- Rick Reilly, Columnist, ESPN.com
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If what's happening to the McLeod West (Minn.) High football team right now sounds like a movie, it's only because it should be one.
Some teams in McLeod's division have as many as 60 players on their rosters. McLeod has 19. And three of those are ninth graders who weigh 110 pounds, including helmet.
Most teams kick PATs. McLeod always goes for two. Not because it wants to. The team doesn't have a kicker.
Most teams run players on and off the field—offense, defense and special teams. McLeod only runs one guy in and out—that's because the 10 other guys never leave the field. They play offense, defense and special teams.
Most teams have 20 cheerleaders. McLeod has four. Most schools aren't falling apart. Half of McLeod West's building is crumbling and roped off. Most teams look forward to next year. McLeod doesn't have a next year. Money problems and dive-bombing enrollment numbers mean this year will almost certainly be its last.
And yet somehow, some way, the McLeod Falcons are 4-1, ranked sixth in the state and have their eyes set on toppling fifth-ranked, 62-player Cathedral from New Ulm this Friday night.
If the Falcons win that game and the two after it, they could be conference champs. It's the trailer whipping the tornado, a 1963 Volkswagen Beetle winning Indy.
"We all know this is the last time we're going to wear these uniforms," says starting fullback Zak Neubarth, a junior. "Right now, football is about the only thing keeping this school going."
Other coaches look over at McLeod's sideline, notice that there are eight boys standing on it, and ask McLeod's coach (and Zak's dad) Bill Neubarth, "How do you even practice?"
Good question. Just to scrimmage, Neubarth has to use his coaches, former players and even a local draftsman as the scout team QB. Of course, that guy can't get to the field until 4:15, so they have to wait.
The problem is simple. McLeod West was formed in 1992 by the consolidation of the high schools from two towns—Stewart and Brownton—which happen to despise each other. It was like putting the Hatfields and McCoys in a phone booth. Stewart parents didn't want their kids in with Brownton kids and vice versa.
"The kids get along great, but the parents just can't seem to co-exist," says McLeod West principal Mike McNulty. "They love to spread rumors about each other. They love to stab each other when they're not looking."
This year, it reached panic mode. McLeod had 426 students at the start of last year, around 242 at the start of this. It'll be $2 million in debt by the end of the school year. A new tax that's on the November ballot could get it enough money to keep going, but the last four times it's been put to vote, it's failed.
But wouldn't it be something if The Little Football Team That Could turned it all around? What if these outnumbered kids and their XXL-sized hearts gave everybody such joy that the parents suddenly woke up, buried the hatchet and passed the bond? I mean, there's a chance, right?
"Slim to none," says McNulty. "The bond will fail. This is it for these boys."
Undermanned and undersized, McLeod goes into every game an underdog the size of the one in the Macy's parade. How it beats powerhouses like second-ranked, 52-player Wabasso (22-20) is a mystery the equivalent of Janet Reno winning Playmate of the Year. They've mostly done it behind the iron legs and will of Zak, who often carries the ball up to 40 times a game, and a set of teammates who seem to lack the quit gene.
"By the end of the game, the boys are so exhausted they can't even get up off the field," Coach Neubarth says. "I worry about Zak sometimes. You should see the bruises on his back and legs. Put it this way—we go through a LOT of ice."
The one game they lost this season was to a team that showed up running a no-huddle offense. It's hard enough never coming off the field, but never getting to rest during a huddle? If Cathedral saw that film, McLeod might be toast this weekend.
But so what if the Falcons lose? Losing together will be more worthy and memorable and honorable for these kids than any wins next season, when they are all wearing uniforms for schools they hardly know.
"We say it all the time," Zak says, "This is the last year we're going to play with our friends. So let's make the most of it.'"
Actually, Zak, it doesn't matter what happens Friday.
In my screenplay, you already won. In overtime. On a broken leg.
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