© 2021 KMUW
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
NPR is airing live, special coverage as the U.S. Supreme Court hears Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization

Oil Boom Brings Small Town A Big Victory: A Football Team, At Last

Alexander High School teacher and football team defensive coordinator Mike Rizzo (center) leads the high school and junior high teams through warm-up stretches at a practice in August. Most of the members of the team, which plays in a six-man division, have never played organized football before.
Alexander High School teacher and football team defensive coordinator Mike Rizzo (center) leads the high school and junior high teams through warm-up stretches at a practice in August. Most of the members of the team, which plays in a six-man division, have never played organized football before.

The oil boom that burst forth in western North Dakota seven years ago had both positive and negative effects on the region. While the increase in wealth and new opportunities for young people were welcomed, they brought along with them increased crime and congestion.

But this fall, the town of Alexander, N.D., is celebrating one unexpected upside of the oil boom: the Alexander Comets.

The Comets are a six-man football team (the school is still too small for an 11-man team). This is the students' first season playing, and the town's first season in 28 years.

"Because of the oil boom, we now have a football team," said Kevin Clausen, who coaches the team in between his weeks living on an oil well pad.

Before the boom began, there were only 55 kids in the entire K-12 school, and no varsity sports. Like so many towns that dot the Great Plains, Alexander was shrinking as farms grew larger and more mechanized while young people moved away.

The small team is tight-knit, spending time together both on the field and off. At left, teammates Jayy Morgan, Nick Armour and Jonathon Jacoby play video games at Jacoby's home at Dakotaland Lodging, a trailer court mostly populated by workers and families lured to the Bakken by the area's healthy economy. At right, the team forms a human pyramid in the school's hallway between classes.
/ Andrew Cullen
The small team is tight-knit, spending time together both on the field and off. At left, teammates Jayy Morgan, Nick Armour and Jonathon Jacoby play video games at Jacoby's home at Dakotaland Lodging, a trailer court mostly populated by workers and families lured to the Bakken by the area's healthy economy. At right, the team forms a human pyramid in the school's hallway between classes.

"It's kind of shocking to hear, 'You don't have enough people so you can't be a school,' " 10th-grader Grace Nelson remembers about hearing her parents discuss the school's possible closing. "'Cause, school is family. That's like saying you can't be with your family every day."

The town has grown by 60 percent since 2008, and there are now more than 200 students enrolled in the school. And they're still coming, despite low oil prices and thousands of layoffs. But there's a downside. The roads are much more dangerous now with all the oil traffic, and many people here say they have a complicated relationship with the oil field.

Oil wells sit atop a hill just outside Alexander, N.D., a small town of about 300 in the heart of the Bakken oil patch.
/ Andrew Cullen
Oil wells sit atop a hill just outside Alexander, N.D., a small town of about 300 in the heart of the Bakken oil patch.

Mayor Jerry Hatter struggles with that relationship every day.

"I hate the fact that I can drive ... places that there was never anything and it's nothing but solid pumping units and roads and traffic," said Hatter. "It's changed the landscape. But it's [also] given me a lot."

Back in the day, Hatter played football, too, for a much larger high school in Montana. He wishes he could've been on a small, tight-knit team like the Comets.

"I mean, these kids here, they have the ultimate experience," he said. "I hope they do good. It's gonna be a tough year for them."

The first game of the season had a coincidentally perfect backdrop: the Old Settlers Days festival, an annual tradition that started in 1946 as a way to bring people in the community together to eat, dance, drink and socialize as the autumn harvest winds down.

Bailey Morris and her nephew Tucker Lynn play with a dog at a bonfire during Old Settlers Days in Alexander in September. The coals of the bonfire are used to cook about 1,000 pounds of meat to feed celebrants during the annual festival.
/ Andrew Cullen
Bailey Morris and her nephew Tucker Lynn play with a dog at a bonfire during Old Settlers Days in Alexander in September. The coals of the bonfire are used to cook about 1,000 pounds of meat to feed celebrants during the annual festival.

At this first game, the Comets faced their opponents, the Rangers, a team from a small high school in Eastern Montana. The Rangers were more practiced than the Comets, who were quickly identified as the underdogs. However, the fans didn't seem to mind. They cheered at every tackle, many watching the game from the backs of their pickup trucks, holding each other's babies and visiting.

LeAnna Halvorson-Dean grew up in Alexander and missed the sense of community during the 28 years without local football to watch.

The Comets huddle and chant before taking the field for the first time since 1987. Fans cheered during the team's first game, ignoring the beating it received. After a tough game, Dayden Rafferty (bottom, right) helps teammate Ryan Bergstrom, suffering from cramps, back to the locker room.
/ Andrew Cullen
The Comets huddle and chant before taking the field for the first time since 1987. Fans cheered during the team's first game, ignoring the beating it received. After a tough game, Dayden Rafferty (bottom, right) helps teammate Ryan Bergstrom, suffering from cramps, back to the locker room.

"Farmers, ranchers, you get caught up in your lives and you lose track, and it's nice to have everybody back," she said.

Listening to the crowd, you'd never know the Comets lost, 65 to 18. Because in Alexander, just having football back is a huge victory.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.