By: Randy Tucker
The kids were loading on the bus in the early morning darkness. It was one of those cloudy, Wyoming Saturdays in mid-April. Thankfully, the wind had taken a break that day.
We were headed for a track meet in Dubois, 100 miles to the west, and had to be there by 8:30 a.m.
The starting blocks were under the grandstand in our equipment shed on the far side of the field. I walked over, picked them up, and started back across the field.
There was an eerie sensation that I wasn’t alone as I trudged back across the 40-yard line. I could hear breathing, lots of breathing, but couldn’t see anything except the bus lights in the parking lot and a few porch lights on the houses to the north and west of the field.
I froze in my tracks as the realization that a herd of pronghorn had bedded down on the field, and I was in the middle of them.
Wyoming has more pronghorn, (antelope, speed goats… whatever you want to call them) than anywhere else on earth. They often roamed the streets of Shoshoni where I taught history and math and coached football, basketball, and track.
Maybe it was karma coming back at me. I’d hunted antelope many times. You really don’t hunt pronghorn; you usually just spot them, approach from upwind, and take a long shot. Some hunters have success waving a white flag that attracts them, or shooting from a blind.
My Remington .308 brought down a few in the 200 to 300-yard range. My son and his friend, Trapper, take much longer shots when hunting antelope. They both have rifles in 6.5 Creedmoor. Designed on the Winchester .308 platform, it has a smaller bullet that shoots fast and flat a long distance.
But I wasn’t hunting goats this morning. They could have been hunting me.
When I stopped, they started to stir. I couldn’t see them yet, but knew they were likely a herd of pregnant does, a few young bucks and last year’s fawns. A couple of them came close enough to touch.
Then the entire herd bolted as one.
Yes, I was a football coach and a former player who took some good hits on this same field as a kid, but getting drilled by a four-legged tackler who can run faster than 55 mph wasn’t something I wanted to experience.
Thankfully, their senses in the darkness were better than mine. As they thundered off, a few came close enough to let me feel the breeze as they raced by.
I finally saw them in the light behind the bus as they raced across the highway towards the open sagebrush east of the school.
When I reached the bus, a couple of the kids stopped me, “Hey coach, did you see those goats run by the bus?”
“Yeah, I noticed them,” I said.
Off we went to a warm spring day in Dubois.
In Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho, wildlife grazing on school fields is commonplace. In Lusk, Wyoming the mule deer come down off the bluffs to drink from the sprinklers in the summertime.
I’ve had grayish-green stains on my uniform as a player and on the pants and jerseys of my kids when we played in Ten Sleep, Pavillion, Ethete, Big Piney, Byron, and Cowley – little gifts left by mule deer. If you’re not from Wyoming, the biggest of these towns has fewer than 500 people.
Even in larger towns like Riverton, Lander, Rock Springs, Casper, and Cody, communities of 8,000 to 65,000 people, the antelope and deer often find gaps in the fences and graze on the field. Artificial playing surfaces have solved the problem in a handful of schools.
Sometimes, it’s not wildlife, but hooligans that make a sticky playing surface.
When we played at Ten Sleep on the opening weekend of my sophomore year, our coach stopped us as we got off the bus.
Someone had grazed cattle all summer on the Ten Sleep Pioneer field. If you’ve seen the “gifts” that cattle leave, you get the idea. Cow pies littered the field. It looked more like a feedlot than a gridiron.
We moved the game 25 miles west and played at Worland that afternoon.
That same year, when we came out of the locker room after halftime in Byron, somebody had opened a gate and herded 500 or so sheep onto the field.
Real funny we thought, until you tackled somebody or slipped trying to set up a block on the little piles of sheep droppings, then not so much. Did I mention that sheep manure has a unique, persistent smell that mothers don’t care for when washing clothes?
A story from early in my career came in the tiny town of Hanna, population 600. I was coaching in Lusk, and we had a game with the Miners.
As the kids dressed, the coaches walked out to check the field. Someone, maybe the entire town, had used the football field as a dog park that summer. No, they didn’t pick up after their pooches.
One of the established football rules is a safe playing surface. We approached the Hanna coaches about the field and got little response. Our head coach told them they would forfeit unless the field was cleaned up, and the officials backed him up on the statement.
Grudgingly, the Hanna staff, a couple of custodians, and the three guys running the chain, all grabbed shovels and plastic bags and cleared the field. We rolled over them in an easy 29-2 win.
Much of America doesn’t worry about wildlife, pets, or livestock wandering onto the field, but in the Rocky Mountain West, it is still a way of life.