John’s Journal: A Game To Remember … And Forget
After A Devastating Loss, Defending State Champs Get A Win
Posted: Sunday, September 4, 2022 - 10:03 PM
The night was dark, the mood was darker and Trevor Carrier’s head was down. He was sitting in the second row of seats on bus number 45 from the LeRoy-Ostrander School District when he made a phone call at 9:21 p.m. Friday. On the other end, a cell phone lit up inside a hospital in Rochester, 38 miles away.
“Hey buddy, how are you doing?,” the LeRoy-Ostrander head football coach said to Layne Bird, senior quarterback who had started the first game of his career that night.
Everyone on the bus and everyone who was at the 2022 season opener between the visiting Cardinals and the Southland Rebels in Adams knew how Layne was doing. Terrible.
This was Week 1 of a season in which the Cardinals are the defending Minnesota state champions of Nine-Man football. Their season opener was not finished on Friday, but Bird’s season was.
It was a crazy, strange, head-spinning day for the Cardinals. Friday’s game was delayed at halftime because of lightning, then delayed again and again as the strikes continued. Finally, a decision was made to resume the game on Saturday morning. The second half began at 11 a.m. – 16 hours after the first-half kickoff – with Southland leading 12-7. The Cardinals scored on their first drive of the second half and came away with a 14-12 win that will long be remembered for many reasons.
“I don’t know why these things happen,” Carrier said into his phone as rain fell on the dark bus. “I’m so proud of you; that’s from my heart. I wish I could take it for you. I wish it was my leg or foot. I love you so damn much.”
The Cardinals had forced Southland to punt on the game’s first possession. From their own 29-yard line, the LeRoy-Ostrander offense lined up with the 5-foot-8, 165-pound Bird at quarterback.
As a receiver last year, Bird caught a 55-yard touchdown pass from then-senior quarterback Chase Johnson during a 58-8 win over Fertile-Beltrami in the Prep Bowl at U.S. Bank Stadium. Hours before he was injured on Friday, while the team was at school waiting to board the bus for Adams, Layne and a teammate walked down a quiet hallway toward Carrier and a few others.
“That’s Layne, our quarterback,” Carrier said to a visitor. “He’s going to have a great year.”
On the first play at Southland, Bird fumbled the snap. On the second play he overthrew sophomore receiver Camden Hungerholt. On third-and-10, Bird ran around the right side on a keeper, took a hard but clean hit, and stayed down in front of the Cardinals bench.
Carrier and assistant coach Kyle Stern ran to him. Stern yelled, “trainer!” Southland’s athletic trainer, Char Yunker, quickly came across the field and kneeled next to Layne. As players from both teams also kneeled, a utility vehicle – normally used for carrying water jugs, yard markers and the like – was driven onto the field by Southland athletic director Randy Smith. It carried Layne to the trainer’s table behind the Rebels bench.
Yunker stabilized Layne’s lower left leg and ankle with a splint. Smith tore the plastic wrap off a pair of new crutches. Bird’s parents, Kim and Brian, pulled their car up, Layne was loaded in and they got on the road to Rochester. His injuries were horrific: fractured tibia, fractured fibula, fractured ankle, tearing of ligaments that connect the leg to the ankle. Everything, wrecked.
When Bird was injured, all the joy and excitement of Week 1 seemed to evaporate. Up to that point, everything had been glorious.
The Cardinals hold a team meeting, gathering in a room near the school’s indoor swimming pool. They watch film of last year’s Week 1 home game vs. Southland, a 57-26 win. The coaches discuss offense, defense and special teams. Carrier writes on a white board, “Let’s Become Great!”
The meeting ends with these words from the head coach: “We're mentally ready. We're physically ready. There's nothing else but to play the game. I love you, I'm proud of you. Let’s be great.”
Carrier, in his third year as the head coach, is the school’s dean of students and athletic director. A 2003 graduate of Houston High School, he was hired as a kindergarten teacher out of Winona State University. During Friday’s team meeting, he talked to the boys about the strength of Nine-Man football in Section 1, which covers southeast Minnesota.
Seven of the past eight Nine-Man state championship teams have come from Section 1. Grand Meadow won four in a row from 2013 to 2016, Spring Grove took the title in 2017 and 2018, and the Cardinals continued the tradition in 2021.
LeRoy-Ostrander went 6-2 in the regular season last year, losing to Lanesboro and Grand Meadow. They avenged those losses in the section playoffs before three wins at state gave them a 12-2 record.
The 2021 season began with an eerily similar calamity. Then-junior Peyton Roe suffered a broken leg in the opener vs. Southland and missed the rest of the season. When this year’s opener resumed on Saturday morning, it was Roe who scored the winning touchdown on a 2-yard run. Poetic justice, right?
“Do we have to play Week 1 next year?,” Carrier said to the other coaches on the bus ride home Friday night. Gallows humor can be a coping mechanism.
As is tradition, the coaching staff gathers at Sweet’s Hotel, Restaurant and Lounge -- which has stood in downtown LeRoy since 1898 -- for a pregame meal. Sweet’s owner Lu Overocker greets them with hugs and treats them like royalty. The coaches order the same thing every time, unless the team is coming off a loss. Cheeseburgers, fries, baked potatos, chicken strips, wings, it’s all available.
“My chicken wings and salad bar are 10-0,” Carrier announces.
The six coaches are close friends and verbally jab each other. Carrier, looking at Aaron Hungerholt’s baked potato and chicken strips, says, “You better hope we lose so you can order something different next week.”
Hungerholt, also the school principal and former head football coach, watches the games from the press box and communicates with Carrier via headset. The other coaches are Stern, Nick Sweeney, Ryan Evans and Dave Farlinger.
As they eat, the discussion ranges from the Gophers’ victory over New Mexico State the previous evening to the Vikings and beyond. Six community-minded men enjoying the moment. Lu, wearing LeRoy-Ostrander red, hugs them as they leave. She tells Carrier, “Give ‘em hell.”
Nearly an hour before the bus will leave, the players wander in and out of the locker room as Metallica music booms. They pull on their football pants, wearing sneakers, slides or just socks. They wander around the school a bit, killing time and mentally preparing. In the gym, the volleyball team is practicing.
The volleyball athletes depart after practice – someone exclaims, “Oh my gosh, boys stink!” -- and the football players congregate in the gym. They throw footballs, they stretch, they banter. More Metallica.
One of the kids asks Carrier, “What time are we leaving?” About half an hour, he’s told. Stern collects the players’ cell phones in a box. They will be returned after the bus arrives back at school following the game. Focus is everything now.
Carrier makes the announcement. “OK boys, let’s load up! We’ve got business to take care of!”
Shoulder pads and jerseys are packed into the rear end of a school van. A small gang of younger kids, who are in charge of water bottles and other sideline necessities, load their gear into another van as the team boards bus No. 45. Their home field is across the street; above the entrance hangs a sign proclaiming their recent gridiron glory, including this: “2021 NINE-MAN FOOTBALL STATE CHAMPIONS.”
Horns honk as cars drive past. It’s a short trip to Adams, just 12 miles west on state highway 56. Between LeRoy and Adams is the tiny town of Taopi, where evidence of an April tornado remains.
The bus is driven by Rick Roe; Peyton is his grandson, as is ninth-grade team member Carson Roe.
As the bus pulls away, Carrier stands in the aisle and says, “Let’s go. Ten minutes to focus.” Music by Eminem pounds out of a Bluetooth speaker in the back of the bus.
Outside the windows, the scenery is familiar. Farms, trees, horses. The official capacity of the bus is 71; there are 25 football players on board. At the Adams city limits a sign proclaims it the “Pride of the Prairie.” The bus rolls through downtown Adams to the west end of town, where an immaculate football field awaits. In the back of the bus, there is rhythmic clapping as a teenage voice yells, “Let’s go baby!”
Meat is being cooked to perfection on two gas grills. The public-address system is pure old-school: Motley Crue, Def Leppard, Bon Jovi. The football field is surrounded by a crowd-control system consisting of metal posts and a single wire cable.
As veterans from American Legion Post 146 in Adams bring out the colors, the Cardinals demonstrate that no detail is too small. They line up on their sideline, evenly and widely spaced, in numerical order. Their names are on the backs of their jerseys and the family connections are clear as they stand at attention for the national anthem. Lewison, Lewison. Hungerholt, Hungerholt. Schaefer, Schaefer. Roe, Roe. Diemer, Diemer.
Seconds from kickoff, Carrier tells the boys, “We don’t pay taxes here but this is our field! Dominate!”
After Layne is injured and the mood crumbles, so does most everything else for the Cardinals. Camden Hungerholt – son of Aaron, as is eighth-grade player Reid Hungerholt -- moves from receiver to quarterback. His first pass is a great one, 85 yards to Carter Sweeney for a touchdown and 7-0 lead. That is the entirely of the good news for the night.
Talented Southland junior Jack Bruggeman corrals a bad punt snap and runs for a first down on fourth and 22. A Cardinals face-masking penalty helps keep the Rebels’ drive alive, and they score late in the first quarter to trail 7-6.
As the second quarter begins, Carrier says into his headset, “We haven’t shown up yet.” Camden Hungerholt runs 26 yards for a score, which is nullified by a holding penalty. During a timeout, the coach tells the kids, “Start playing football! Stop feeling sorry for yourselves!” The drive ends with an interception in the end zone. Uff da.
Shortly before halftime, Southland takes a 12-7 lead on a fourth-down, 13-yard pass from Noah Bauer to Bruggeman. As the second quarter ends, the Cardinals exit the field and gather behind bus No. 45. They drink water and Gatorade as one of the coaches hands out Rice Krispies treats. “We couldn’t have played a worse half,” Carrier says. “Defensively, we’ve got to stop 26 (Bruggeman). This is what champions are made of. It’s like last year when Peyton got hurt. Champions gotta fight.”
The fighting will have to wait. As the teams return to the field for the second half, a distant, silent bolt of lightning causes a mandatory 30-minute delay before the game can be resumed. The bolts keeps blasting as the storm moves closer. People check the radar on their phones. Referee Grant Klennert from the Rochester Area Officials Association meets with Carrier and Southland coach J.J. Galle, and the decision is made to suspend the game until the next morning.
As the team boards bus No. 45 again, Carrier tells them, “We could be 0-8 and I’ll still love you guys. Mentally we can regroup. It’s devastating, we all love Layne. We have to play for Layne Bird.”
As Rick Roe drives the Cardinals back home, everyone is broken-heartened and confused. In a soft voice, Carrier says to the other coaches, “I don’t get it. It’s not about the game, it’s about the kids.”
8:30 a.m. Saturday
The Cardinals regathered in the meeting room and talked about Layne and how they felt about their friend. Carrier drew a large F on the white board and announced that this was the grade he gave himself for the previous evening.
“I was very emotional,” he said later. “I love Layne to death. I don’t think I did a very good job. It took me a bit to get back on track. It was a difficult situation.”
Shortly before the contest resumed Saturday morning, some of the elation and joy that had surrounded the field in Adams before Friday night’s game was rekindled. A teenage boy got out of a vehicle and moved slowly toward the field, still learning to navigate the world on crutches. When the swelling goes down, Layne Bird will have surgery. But on this sunny morning he wanted to be back with his teammates. There were lots of hugs. And the defending state champions, finally, ultimately, began the season with an emotional and hard-earned win.
“The kids really responded,” Carrier said. “We’re playing for Layne.”
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--MSHSL media specialist John Millea has been the leading voice of Minnesota high school activities for decades. Follow him on Twitter @MSHSLjohn and listen to "Preps Today with John Millea” wherever you get podcasts. Contact John at email@example.com