The old yellow school bus felt like a funeral home as we made our way from East Junior High Stadium to the Butte Civic Center.
The Butte Central Maroons just suffered a heartbreaking loss to the Butte High Bulldogs in what turned out to be the third-to-last football game the rivals played against each other.
Butte High won 41-6.
As a freshman on the BC team, I knew there was no chance I was going to get into the game. Still, I was crushed by the loss.
Nobody dared say a word on that dark and somber bus. The sophomores and juniors were too hurt to make a sound, and the freshmen were too scared.
We were, after all, yelled at repeatedly during the beating by coaches for not making enough noise on the sideline, as if “offense,” clap, clap, “offense” clap, clap would have made a difference.
Suddenly, the silence was broken by the sound of someone making a trumpet-like noise in the back of the bus. I believe it was Guy Ossello or Bear Stillwagon. They were two of the BC seniors who were hurting the worst.
The musical sound keyed the beginning of a song I had never heard before.
Going to BC games my whole life, the only fight song I heard was the one Notre Dame stole from the Maroons.
But after Bear or Guy’s cue, every sophomore through senior on the bus proudly sang the song “All Hail Central” as if the Maroons had just won.
Butte High just beat Central for the 16th straight time. The Maroons had not gotten the best of the Bulldogs since Ron “Swede” Kenison’s Maroons beat Butte High 8-0 in 1973.
The 1981 game went to overtime, but some of those games in between were not close.
A friend and fellow writer from out of town was recently asking me questions while he was researching Class A football stats.
After looking through season after season of stats, schedules and results, he asked the following question: “Why did Butte Central open their season with Butte High every year if they always got their asses kicked?”
To me, the answer was easy.
“Because they always believed they were going to win,” I said.
Not every team claims such belief.
One time I talked with a former Helena High quarterback. In a moment of candor, he tried to explain why Helena Capital dominated the Bengals during his time at the school.
“We always hoped we would beat Capital,” the quarterback said. “Capital knew they were going to beat us.”
That belief can make all the difference.
I can only personally speak for the 1989 Maroons because that was the only season I was on the team. Their tradition, though, tells me that those Maroons were not alone in knowing they would beat the Bulldogs.
The weeks of two-a-day practices at the old Civic Center baseball fields in August of 1989 would have made a more compelling “Hard Knocks” than any of the HBO series on NFL teams as the coaching staff beat that tradition into us.
Nobody understood that tradition more than 25-year-old Don Peoples Jr., who was in his first year as head coach of the Maroons. He had a coaching staff that suffered from a lack of “good cops,” but not from a lack of motivation.
Peoples talked to the team about history. He preached to us about pride. He hammered down the importance of commitment to living up to that pride and tradition.
The coaches hit us with that for the two or three weeks leading up to the season opener against the Bulldogs.
For the first part of the game, the Maroons were playing with the Bulldogs. BC got the initial first down of the game when Steve McCarthy completed a 15-yard pass to Damon O’Neill.
The Bulldogs took the lead on a Brian Anderson touchdown run. Then Brian Michelotti scored for Butte High. Then Chuck Haynes.
When Haynes scored again in the third quarter, the Bulldogs led 28-0.
Central’s Dan Walsh followed by barreling into the end zone for an 8-yard touchdown run, and the Maroons again had hope.
When the clock ran out on the third quarter, we raised four fingers high and yelled “foooouuuur,” believing that the fourth quarter really did belong to us.
The only other scores in the game, however, came from the Bulldogs — Anderson on a short run and Jeff Garrett on a long one.
By the time the clock hit zero in the fourth quarter, we were demoralized. Belief was replaced with shock. A game we thought would be an historic win was instead a humiliating loss.
The season turned out to be less-than-memorable for both teams. Butte High finished at 5-5, while Butte Central went 4-4.
Central’s record included a loss in Anaconda to the mighty Copperheads. Anaconda was a Class A power then, and the sense of belief was not as strong going to that game as it was going to the Butte High game.
We hoped to win that game, but if they were to speak honestly, nobody really believed we were going to win.
Maybe Butte Central would have been better off opening that season against Belgrade and picking up a win. That early-season boost could have been what the Maroons needed to make the playoffs.
It probably is not a coincidence that BC’s remarkable run of playoff appearances started after the Bulldogs and Maroons canceled “Butte’s Big Game,” as Pat Kearney called it, following Butte High’s 62-20 win over Butte Central.
It certainly is a fair question to ask. Also, nobody on either side has made any kind of push to bring the game back, and you can pretty much guarantee at this point that the Maroons and Bulldogs will never again play each other on the football field.
That reality is too bad for those who never got the chance to live through the week of that big game. I went to so many of those games believing that the Maroons would win, and I went home disappointed every time.
Each time, the anticipation was worth the heartache as a fan. I would venture to guess that the players would say the same.
Back in those days, the BC football team’s home base was at the Civic Center. That’s where it practiced and showered.
So, the Maroons had to take that old yellow school bus to games at East.
I was on that bus on Sept. 1, 1989 when BC made the journey to take on the Bulldogs. I looked into the eyes of players like Mark “Bubba” Venner, Tim Walsh, Eric Ryan, Mark Ashby and Mark Stajcar.
They were trained and ready to go. To a player, those guys knew they were going to beat the Bulldogs. They did not hope they would win. They absolutely knew they would.
That bus ride was exhilarating. That belief was contagious. That is why you play the game.
That is why the heartbreaking ride home was so worth it.
— Bill Foley, who has worn out two copies of Kearney’s book “Butte’s Big Game,” writes a column that appears Tuesdays on ButteSports.com. Email him at email@example.com. Follow him at twitter.com/Foles74.