What a feeling it must have been to look in the mirror Saturday morning and see a state champion Butte High Bulldog smiling back.
Congratulations, guys. You earned it.
The improbables added up to such a sum that a 38-36 State AA football championship game victory over Bozeman hardly seemed plausible, dream able or remotely possible, if one thought too long and too hard about it all.
Fans weren’t in much of a thinking mood Friday night at overflowing Naranche Stadium in Uptown Butte. They were celebration mode, especially after Jake Dennehy’s 46-yard field goal kick dropped over the crossbar and between the uprights, falling parallel to the support pole of the goalposts as time blinked to all zeroes on the game clock.
The skeptics, raised on decades of negativity that sops journalism newsrooms, couldn’t help but look for the teleprompters rolling credits at the end of this Lifetime Channel movie. Oh, but it was real.
It was bona fide. It was genuine. It seems to have been the best football game and a pinnacle accomplished witnessed by one sideliner who’s been going to football games for more than 50 years.
It was a championship cheered boisterously by the 1991 gang from the same school as it rocked from behind the Bulldog bench and poured energy into the new kids on the block …
And on the tackle and the run and pass and the ….
Nineteen ninety-one was the last time a Butte High football team won a state title and its effort broke a 10-year state championship drought in the sport for the school, the longest such stretch until the 21-year one snuffed out on Friday by this year’s heroes.
Dennehy almost didn’t get to kick the game-winner. A painful shoulder problem limited his duty to kicking and punting and occasional tackling, but only if he was the last Butte man standing between the opposing return man and the goal line. Plus, he aggravated the hurting Friday by having to make just such a tackle. If he’d been a junior or younger, he might not have been medically allowed to participate at all.
Running back Zach Bunney was fighting leukemia most of the 2011 season before returning to the Butte High huddle to bring important runs, receptions and touchdowns to the offense, and lending spirited play to the defense as a corner. While battling the cancer, the determined boy curled barbells and rode the exercise bike as he listened to Bulldog games on the radio in his Spokane hospital room. He felt he needed to be doing something too while his teammates were trying to win games, he related to those following his courageous comeback.
Running back Jake Eisenbarth didn’t get to play Friday night due to a concussion incurred in the overtime semifinal-round win over C.M. Russell of Great Falls the week before, and hard-nosed defensive stalwart and fullback Bo Taylor missed much of the title tilt after being hurt during play. His smash mouth finish of a run up the middle in the second quarter against Bozeman helped set a tough, aggressive tone for the rest of the thriller.
So, it would seem so much adversity had built up against Butte High that prevailing in this scene would seem to be greatly unlikely.
The Bulldogs pulled it out with coaching, execution and an astonishing amount of poise shown by high school boys. The defense was challenged by a very athletic, talented and good-sized Bozeman team but held the Hawks away from scoring just enough to keep it from being too much. The senior Butte High offensive line, held together by muscular hard-workers, put forth an effort like it needed to toil an extra shift to buy shoes for the family. Junior quarterback Dallas Cook was cool at the controls of an offense that made good use of Bunney, and receivers Tyler Earles, Jon Allen, Bryce Armstrong and Dalton Daum when exactly that was needed.
So, with a good 8,000 or so spectators bearing witness, the scene was anchored for what in the future will be historic recognition. The Bulldogs proved to be champions. Certainly, the Bozeman Hawks cannot be forgotten as they certainly proved to be championship-game caliber.
The goalpost, the one erected next to Main Street at the Butte High campus location, drew focus at the end of the game, being the target successfully split by Dennehy’s kick. Senior defensive back Nate Matteson kept looking toward that way several moments after the game ended.
“The last 10 seconds seemed like two hours,” he said. “It was pretty much slow motion. (The score) was so close. This is unbelievable.”
Matteson was particularly key in the first half with some middle-of-the field stops of runs and breaking up passes to add to the sputters Bozeman suffered a bit on offense. It helped Butte High gain a little momentum, enough for the Bulldogs to be in position to win at the end.
“I didn’t know what we were doing,” Matteson said, alluding to head coach Arie Grey’s bold decision to play for the field goal on the last drive of the game. “This has been the longest day of my life.”
He continued to peer at the goalpost. Much of the day was spent agonizing the moments of too much duration in just getting to the kickoff. Then, the game arrived and the play was fast, but that final kick did seem to take an awfully long time finding its landing spot just over the crossbar, and, most importantly, between the uprights.
For most of the seniors, it capped probably the fastest four years of their lives. The memory, though, of achieving improbable, yet deserving, achievement in this relentless manner, will be a precious possession that can never be confiscated or robbed from them.
It is theirs.