Another Round at the Say When: Say What?
What happens when a big-city writer moves to a tiny Western town, renting a house without wifi and with sketchy cellular service, to learn more about why people live there and why the high school football team never wins?
First in a series.
There’s an isolated border town out on Nevada’s high-desert plains that has preoccupied my mind for some time now.
McDermitt straddles two states — half lies in Nevada, the other in Oregon — a town without a traffic light to slow the pickup trucks, RVs and minivans that hurtle through the heart of the rural hamlet along U.S. Route 95, as though the place didn’t even exist.
In fact, I don’t think there’s even a stop sign to be found on its handful of Mesquite tree-shaded residential side streets, either.
The area was once the site of a U.S. Army fort, named after Lt. Col. Charles McDermit, (one t) who was killed in 1865 during a skirmish with Native American tribes, one in a series of long-ago struggles whose bloodshed still seems to inform this place and its people.
Today, at first glance, there’s not much to McDermitt: a couple of gas stations and bare-bones motels, the skeletons of a few long-shuttered watering holes.
There’s also the Say When, a still-operational casino and bar, the kind of tourist trap that dominates most Nevada border towns, beckoning travelers from non-gambling states.
On a good day, a few hundred folks live there, with a few hundred more on the Pauite-Shoshone reservation that stretches east, into the sunrise, outside of town.
For a few months this fall, I’m going to join these rural outliers who seem to defy both the odds and national trends by forging a life there.
I’ve rented a small house just on the Oregon side, a place without wifi, and with sketchy phone coverage, so my contact with the outside world will come from the public library branch just a few steps down the highway.
Everything is a few steps away in McDermitt.
I’m going to be the latest big-city intruder, an outsider among insiders, listening to their stories, compiling material for a book that will try to make sense of their lives.
Mostly, though, I am coming to write about high school football, about a veteran coach and the proud, practical players who comprise the McDermitt Bulldogs, the eight-man football team that never wins.
This is Friday Night Lights turned on its head.
In fact, there are no Friday night games at all here in McDermitt, because the school can’t afford to illuminate a field that features a few rickety sets of bleachers, out there on the converted pastureland where even the wild horses pass by on the way to somewhere else.
This is eight-man football, the game played in small towns across America that no longer have the population to field traditional 11-player teams. It’s fast and loose, with plenty of scoring. Teams get embarrassed, run out of town.
Like the Bulldogs, a bunch of smaller-sized kids who probably wouldn’t even make the cut at bigger schools.
McDermitt football pits the big against the small, the haves dominating the have-nots.
Egan’s outranked squad plays with hand-me-down uniforms, weights and equipment donated by richer teams that play in towns where mining is still king, where school coffers brim with money for new stadiums and the niceties of field lighting.
In McDermitt, the last mine closed 30 years ago, leaving behind such high levels of arsenic underground that many residents won’t drink from their own home faucets, relying instead on bottled water.
And for the Bulldogs, the final scores on the football field reflect these disparities.
In last 17 years, the team has compiled a woeful 13–70 record, their last victory taking place so long ago that Coach Richard Egan has to cock his head to try and remember precisely when it was.
And the odds seem to be against the Bulldogs ever winning again.
A few years ago, I wrote a story about the team and decided to return for an entire season. Last year, Covid intervened.
This spring, in a pandemic-altered mini season, the Bulldogs lost all four of their games against teams that no doubt have come to view them as patsies.
They failed to score even a touchdown, settling for a single safety, rare points on the board that, for these young men, must have felt like Christmas morning.
The Bulldogs got shellacked by such lopsided margins of 65–0, 60–0, 68–0 and 70–2, with their reservation rivals in Owhyee running up the score until the last whistle blew.
Still, these young Bulldogs hold their heads high. A referee in the Owhyee game wrote a letter to the school superintendent, praising how the boys from McDermitt never complained. He was proud of them, and attributed their maturity to the way they were raised, and coached.
All the losing is still tough to stomach for a spirited coach who played linebacker on the same team when it won the state championship in 1984.
But that was a long time ago. And at least the Bulldogs were on the field.
Some years, Eagan can’t even find enough kids to scare up a team. Just two years ago, he was forced to forfeit the entire season, despite cajoling kids and their parents on surrounding farms, ranches and reservation community center.
Would-be players forsook football for time on their iPads, or their work on the family farm. Maybe some of them just got tired of losing.
In fact, nobody’s certain that Egan, a hulking man of Paiute heritage whose roots to this land run back many generations, will convince enough kids to play this year.
Just the other day, on the phone, I asked Egan about the chances of the Bulldogs hitting the field come late September.
The uncertainly comes from the Delta variant and the smoke that drifts into the region from fires in neighboring California and Oregon.
But mostly it about the sheer lack of able bodies.
The coach paused, as though figuring the odds of a payout over at the Say When.
“Seventy-five percent,” he said.
I won’t know for sure until I hit town in a few days.
But if there is a fall season — five games in all — I’ll be there for every team meeting, practice and game, getting to know this coach, these players and their families.
What does high school football — all that losing and so little winning — mean to the families who live there? Why did they come in the first place? Why do they stay?
I’ll do my shopping in the small gas station food mart, the only one in town, attend Sunday services in its singular little chapel. My landlord, an old-timer named Junior, has even invited me out one Sunday to help bale hay on his spread outside of town.
If I survive, I’ll look in on former players, the now-grown men who work the farms and ranches near town, the ones who on weekend home games, steer their pickup trucks onto school grounds to root on their alma mater, this latest generation of Bulldogs.
Win or lose, McDermitt hasn’t given up on its Bulldogs. The fans show up for games, both at home and away.
And this year, Eagan hopes to field a team that’s not only competitive, but fun to watch.
A quiet girl from the Rez named Nicolette, has decided that she might like to try playing football this year. Eagan has counseled both her and her mother about the challenges that might await, because he knows Nicolette’s presence would mark his team among opponents more than ever.
We’ll see what happens. The first practice starts Monday.
Until then, see you at the Say When.
Drinks on me.
John M. Glionna is a writer and freelance journalist based in Sin City.