MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
At high schools tonight, floodlights illuminate football fields, fans crowd into stands. It's happening all across the country. And for our high school football series, Friday Night Lives, we're going now to Vermont. The state is not what you'd call a gridiron powerhouse. One national ranking puts it 50th.
BLOCK: Mount St. Joseph Academy in the town of Rutland is a Catholic high school with 23 players on its football roster. There are only 53 boys in the entire school. But MSJ, as it's known, refuses to budge from the top division.
As NPR's Mike Pesca reports, that means the football team plays schools with more than 10 times as many students.
(Soundbite of football field)
MIKE PESCA: What was once the greatest team in Vermont high school football history had just been torched by a fourth down heave.
(Soundbite of football game)
Unidentified People: (unintelligible)
PESCA: All 65 inches of the opposing wide receiver stretched to make the reception and to put the St. Johnsbury Hilltoppers on the board.
(Soundbite of cheering)
PESCA: There is no solution when your defensive back is a five-foot seven-inch tall freshman. But there is a strategy.
Mr. CHIP FORTE (Head Coach, Mount St. Joseph Academy): You explode and you run through them. Turn yourself into a little ball, man, a cannonball.
PESCA: And that's said with love, as the player being encouraged to form of a projectile, Hunter Forte, is the son of the man doing the talking, Mount St. Joseph Academy head coach Chip Forte. After a half of football, that one play was the only score, and at half-time, Forte needed to know if his players were intimidated.
Mr. FORTE: Are these guys too tough?
Unidentified People: No, sir.
PESCA: It's a loaded question. Forte knows that just by being on this field, 45 minutes from the Canadian border, a two-hour bus ride north of MSJ's hometown of Rutland, his kids are committed. For the last two years, the players have told the coach where they stand: for MSJ in Division 1 of Vermont football.
Mr. FORTE: We had a meeting and, you know, sat them down and to a man, you know, coach, we want to play. We don't care. We know. You know, we know. They know the situation and these kids want to play D-1. There's certain kids that come to this school to play football, period.
PESCA: The decision to stay Division 1 is part tradition, part faith. After all, MSJ has won 15 state championships since 1960. But today, it seems to defy belief that a roster of 23, but really only 13 or so see any playing time, can hang with Vermont's version of powerhouses.
Their biggest rival alone, Rutland High School, has about 45 players on the roster and half of the last dozen state championships. Last Friday, in their home opener, Rutland also had stands filled with football fans on both sides of the Mount St. Joseph question.
(Soundbite of cheering)
Mr. JOSEPH KRAUSE: I think the best thing for the program, the best thing for the school would be to drop down, play Division 2, re-establish their dominance. And when they're ready, come back to Division 1.
PESCA: Joseph Krause, whose son plays for Rutland, was among the group that think of themselves as realists. The Vermont Principals' Association is in that camp, having sent Mount St. Joseph a letter of concern because of their thin roster. But other Rutland fans like Chris Wheelis admire MSJ.
Mr. CHRIS WHEELIS: Being a Rutland fan itself is, I respect them for wanting to hang around in the division and to compete. You know, and I wish them luck, you know.
PESCA: Having locked in taking guts, these concepts may seem many exits down a road of self-evaluation, when a typical MSJ player hasn't even left the driveway. Playing Division 2 or what some suggest based on enrollment size, Division 3 is simply ludicrous to senior Ben Benedict who was zoned to attend a medium-sized high school.
Mr. BEN BENEDICT: My school is Fair Haven D-2. I decided I would rather come to a Division 1 school, play football. And when they said that they were going to drop it, my heart sank. I was, like, this is the reason why I'm at this school. So if there's no program, there's no school. That is their tradition. (unintelligible) football.
PESCA: It may seem like that overstates it, but most of the players and Coach Forte echoed this line.
Mr. FORTE: So if the football program, you know, football program takes a turn for the south, man, things won't look too healthy for the school, seriously. And that, you know, and that's just a known fact.
PESCA: The academy, like many Catholic schools, is experiencing an enrollment crunch and the state of the economy doesn't help.
Senior center Chris Reedy, a bear-like lineman who still manages to be the first man down the field on punts, says playing for this team in this division is an obligation that goes way beyond the glory of a varsity letter.
Mr. CHRIS REEDY: I'm a very religious person. I always have been in life. I was brought up religious. So, going to a Catholic school wasn't by choice. I was told that I'm going to MSJ and I had no problem with it. I think if we win games this year, which we're going to win games, it's definitely going to help enrollment. People are going to see that we're still working hard, still have pride in our school, it's definitely going to help enrollment.
(Soundbite of cheerleaders)
Unidentified People: (unintelligible) We want our touchdown.
PESCA: That mission would start against the Hilltoppers.
(Soundbite of cheering)
PESCA: Down six, nothing at halftime, it seemed if only Johnny Bizer could break a big run or if Louis Altobell could pop the ball loose at a key moment, MSJ could write the fairytale. Instead, it was their opponent who drove the ball and pounced on the live fumble on the way to a 25-to-nothing victory. After the game, Coach Forte addressed his troops. He was impassioned, but not angry. He said but for one or two lapses…
Mr. FORTE: Those were mistakes. Those cost us. If we don't make those mistakes, it's a lot closer, all right? So, we're short those mistakes, fellas. Get a little better, a little quicker, we're in good shape. Got it?
Unidentified People: Yes, sir.
Mr. FORTE: Who had fun?
Unidentified Man: I had fun.
PESCA: A smattering of hands.
Mr. FORTE: Who had fun out there?
PESCA: All hands but one.
Mr. FORTE: Who didn't have fun? Why is that, Ben?
Mr. BENEDICT: I hate to lose, coach.
Mr. FORTE: Yeah, well, you know what? So do I, man. Believe me.
PESCA: That was Ben Benedict confessing he hates to lose. It was a moment of honesty in a season for a team that some say is kidding itself, but is going about its business with the utmost sincerity and purpose.
Mike Pesca, NPR News.
SIEGEL: We want to know about the high school football stories where you live. You can go to npr.org/football to find out how you can share your stories via email, Twitter and Flickr.
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