk helped make it happen. Last May, a few hundred people gathered at a semi-formal ball at the firehouse and, on a single night, raised more than $50,000 for jerseys, helmets and other equipment. Some of that money also will go to the girls and boys basketball and girls volleyball teams that are resuming after 11 years.

The official football launch came on the first Saturday in September as Alexander celebrated Old Settlers' Day for the 70th year with a parade along Elk Street, past the post office, the Hard Ride Saloon, the Lions Burger Fry grill and the Ragged Butte Spring that was a watering hole for cattle in pioneer days.

Horse-drawn open wagons led the way, followed by a clown in a miniature yellow car, vintage autos and fire department vehicles. Then came the floats with the Class of '65, marking its 50th anniversary, and after their long absences, the girls' volleyball team and the Comets, who tossed candy to kids in the crowd.

Taking it all in, Jim Jacobson recalled how Comets football is in his family's DNA. His father, Garvin, was plucked from the wheat fields when he was 15 to play in the first game, around 1925. Jim followed, starting in the late 1950s, and his son, Todd, played the last season in 1987. Now his grandson, Dayden Rafferty, is wearing the uniform.

"Family has been here since '05 and we're still a part of the community," Jacobson says proudly. "Having a team that's your own is something special. We've been missing that for a long time."

Folks who'd been gone for decades began arriving hours before the game. Some were former Comets with weathered faces, silver hair and flawless memories of their gridiron exploits. Other people traveled from South Dakota, Montana and Wyoming for the momentous occasion.

"I thought, 'Why all the hype?'" says Margaret Bottke, class of '56, who made the nearly 600-mlle drive from Missoula, Montana. "Now I understand. ... What else would hold a small community like this together? It's church on Sunday and games the rest of the week."

Hundreds of fans, some wearing cowboy hats and boots, others in Comets t-shirts and sweatshirts, huddled in the bleachers or clustered along the sidelines as the game got underway. Others sat on the back of pickups or remained behind the wheel, honking persistently when Alexander scored.

Julie Riggs, who painted a red "25" on her left cheek for the jersey number of her son, Tyler Hayden, says being a Comet provides life lessons. "One of the things these kids learn is there's something bigger than themselves," she said between cheers.

Coach Kevin Clausen has a similar message for his squad: "We're all in it together. There's not one person more important than the other. ...We represent the school, the community, everybody that's ever played here."

The Comets play six-man football, and since North Dakota doesn't have that division, its competitors are Montana schools.

This year's squad is a collection of homegrown kids and transplants from states including Florida, California, Louisiana, and Arkansas. Many have never played football. Several have endured hard times.

Nick Armour, the 16-year-old quarterback who also is a saddle bronco rider, suffered a double tragedy in January. He lost his 18-old-year-old brother, Brady, and best buddy, Nathan Sims, 16, when they were killed in a car accident.

He and Sims were looking forward to being teammates. "I sure would like to have a really good season for him," he says.

Ryan Bergstrom, 16, a Florida native, normally would work after school to ease the financial load for his mother, who manages a man camp for oil workers. This fall, he says, she told him to pursue his football dream. He's committed to the Comets.

"It's a brotherhood like no other," he says.

Jack Heen, 14, the youngest varsity player, is playing with a heart condition, but has the approval of his doctor and the school nurse, who happens to be his mother. "Life's a lot better when I'm playing sports," he says.

And there's Jayy Morgan, 18, the only senior, who arrived this spring from California eager to join the team, though basketball is his true passion. "I love the town and I'm pretty sure I can get the town to love me," he says.

Morgan's plans were almost derailed when his mother needed him to work to help make ends meet. When he told school officials he might have to quit, the teachers, coach and others rallied — with his mother's OK — to help with the bills for the rest of the season.

"When I say we are a family, we ARE a family," Bieber says, growing tearful at times as she talks about the team's return. "Our students are not just our students. They're our kids. They would do it for anyone if he's an athlete or not."

As it turned out, Morgan was a fan favorite. He scored all three Comets' touchdowns.

Unfortunately, the team's first game back was a rout — 65 to 18 — by the much larger Grass Range/Winnett High School team from Montana. But the crowd didn't seem discouraged.

Bruised but unbowed, the Comets walked off the field to shouts of "Good job, you guys! We love you!"

And there was a rousing cheer:

"That's our team and we couldn't be prouder.

"If you don't believe us, we'll yell a little louder!"

Townsfolk hope this fall ritual is here to stay. One encouraging sign: A school addition is being built and enrollment is expected to surpass 360 in three years.

Jacobson, who wore his Comets jersey long ago, says it'll take time to develop a strong team.

"They're going to take their lumps ... but they're going to get learn and get better," he says. "And they've got to realize the community is always behind them."

Bergstrom, who plays both running back and linebacker, took the shellacking in stride.

"This is the first game in 30 or so years, and we all really tried our best, tried our hardest," he said, "... so even though we lost today it was still a win in the end."


Sharon Cohen, a Chicago-based national writer, can be reached at National writer Martha Irvine contributed to this report.