The Dakota Bulldogs are driven by passion.
The team is in its third year, and the Bulldogs haven't backed down from continuing to play the sport they love — football — as adults.
"I heard all the doubts, all the complaints. I heard everything. Just being laughed out of the room has always motivated me to do more," said Zakk Ryherd, coach of the Dakota Bulldogs, the local amateur football team in the Southern Plains Football League. "There were times we (had) like 13 people (in the stands) for a game. It’s the guys who keep showing up and won’t stop showing, that make this team go."
"In the beginning, people didn’t take us seriously," added Demetrius Wells, a co-owner and player for the Bulldogs. "But here we are, three years later. Now they take us seriously."
Local football caused an itch for local guys now wanting to step back into pads. And in late 2016, Shaun Davis and Ryan Antaya set out to find themselves an opportunity. The men talked, and decided creating their own team was feasible, even if there was going to be a lot of work.
"I talked to a few people in the league, and then they said if we can (pull together a team within) two weeks, we can get in,” co-owner Davis said.
In that time, a lot of scrambling happened. They hurried to recruit players, fill out insurance paperwork, and raise funds for equipment. The Bulldogs signed a contract to make the northwest field of the Cadwell Sports Complex in Mitchell their home, and the deal was sealed.
"The biggest challenge was … securing the finances,” Davis said. “We had to have about five or six grand up front," to purchase a scoreboard, shoulder pads and helmets. "Things like that were a challenge. We did have some help from local businesses, which was nice."
While raising the necessary funds to get things going wasn't easy, finding a coach for the team was. Ryherd, a Menno High School graduate who was a sophomore on the DWU football team, had recently decided he wanted to coach football after college. After discussing his goal with former DWU assistant coach Jason Glasgow, Ryherd was put in connection with Davis, and the match was made.
"The very next day, (Davis) called him looking for help and (Glasgow) said, ‘Hey, I’ve got the perfect guy for you,’" Ryherd said. "We went to tryouts later that week. (Glasgow) got to me (Davis), the rest of the guys and it just kicked off from there."
While he originally planned to play on the team, a torn calf muscle and a broken foot halted Davis’ return before it even started.
"From February to May, I couldn't walk, so I'm not playing football no more," Davis said with a laugh.
The first Bulldogs were recruited via social media, and word-of-mouth spread the message that the team was forming. There were some struggles with players, early on, with some players who weren't playing for the right reasons, according to Wells.
"We did have some bad seeds in the very beginning. Thank God they’re gone,” he said. "This (current) core of guys is different, though. We play together. (If) we get down, (we) don’t necessarily try to push someone else down. We try to pick each other up."
The opposite is common in amateur football leagues, according to Ryherd.
"Especially when a first year starts, you’re going to see guys who are very undisciplined just want to play for themselves,” he said.
That led to some players being suspended for games, but Ryherd said the Bulldogs were lucky to not have that derail the season. The Bulldogs pulled off two wins that first year, against the Watertown Rebels and the Tri-State Buffalos, finishing 2-9 that season.
Today, Bulldogs players and coaches come from a variety of backgrounds. Team members, ages 18 to 44, work in the area as law enforcement officers, farmers, retailers, clerks and students.
Once someone commented that the team’s running back, 18-year-old Zach Pardy, needed a break.
"They’re like, ‘He’s still tired. (I) could be our running back’s dad,' and I was like, 'Oh my gosh,'" 38-year-old Jeff Westendorf said with a laugh.
Most of the guys travel from around the area to be a part of the team, primarily between Armour and Howard. But one player, Jay Miller, comes from Eden Prairie, Minnesota, a suburb of the Twin Cities.
"He's one of my college friends and has been playing with us since the very beginning,” Davis said.
The opportunity to play football again was something that drew the interest of Travis Bartunek, now 37, who hadn't laced up in shoulder pads since his sophomore year at Armour High School.
"I hee-hawed around about it for a while. My wife actually talked me into going and trying out," said Bartunek, who now lives in Mitchell. "I quit in high school, and you hear about guys who say they wish they could go back and play again. There just weren’t chances to go and play again."
For those who don't play, like Davis, providing the opportunity to players motivate him to keep the team going.
"Every time somebody does some big play, I'm running up and down, jumping, on the sidelines and screaming, because I'm just as excited as the guy running the ball. That's what I thrive on," he said.
For Wells, it’s a sense of camaraderie.
"It’s a different feeling if you bleed with or play with a guy," he said.
Nick Pardy, who was recruited by Wells, is five years older than his brother, Zach. The brothers never had the chance to play formal football together until last season, after Zach Pardy graduated from Howard High School and joined the Bulldogs.
"It was something we missed out on by a couple of years,” Nick Pardy said. “Now, we get to argue over who’s better on the same field, instead of separately.”
Lining up across from one another has made rival teams friends off the field.
"(In) the small leagues, you see the same guys every year or twice a year,” Nick Pardy said. “We pray with the other team after each game. We chat it up during the game, like to keep it pleasant. We always invite them out after the game, and they usually do … hang out afterward."
Being on the team has provided the players an opportunity to share the sport with their families. Bartunek’s daughter, Chloe Bartunek, sings the national anthem prior to games. Westendorf's oldest son runs the first-down chains for the game. And other kids play together while their dads compete.
"They love running around on the sidelines," Westendorf said of his two sons. "(The players) have families and kids playing around on the sidelines. My oldest got to run the chains and it was cool to see him on the sidelines. They think it's kind of neat."
Ryherd, now a DWU senior offensive lineman, said he wasn’t prepared for the more relaxed style of the team he coaches, versus the one he plays on.
"I was expecting a whole lot of structure, but I had to realize that these guys have jobs, they have families, they have kids. It’s not their job, (and) they’re not using it to try and get an education like I am," he said. "We definitely had to learn how to be flexible."
Wells, a Michigan native who moved to the area to play for the Tigers, had no experience with nine-man football before the Bulldogs.
"I never played nine-man football before,” the former DWU lineman said. “The pace is much faster. … If you make a guy miss, you may have a touchdown in nine-man football, as opposed to 11-man (where) you have a couple more levels. … The mentality is different."
Almost 15 years after he last suited up, Westendorf didn't know what to expect since his days playing at Northern State University.
"The field felt way bigger, just because ... in college was there would be 11 guys out there,” Westendorf said, adding that he wondered, “why are there so many holes everywhere for me to run around? I didn’t know if I’d still be able to make plays or catch anybody. The further I got into it, it just kind of starting coming back. Each game has started getting easier, and more fun.”
Playing amateur football isn’t for the faint of heart.
"I had one guy who came up to me and said, 'I want to get active again.' I (said), “If you want to be active again, go to a gym," Ryherd said. "If you want to get beat up and have some fun doing it ... that’s something we can do."
"The only thing that’s kind of different from what I remember playing from so long ago is the punishment you take," said Westendorf, who joined the Bulldogs this season. "It just takes a little bit longer and a little more effort to get back to feeling good enough to play week-to-week."
Westendorf said part of his motivation to return to the field was to encourage his boys to play.
"Football helped me get a little bit more confidence when I was young," he said. "I thought, if they could see me playing and if they could realize what potential they had sooner, then they would just have more fun in sports in general."
Much like the Bulldogs, the SPFL has stabilized, as well. The league has changed over 20 years, and teams now come from southern Minnesota, eastern South Dakota and northern Iowa. The SPFL has 13 teams, and while the Dakota Bulldogs remain the westernmost team in the league, there are now four teams based in South Dakota. The entire six-team West Division of the league is within a two-hour drive of Mitchell.
SPFL rules are similar to high school nine-man regulations. The players have to be within a 6-by-6-yard box from where the ball is snapped in order to blitz. There's no chop-blocking, no crack-back blocks, and if you fall down and don't get touched, you can still get up and run the ball, like in the NFL.
"The league's biggest slogan is, 'Everybody has to go back to work on Monday.' (It’s) a really good slogan, because it's true," Davis said. "Everybody has to go to work. We have families, we have kids (and our) wives’ jobs. You can't go to work on Monday if you broke your leg because somebody cut-blocked you."
That doesn't mean the Bulldogs don't like to have some fun and maybe experiment with guys doing things they typically wouldn't get to.
"I tried experimenting with (Wells) in the backfield as a fullback, and he accidentally at one point took the ball from the quarterback and got stuffed at the line," Ryherd said. "I didn’t think that was humanly possible. It took about seven people to bring him down, but seven people met him at the hole. We didn’t lose any yards on it, but we didn’t make it into the end zone either."
"In high school, you practice for four or five days a week before you actually start playing. Then you get those practices continuously throughout the season," Nick Pardy said. "With this league, the offenses have to be a little more simplistic, just because it’s hard to make time when you have 20 to 30 adults with jobs, (to) actually get together and practice to do a complex playbook."
As the season comes to an end, eight Bulldogs will take part in the league all-star game on July 27: Bartunek, Westendorf, Jhay Roland, Rodrick Hawkins, Jon Coler, Kameron Olson and both Pardy brothers. The Pigskin Classic is an annual highlight held in late fall at the Minnesota Vikings’ U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. This year’s game is scheduled for the weekend of Oct. 19-20, and the Bulldogs will play an exhibition under the bright lights.
"It’s so loud, it’s hard to focus," Bartunek said. "The first time out there, it’s like when you watch a movie. It’s slow motion, but then, as soon they hike the ball, it’s full speed, go. ... It was completely surreal. I was not ready for it."
This season has been a struggle for the Bulldogs, who have a smaller roster than most of the teams they face. The Bulldogs (0-7) close the regular season in Madison today. But they have had fun.
"(Other teams) came out with 50 guys and we had 14," Wells said. "We felt like spartans out there. It’s a wonderful feeling. This is the first time in my life where winning or losing isn’t the biggest thing to me. Don’t get me wrong — I do want to win. But just getting to play with these guys means more to me than winning or losing."
Like any college football, the Bulldogs are looking to grow with recruiting efforts.
"There’s some towns around that have heckuva athletes," Wells said. "There’s some guys from the Mitchell area that are true athletes, but are afraid to get hit. This is a very physical sport."
And some guys can’t afford the investment — each player is responsible for $150 worth of equipment, plus $200 for insurance. Accidental insurance is also available to players.
Davis has worked to reduce the cost to the players through fundraisers and sponsorships and selling concessions at Mitchell spring and Legion baseball games.
"It was too much at first. Concessions were enough to cover the difference," Davis said. "We have a budget every year and in order to get the budget, we have to get money from the players, sponsors and concession stands. So $150 is a lot better to come up with than $250."
Westendorf said he thought about joining the Bulldogs at the start but was talked out of it. Now, he's glad he back and playing again.
"It’s really been enjoyable," he said. "You just gotta play sports as long as you can. It'll keep you young."
As he enters his final season with DWU and looks forward to graduating in December, Ryherd would enjoy being able to continue coaching the Bulldogs.
"If it’s in the cards, I would love (to)," said Ryherd, who also mentioned the possibility of being a player-coach for the Bulldogs. "Coaching is definitely my future, and that’s what I’ve always wanted and the only thing I wanted to do."
As the team finishes out its third season and looks at adding to its numbers in the future, Wells is quick to point out that the team has quickly become a part of players’ identities.
"Once a bulldog, always a bulldog,” he said.