DAYTON — Before every game this season, the Tongue River High School football team takes part in a brief yet meaningful tradition: The players gather at midfield, and a senior sprinkles a small amount of ashes and talks about the sacrifices necessary to be part of the team. The player concludes the ceremony by telling his teammates to “remember the fire.”
This season marks the first the Eagles have done the ritual, but it could be the beginning of a powerful routine.
“Remember the fire” refers to one of the final activities done by the Eagles during a 48-hour preseason conditioning camp in the Bighorn Mountains.
Every senior brought something that represented their sacrifice and talked about what football has meant to them before throwing the object in the fire.
One senior wrote a speech about sacrifice on a piece of paper and threw the paper into the fire. Another had a hunting hat, signaling the family hunting opportunities he’s missed because of football. One more had an orange scout team helmet cover, denoting his first two years of getting pummeled in practice by the upperclassmen starters.
The team gathered the ashes the next morning and put them in a jar, which they carry onto the field before every game.
“Everybody remembers the sacrifices that they made and want to make it worth something,” quarterback and linebacker Luke Stutzman said.
First-year assistant coach CJ Scholl suggested the idea before the season to head coach Steve Hanson. Scholl did something very similar as a high school football player in Rockford, Michigan.
“When he told me about it, I just immediately fell in love with it,” Hanson said. “It’s my personal belief that the only way to tell if someone cares about you is, ‘Will they sacrifice for you?’ … Playing football is a sacrifice for these guys. They give up a lot of things. They give up time with their friends. They give up hunting season. They give up their weekends, their Friday nights, their Thursday mornings, their summer time in the weight room. They give up a lot of things to play this game, and those are all sacrifices because they don’t do that just for self-sustaining glory. They do that for the team.”
Scholl recalled the profound impact the routine had on him as a player, and he wanted to start the same thing for the Eagles.
“We all have that fire that burns inside of us, and we can’t ever forget that fire, just like we can’t forget the sacrifices we’ve made to play football,” Scholl said.
On game days, the team arrives several hours before kickoff and has small group and team meetings to go over the game plan one final time. After the meetings, the players walk the field, then spread the ashes at the 50-yard line about two hours before game time. With the right mindset in place, the Eagles then go into personal prep time before taking the field.
“It’s the start of our process,” Hanson said. “That’s what sets the tone for the rest of the preparation time … When it comes down to game time, that’s when the sacrifice becomes worth it. That’s when it becomes fun. The most fun thing we should ever do in sports is play. Not practice, but play. Play the game. These guys put in a lot of work to play the game, so they remember the sacrifice. They remember the fire.”
Hanson plans to continue the tradition for years to come.
“Especially with some of the classes we’ve got coming up, I don’t see a way that we could go away from that,” Hanson said. “I think it’s going to be a really powerful thing in the future.”
Scholl also likes the tradition because players take control. At the preseason camp, the seniors led the ritual while coaches listened quietly in the background.
“We get to sit back and hear what the season means to the seniors,” Scholl said. “Every team has its own personality, and this is a great way to find out and get a little inside view of what the year is going to be.”
The season has been far from perfect, but the Eagles still have a lot to play for. Tongue River hosts the Sheridan High School junior varsity team this week, and a win at Wright next week would likely give the Eagles a chance to make the playoffs.
The team will look over film from last year’s loss against the Sheridan JV, but they have also already started to prepare for Wright.
“The possibility that there’s [only a few] practices left in the season is very real, and there’s a possibility that we’ve still got another week,” Hanson said.
If they hope to keep their season alive, the Eagles will have to sacrifice for each other, both on and off the field.
The game kicks off Saturday at 11 a.m. at Tongue River High School.