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Opponents refuse to play on Branson’s hardscrabble football field. Now the town needs a(nother) miracle.

Can the small Colorado school district find a way to install a $400,000 artificial turf facility? History says don’t count them out.

The Branson Bearcats line up for the pregame anthem at their home field. Other teams in their 6-man division announced that they would no longer play on the hard, patchy surface, which they call a safety concern. So the small district raised money for an artificial turf field. (Provided by Branson School District)
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The athletic field at the far northeast corner of Branson’s town limits had sat mostly idle since the 1980s, when it was last used for baseball and still held memories as home to a 1967 high school championship team. Without baseball, any pretense to athletic glory literally turned to dust as the field blended with the region’s rough pastureland, dotted with tufts of prairie grass, mixed with rocks and garnished with thistles and cacti.

In 2016, when Branson High School finally cobbled together its first varsity football team — the scaled-down, six-man variety — this same parcel amid the ranchland near Colorado’s southern border became its gridiron, named Caldwell Field for the former superintendent who launched the team. 

Hope and enthusiasm nourished the program. But the five springs perched along the nearby mesa, which easily satisfy the thirst of the town’s 71 souls, couldn’t begin to reclaim a brutally hard, treacherously knobby and pocked surface laced with prickly surprises.The locals tried. Gym classes at the Branson School fanned out across the field and competed to see who could collect the most rocks. Dreamers laid down seed and fertilizer. Others targeted the spiny vegetation lurking on the 80-by-40 yard expanse. 

Nothing worked. Lush green grass remains a pipe dream. Pain is the enduring reality. 

“I’ve lost a lot of skin playing on that field,” says Isaac Provost, the 16-year-old junior who plays wide receiver for the Bearcats. “Mostly just from how hard it is. Getting tackled on dirt is not a pleasant experience.”

For five seasons the games have played out on the hardscrabble landscape. After a traditional Thursday night home-cooked team meal, after pickup trucks converge from distant ranches and back to the sidelines, both truck beds and folding chairs filled with cheering fans, Branson revels in the kind of community ritual reminiscent of Friday Night Lights — only mostly during afternoons, without the lights.

Thrilled just to be engaged in competition, players have embraced their circumstances. Nobody likes to play on their field — and in a strange way, that’s how the Bearcats like it.

“It’s definitely a big mental factor in our favor,” says 16-year-old junior quarterback Brody Doherty. “It’s a big part of our identity that we have such a rough field.”

A hard tackle in a Branson Bearcats 6-man football game kicks up a cloud of dust. The school near the New Mexico border doesn’t have sufficient water to grow thick turf, and now opponents are refusing to play on a field they consider unsafe. Branson now is trying to raise $400,000 for an artificial turf field. (Provided by Branson School District)

But about four weeks ago, as Colorado’s six-man football schools convened via Zoom call for one of its annual meetings to pick all-state teams and talk about scheduling and other matters, one coach veered off the agenda and announced that his team would no longer play on Branson’s home field. He cited safety concerns. Then several other coaches chimed in, seconding the notion that had long been brewing privately but never in any official forum.

The broadside caught Branson Athletic Director Brad Doherty, who’s also the quarterback’s dad, by surprise. With no chance to craft any kind of defense, he could respond only that the field had directly caused no major injuries. 

“Nothing where a kid twisted an ankle or landed on a rock,” he says. “Nothing justifiable to say it’s an unsafe thing. But schools don’t have to play somewhere they don’t want to play. You can’t force them to do what they don’t want to do.”

He understood the concern and, especially with Branson being the new kid in six-man football, didn’t feel he was in any position to press an argument.

“It’s by far the least manicured field we’ve ever played on,” Doherty admits, framing his description in the kindest possible terms. “Every other opponent is in farming country, where they have an aquifer or creek or well they can draw on.”

Faced with the undesirable alternative of finding some distant, neutral field to claim for future home games, Doherty resorted to one thing Branson can draw on — an indomitable attitude and the willingness to think big. In short order, he organized an ambitious campaign to achieve the improbable: raise enough private funds to install an artificial turf field that would be among the first in the state’s southern region to host a six-man football program.

Estimated cost: a mere $250,000 — for the field alone.

Doherty immediately corralled resources — mainly students in the K-12 Branson School — and produced a YouTube video that pokes fun at the town’s lack of entertainment options. He even includes a scene in which elementary school kids play the role of a school board screaming in horror at the cost of an artificial field. In this case, life pretty much did imitate art.

“When I told them the sticker price,” says Doherty, who’s also a member of the board, “they almost did have that screaming response.”

Once Doherty convened a leadership team to sketch out the details, the price ballooned to closer to $450,000, when additional items like fencing, goalposts, scoreboard, bleachers, picnic area and an elevated announcer’s booth were added to the equation. The addition of those finishing touches, the group reasoned, would make the project an instant community hub and more attractive to potential large donors.

“In talking to several contractors who are part of our leadership team, they’d give us significant discounts on just about everything,” Doherty says. “We’re convinced our figures will ultimately be much less.”

How to help: bransonschooldistrict.com/football

How does a town of a few dozen residents make all this happen? 

Believe, that’s the first step. Then call on local experts with big-dollar foundation experience. Connect with area contractors to see what sort of in-kind donations might reduce costs. Then spread the word and crowdfund.

Organizers have broken the project into three $150,000 increments: private donors; grants and foundations; and school funds, athletes families plus in-kind contributions. The revised budget calls for $350,000 for the field installation.

For overall fundraising purposes, they’ve even broken down the cost to the inch — $125 each, so even small donors can claim a piece of the field — and so far have brought in nearly $58,000.

“When you look at it from the outside, I understand it looks like a giant project that will never get done,” says Adam Lucero, the Bearcats’ second-year head coach. “But when it’s broken down and you look at the details, it’s achievable.” 

Besides, it’s not like Branson has never bucked the odds before. Less than two years ago, its very existence was threatened by the desperate need for a new water filtration system. The million-dollar cost could have wiped the town off the map, or at least dug it unsustainably into debt. The town managed to find and implement an affordable solution.

The memory of that underdog triumph is still fresh in Doherty’s mind.

“Our goal,” he says with calm optimism, “is to raise money and have a contract (for an artificial field) by the end of February.”

Branson High School’s football field is described by both locals and opponents as “pasture” — and sparse pasture at that. When the field gets chewed up from sustained play, its even worse. (Provided by Branson School District)

“A pasture you stick cows in”

There’s not a lot of disagreement about the condition of the playing field in Branson — whether it’s visitors or locals offering the description.

“I could describe it exactly, as a pasture you stick cows in,” says Lucero, who lives 40 miles down the highway in the town of Kim, which combines its students with Branson for sports. “I’m not saying it’s the worst in America, but it’s top 10.”

He doesn’t have to look far to get an amen to that. Last fall, Granada High School, near the Kansas border, trekked to Branson and got its first look at the field. Even though Granada trounced the Bearcats, Coach Traegon Marquez and Athletic Director Manuel Gonzales Jr. had seen enough — and determined they’d bring up safety concerns at the six-man football schools’ annual Zoom meeting.

“We had heard it was not in great condition because of water issues, but then we got there and whoa, it was kind of shocker,” Gonzales says. “It was majority dirt, and really wasn’t a playable field.”

Joe Headley, the athletic director at Manzanola, about two and a half hours north in the fertile Arkansas Valley, takes Lucero’s description of a pasture and doubles down. 

“And when I talk about pasture grass, they could maybe, if they were lucky, graze some cattle once every 20 years on it — and I’m talking one cow out there,” he says. “That’s how sparse it is. It just gets powder dry. We were cleaning dirt out of our kids’ helmets a month after we played there.”

Knowing the condition of the Branson field, Headley took precautions when his school played there. He walked the ground before the game, filling in what holes he could. And Manzanola trainers made sure to tape every player’s ankles as a preventative measure to avoid injuries from the treacherous footing. For a school on a tight budget, that meant added expense: It took an entire case of tape, $65 worth, to prepare Manzanola for that onegame.

“I’m not sure how Brad’s kids have stayed healthy, to be honest with you,” Headley says. “It’s not only ankles and knees, but with all that dust, I don’t know how their breathing hasn’t suffered. Our kids made sure they had their inhalers that day. It was that bad.” 

Yet, this is the parched hand Branson has been dealt. And opposing coaches do understand the climate issues that make natural turf nearly impossible, and the drought that has exacerbated conditions. Even more, they appreciate the community spirit behind the nascent program, which started in 2014 with two junior varsity seasons that featured only away games. 

After three varsity seasons in which it won just five total games, the Bearcats went 8-2 in 2019, including an appearance in the state playoffs, and then 4-3 in 2020’s COVID-adjusted season. With a core of four returning seniors, Branson has high hopes for 2021.

In this quadrant of the state, just fielding a team presents a monumental challenge. 

Headley notes that south of U.S. 50 and east of Pueblo, only three Colorado schools have enough enrollment to play 11-man football. There used to be more than a dozen. As student numbers dwindled, programs shifted to eight-man, then six-man versions of the sport.

Branson has been encouraged by rising enrollment and interest among aspiring players. This past season, 27 kids at the high school and junior high level participated, hinting that football could prove a more sustainable undertaking than green grass.

It’s one of those fields where you feel for them, it’s out of their hands. They just don’t have the water.”

Manuel Gonzales Jr., athletic director at Granada High School

Even at the smaller level, towns have a lot of pride invested in the fall ritual.

“People drive 50 miles for a game, park along the sidelines, sit in camping chairs or in their pickup trucks,” Brody Doherty, who’ll be one of those seniors, says proudly. “It’s a fantastic experience having them cheer for you.”

The mere fact that Branson is committed to sustaining a program at all draws the respect of other towns in the region. Nobody blames the town for its lousy field.

“It’s one of those fields where you feel for them, it’s out of their hands,” Granada’s Gonzales says. “They just don’t have the water.”

One time they actually did have moisture, when a blanket of snow covered the field before a game against Briggsdale two seasons ago, the snow coupled with warming temperatures to create a ridiculously sloppy surface. 

“You’d be laughing more than cheering,” Lucero recalls of what became known simply as “The Mud Game,” when both players and officials went slip-sliding across the field. “It wasn’t an advantage for us — it was our first time playing on it that bad, too. But it kind of played to our identity. We were almost proud of it, that we were able to go out in a virtual mud patch and win. It was a memory the kids will have for the rest of their lives.” 

As bad as the game field might be, Branson’s practice field is worse. The plot adjacent to where the Bearcats host competition is nothing but dirt and prairie dog condos. Lucero says he has on occasion been demonstrating a drill to his players and suddenly found himself shin-deep in a hole, even though there’s an ongoing effort to fill them. 

Still, the team practices on a dirt patch rather than subject its marginally-better game field to additional cleat traffic that would deteriorate its condition even more. The practice field also serves as parking for the vehicles of visiting fans.

So there’s general agreement that Branson’s football facilities are lacking. But that didn’t take the sting out of the sudden announcement on the Zoom meeting of coaches and athletic directors that schools were finally ready to draw the line.  

“We might’ve ruffled a few feathers,” Granada’s Gonzales says, “but it needed to be said and addressed.”

And that’s where Branson stands now — kicking its fundraising efforts into overdrive in a frantic attempt to create a future for football, and possibly additional outdoor sports, in Colorado’s southernmost town. Of course, a new field would mean letting go of the tough-guy aura the team adopted.

Lucero can live with that.

“Don’t get me wrong,” he says. “I’d love brand new turf. Being in sports, you have to look at the glass half full no matter where you’re at. I try to use it to our advantage, that our kids are tougher because of what they play on, and get the kids to buy into that. 

“But if we can build a turf field, we’ll take pride in that as well. If I had to choose, I’m choosing brand new turf every time. But I will respect our beginnings, where we came from.”

Branson Bearcats players run through drills on their practice field, a patch of dirt even more barren than their primary game field. (Provided by Branson School District)

Taking water out of the equation

In a small town where leaders invariably wear many hats, Brad Doherty, a Princeton-educated economics major and relative of generations of ranchers, serves as P.E. teacher, assistant football coach, school IT expert (in a district that was among the original adopters of online learning), town internet service provider and local pastor. 

But one of his biggest professional challenges came in his role as Branson’s water co-commissioner. 

Those five springs nestled amid the mesas along the Colorado-New Mexico border have served the community well dating back to its early days, when a ready supply of water burnished its status as a railroad stop to feed the steam engines that chugged through the region. That supply also provided plentiful drinking water for the townspeople. 

When steam engines became obsolete, railroad interests sold their water rights to Doherty’s great-grandfather, who used the water for his ranch and cattle operation. He agreed to share the bounty with the town.

But in 2018, Branson found itself in a tight spot. To meet new, tightened water-quality standards, the town needed a new filtration system. Cost of a viable, traditional solution was estimated at $1.1 million. Dividing that kind of debt burden among just a few dozen users simply wouldn’t work.

A last-ditch phone call to a Rocky Ford company that manufactures relatively inexpensive filtration systems for developing countries revealed some new technology that could solve Branson’s problem for a fraction of the traditional cost. Total price: $76,000.

So the town moved forward with an online crowdfunding effort. State grant money pushed the effort across the finish line, and in a matter of months the town found itself back in compliance and unburdened by additional debt. 

Branson swelled with civic pride as the small town that could.

Slaking the thirst of nearly 30,000 square feet of football field presents quite a different problem. The solution to the town’s drinking water needs didn’t really address the quantity of water necessary to coax playable natural turf from the dry earth.

Doherty, whose father played on that championship Branson baseball team on this field back in 1967, researched ways to move forward with natural grass and reached out to a number of sod companies.

The math was pretty straightforward: A thick, green turf field requires about 61,000 gallons of water every other day; Branson’s water system generates about 14,000 gallons per day.

“When I told them how many gallons we could supply,” he says, “the conversations ended.”

Read more Colorado Sun stories about inspiring Coloradans.

That’s when he turned his attention to artificial turf, soliciting bids from companies in both Pueblo and Colorado Springs. The playing surface itself isn’t cost prohibitive, but the installation is where things get pricey.

Initial excavation to level the ground wouldn’t be a huge cost, Doherty figures, since the grade of the current field isn’t much of an issue. Then installers incrementally lay in five inches of road base, a drainage system, a cushioning pad and then the artificial turf atop that. Then comes the infill, the tiny rubberized particles that add even more cushion.

The installation doesn’t take long.

“If we write a check, we can have a field in 60 days,” Doherty says. “It’s quick if they work in their slow season.”

The surface is designed to last 15-25 years, Doherty says, depending on use. He anticipates the relatively light use in a town the size of Branson would make the field “at least a 20-year solution.” And with the base already in place, replacement materials cost just a fraction of the original installation.

If Branson is able to pull this off, they’d share first-in-the-area honors with La Veta, whose artificial-turf, six-man field was recently completed — a little too late for them to play on it last season. But La Veta benefited both from a bond issue and from the Building Excellent Schools Today program, which doles out construction and renovation money in the form of BEST grants, as the district replaces its entire K-12 school. 

Some of that money can be earmarked for sports facilities. The football field, complete with lights, is tucked into a budget that exceeds $40 million. It will have the town’s name painted in the end zones, and the “LV” logo at midfield when play begins next fall. Also among the school’s other renovations: its nickname. The former Redskins are now the Redhawks.

Like Branson, La Veta has water issues. But Athletic Director Chris Locke figures his town is far better off than Branson on that count. He was shocked to see the condition of the Bearcats’ home field, and concurs with Doherty that artificial turf is the only viable answer.

The Branson Bearcats 6-man high school football team says a prayer on their home field, where other schools have announced that they’ll no longer play because of safety concerns. (Provided by Branson School District)

“I’d say Branson needs that,” he says. “Their water situation is probably more dire than ours. We’re closer to the mountains, so we get some snow melt. But when we played them, it was really dry out there.”

The initial, quarter-million-dollar price tag was received by the Branson school board “with shock and awe,” Doherty recalls, but the board didn’t dismiss the idea out of hand and encouraged further exploration.

“We did everything we could do to improve the field naturally, but we don’t have the liquid resources to make that happen,” he says. “They’re open to this idea because they recognize it’s important for our community and all our kids.”

He stresses that it’s not just about football. Suddenly, the school could think about adding other varsity sports, like soccer. It would have an outdoor surface more suitable for P.E. classes and outdoor school events. Grants might be a possibility for add-ons like bleachers and maybe a track around the playing surface. But in terms of the initial installation, the grant process flows too slowly.

And for Doherty, that means in time for next season. It’s not that the program faces an existential crisis. If things don’t fall into place that quickly, the program will continue with home games moved to a neutral site. In fact, on the Zoom call that changed everything, the athletic director for the Primero School District, about 70 miles to the west, messaged Doherty that Branson could use his school’s field to host “home” games.

And though Doherty remains all-in on the effort to procure the artificial turf field, that option he’s holding in reserve, just in case. Primero, a town in western Las Animas County, is Branson’s closest opponent, geographically. 

“For us,” the AD says, “that’s like going to get groceries, a few miles past the Safeway in Trinidad.”

But right now, Doherty dreams big, and fast. If the project is to take advantage of getting on an installer’s schedule and have work completed in time for practice in August, it needs to secure a work slot during the company’s slow season. Hence, the goal of a February contract.

Who might be able to help with funds? 

Doherty suggests that perhaps the well-off hunters who pay handsomely for the privilege of hunting on area ranchland might be interested in helping out the community where they come to play. Does somebody have an old college roommate who hit it big? Anyone run cattle on land owned by some well-heeled out-of-state interests? 

It never hurts to ask.

“What we’re really hoping is to find some generous, big givers,” Doherty says. “This project has more of an emotional attachment than even our town water project did.”  

And outside of the players, maybe no one feels that emotional tug more than he does.

“We’ve got four seniors next year, and one is my son, so I got a dog in the fight here,” Doherty says. “I’d love for him and his classmates to play their senior year here, not on neutral fields somewhere else.”

The town’s ability to solve its other water crisis inspires hope. But Doherty acknowledges that the drinking water filtration system was a whole different animal, and a whole different scale.

“That’s municipal stuff,” he says. “But knowing that people out there can listen to our story and contribute, this is not 100% new territory. It’s nice to have a success story in our back pocket.”

Headley, the athletic director at Manzanola, already has plans to urge all his players to view Branson’s YouTube video and share it to broaden the appeal. In the world of six-man football, he explains, one town’s success is everyone’s success. An artificial turf field might be Branson’s home, but Headley imagines all the kids in the region who would savor the experience of playing on a surface they may only have seen on television.

“With small schools, it’s sorta like family,” he says. “We fight like cats and dogs, but when it comes down to it, if somebody is up against it, everybody tries to pitch in and help out.”

Headley worries that Doherty may be “swinging at a piñata that’s not there” with this fundraising effort, and figures that maybe the only way he could effectively boost his rival’s material fortunes is to win the Powerball. He pauses for a moment and considers that, in the way anyone permits themselves a blissful moment of what-if. And then he affirms his good intentions.

“If I won, I’d give him a quarter-million dollars in a heartbeat,” he says firmly. “Because it benefits kids. He’s not only trying to benefit his kids, but every kid who plays at his facility.”