DAYTON — A few weeks ago, the Tongue River High School football team hosted the two-time defending state champions, Pine Bluffs. The Eagles, who were still searching for their first win of the season, battled a team that had won 18 games in a row, and heading into the fourth quarter the game was still in doubt as the Hornets only led 14-0.
On that crisp September night, Tongue River head coach Steve Hanson experienced something he never had before in his six years of coaching the Eagles.
“That’s the most vocal I’ve ever heard our defense in the history of TR,” he said.
Hanson didn’t know everything his defense shouted out on that night, and quite honestly, he didn’t care. His 11-man unit lined up correctly and played aggressive, and that’s all Hanson ever wants to see.
This year, a good portion of the defensive pre-snap chatter isn’t said in English but rather in multiple Native American languages as nearly half of the starting defense has different tribal roots.
“It’s kind of a neat blend,” Hanson said.
Daie’n Bear Don’t Walk, Jackson Clair, Elias Dillon-Bennett, Jacob Knobloch and James Richards all play on the Eagles’ defense. Bear Don’t Walk and Dillon-Bennett are Crow, Clair is Shoshoni, Knobloch is Cheyenne and Richards is Ogallala Lakota.
Bear Don’t Walk lines up as the strong-side outside linebacker; Clair plays strong-side defensive end; Dillon-Bennett anchors the middle as the middle linebacker; Knobloch plays strong-side tackle; and Richards lines up wide as the strong-side cornerback.
So not only are all these different cultural backgrounds on the field at the same time together, but many times all of them are positioned on the same side of the field.
“It’s pretty cool to look over there and think, ‘Way to represent guys,’” Hanson said.
Many of Tongue River’s defensive pre-snap checks are said in any number of Native American languages, and much of that credit goes to Clair.
Clair joined the Eagles’ football team late this summer.
His family moved to Sheridan from the Wind River Indian Reservation before and with that came a player fluent in both Shoshoni and Arapahoe languages.
Clair burst onto the scene, earned a starting spot and quickly began to implement some of his Native American culture into the defense.
“I just did it to kind of throw off the defense,” Clair said. “Make them be like, ‘What does that mean?’ It was kind of cool.”
Pretty soon more and more players on the defense grew more comfortable in their positions and among their teammates, adopting the words of Clair, giving the Eagles a unique language to rally around.
“It kind of brings some culture into it,” Richards said.
During pregame, the team will partake in chants, and that leaks over to the game as nearly everyone on the defense will audible and make calls that echo throughout the defense.
“It shows me they’re comfortable,” Hanson said. “It shows me they’re playing loose, being themselves and playing fast.”
Sometimes during team meals and film sessions, players interject with cultural anecdotes, which lighten the mood and help the team bond even more.
“Everyone has fun with it, and at the same time they respect it and don’t make fun of it,” Richards said.
Since the Pine Bluffs game, Tongue River has gone 2-1 and forced its way into the playoff race. If the Eagles can score a road win at Wright in their regular-season finale, and get some outside help from other matchups in the state, they’ll whittle their way into postseason play.
No matter whether the season ends Friday, the year will be remembered as one filled with culture, different backgrounds and a defense that found a rallying point, a language — even if it’s one Hanson doesn’t fully understand.