HAMILTON COUNTY, HOME — I was going to be nine the summer coach moved us to Hampton, population 432. Thirty-six years later the sign says the same number.
Change is always difficult, but I remember mom being thankful for the proximity to the interstate and it was closer to Lincoln — even if we had to drive to Aurora for groceries.
Coach, was, apparently, ready for a big challenge.
He was secretary of the Nebraska 8-Man Football Coaches Association from 1982 to 1984, so he knew where all the good football was being played in Nebraska. In Hamilton County — where there is pride in each and every cornfield — Marquette was state champion in 1983 and Giltner was in 1984.
In Hampton, we kept the Deshler purple and that first coach team was only 3-6. Most called it the toughest conference in the whole state.
But, 1986 and 1988 gave the coach his first two chances in the playoffs. His oldest son got to help, and see who his first real heroes were. My Lincoln Journal paper route after school ended a block away from the practice field — mom never had to worry where I was.
Growing up, Aurora football would usually last well into November and even if dad made the playoffs we’d usually figure out a way to go over and watch the Huskies — dad an admirer of Jack Guggenmos’ Maryland-I and his son the play of guys like Haase and Penner and Boss. They could have just as well worn capes.
Not much has changed in September 2021, my first football game back.
Oh, sure there is field turf in Aurora now; a sure sign that your community cares about the opportunities afforded their children. The band is sharp belting out a wonderful halftime show during homecoming Friday.
It didn’t take long — a few steps from the gate if we are being honest — for a few fans to come over and say how they remembered coach. That’s the Hamilton County way, I suppose.
A pre-game conversation with former Husky golf coach Dick Binfield prompted me to head to the Bennington sideline for fear of everyone else I’d see. I didn’t know if I was ready.
Plus, coach would have wanted to watch the football game anyway. And, so I kind of had a hunch we’d get a good one when I saw Bobby Mills there, clipboard in hand as well. His question was as profound as the others I got at the gate: “How is your mom,” he asked.
“She’s good,” I said, “staying active, still working and selling houses. And, watching Husker volleyball tonight.”
And, with that, we watched top-ranked Bennington defeat third-ranked Aurora 55-44 under the most beautiful sky I’d have thought that you could see Heaven. I am sure, up there, coach had as a good a seat as any.
He would have loved the calm and poise of Bennington’s young coach Kam Lenhart, who plays his duties as part cheerleader, part CEO. But, make no mistake, you know who is in charge on the sideline.
“Next play, keep going. Keep going, we’ll be fine,” In a game of up and down emotion and big plays, Lenhart was calm in the storm.
We watched Bennington back Dylan Mostek run for 366 yards on 41 attempts and five scores — four of them over 50 yards. Coach would have admired his lineman. And, he would have wanted you to know their names — Nate Schaefer, Cody Harris, Carter Lerch, Jameson Krayneski and Jake Stier.
“There aren’t many words I can come up with to say how proud I am of these kids,” Lenhart told me after the game.
Coach was already a fan of the Huskies — a staple on his Striv Friday if he couldn’t get out. He loved the way Kyle Peterson guided his troops, the way he coached with no fear, yet still knew that the line of scrimmage was going to win or lose him a football game.
Even in defeat he’d have lauded the Huskies fight. He’d have been quick to note their stellar special teams plays that kept them alive, the toughness of guys like Carlos Collazo and Mack Owens and Gage Griffith. The guts of new quarterback Drew Knust. And, he’d have been quick to say those early season challenges will make them better; just like we found out last November.
Bobby Mills wondered what I wondered before we kicked off on Friday night.
“Is this Heaven,” he said. “It has to be close,” I added, “I just think dad would have wanted some grass instead of turf.”
And, with that we were off to watch one of the best games I have ever seen. A few thousand friends; many from Hamilton County. Coach and me.
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