When people learn I grew up near Buffalo, New York, the response is always the same: “I bet living in South Dakota is a big change.”
In some ways, of course it is different, but there is one area I have been able to relate to South Dakotans long before moving to Mitchell and that is high school football.
For many high school athletes in South Dakota, donning a school jersey is a birthright. For me, sports were sewn in essentially from birth by my older brothers.
My father was a high school football coach for years and it is still a frequent talking point for us, but without my brothers, it is unlikely I would have that passion.
So while 28 teams vie for a spot in the state finals today, I will be on an airplane to Buffalo. And as some players become legends in their respective towns for their performances, I will get to see my oldest brother, Chris, have his name etched in our alma mater’s — Notre Dame High School — athletic hall of fame.
My brothers — Chris and Matt — put Buffalo Bills stickers on my incubator in the hospital and taught me to name each NFL team by the time I was 2 years old. And when they began playing high school football, they may as well have been NFL players in my eyes.
They were both superb prep athletes from a high school of 140 students that went on to play Division III sports in college, but I viewed them as titans. I was not physically able to follow in their footsteps, so as a child, I lived through their exploits on the field.
As I reached high school, I found my own niche athletically with sled hockey, but it was because of them. It never mattered to them that I was confined to a wheelchair with a spinal cord injury, C7 to T4. I was still the annoying little brother and they made me tougher the only way brothers can.
But what the love of high school sports I developed through them has been everlasting. The idea of kids competing against one another for nothing more than school pride and the love of the sport mesmerized me from the start. At the core, prep sports are the purest level of athletics.
It truly hit me last fall, covering my first South Dakota nine-man semifinal game in Wolsey, where fans lined the outside of the field. As Bon Homme neared its first trip to the state finals in more than two decades, I heard a middle-aged fan say, “I’ve been waiting 23 years for this.”
Someone from a large city may scoff at such a statement by an adult, but that is why small-town prep sports so great. There may be more recreational options in a big city, but those people will never experience the pride of playing for, and being the center of an entire community.
In a big city, a high school team or player may get a moment of notoriety for a big game or winning a championship, but in a small town, great players and teams last forever because it just means more.
Being from a rural town in upstate New York and 15 minutes away from a city similar to Mitchell, it was surreal to watch fans pile into the DakotaDome for the state finals last season, many of whom had no tie to the team or school other than being from the town.
It is an atmosphere and a passion that can’t be duplicated in a more populous city or state and it makes South Dakota sports special.
So, I’ll be following from a distance this week, and when our wives and our mother inevitably complain about our sports talk, I’ll just blame my brothers.