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The Branson community poses for a photo of their groundbreaking ceremony on April 7, 2021, on the "worst field in America," where two months from now a synthetic turf gridiron will replace the rutted rangeland where the high school team has played 6-man football for the last six seasons. (Provided by Branson School District)

Since resurrecting its six-man football program in 2016, coaches and players at tiny Branson High School took perverse pride in playing on a rut-and-rock strewn pasture they claimed as the worst field in America. Opponents offered no argument — and last winter announced their refusal to play any further games on the dry patch of rangeland they considered a safety hazard.

With the ability to play home games anywhere near their home in Colorado’s southernmost town in serious jeopardy, Branson athletic director Brad Doherty needed a miracle. So the community went out and manufactured one, piecing together donations of all sizes and some considerable grants to build the solution to the water-starved expanse no one — including some of the Bearcats — cared to play on.

On Wednesday morning, the town of 72 souls will break ground on a $535,000, state-of-the-art complex on the site of its much-maligned Caldwell Field. The new facility will feature an artificial turf playing field, quarter-mile walking path, scoreboard, announcer’s box and picnic pavilion — all the result of a whirlwind, three-month fundraising campaign that quickly gained momentum from media reports of the underdog effort.

“My original thought was it’s gonna take us a couple years, and we’re gonna have to play this season somewhere else,” Doherty said. “But literally within a couple of days of announcing our predicament somebody stepped up to donate the goal posts and some other things. And I’m thinking, ‘Gosh, I didn’t even have to ask you for that.’ If there’s that kind of generosity out there without me asking, I think we can get this done.”

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

The project marked the second time in the last few years that Branson punched above its weight when it came to cobbling together facilities to ensure that the remote town just a stone’s throw from the New Mexico border can not only survive, but prosper. Doherty also spearheaded the effort, reinforced by creative crowdfunding, to replace a water filtration system deemed unsafe by state health officials.

That was an existential crisis of infrastructure. The football complex, which actually will serve as a multi-use facility for the community, may not fill the same kind of critical need, but the story of kids having to possibly travel hours to find a substitute home field certainly struck a chord in Colorado and beyond.

“Infrastructure and water doesn’t pull on heartstrings,” Doherty said. “The idea of that opportunity being taken away, that’s what spoke to people’s hearts more than the need to put in a water filter.”

A town that told its story

The Colorado Sun first reported on the challenge facing Branson, which is so small it combines with the nearby town of Kim for many activities, in January, shortly after a meeting of area coaches and athletic directors stunned Doherty with the news that they would no longer agree to play on Branson’s field. The story spread quickly, resulting in an outpouring of public support for what appeared the only viable long-term solution — synthetic turf. Ideally, that would take the place of the sparse, parched range grass and cacti on a parcel where the amount of water required to grow anything else proved more than the town could supply.

After the Sun article, Doherty said, the town used the public response as a springboard and sought to tell its story far and wide, particularly among Front Range TV stations. Denver 9News anchor Kyle Clark’s regular feature “Word of Thanks” provided the single biggest financial boost, an avalanche of $82,000 in grassroots donations, Doherty added.

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)

As word spread — the story even found a national audience at USA Today — foundations saw a good fit for their mission and reached out to Doherty. The Daniels Fund urged Branson to apply for a $75,000 grant. The El Pomar Foundation came through with $20,000. The Braly Family Foundation provided $25,000 plus an equal matching grant, which a private donor quickly stepped up to activate within days.

A Pueblo native living in New York state contributed $50,000. Meanwhile, smaller donations poured in and added to significant in-kind donations toward construction. Even international donors heard about the town’s plight and rushed to help.

Doherty says Branson has applied for a few more grants, but the money in hand will completely cover the $430,000 cost of the football field. 

“We have enough to play football this fall,” Doherty said. “It’s exciting. Our story told itself, spoke to people’s hearts and kept building. We put in a lot of long hours filling out grant applications, but it all went faster than we thought.”

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 opponents refused to play on a field they consider unsafe. In three months, Branson raised $535,000 to pay for a new synthetic turf field and other amenities. (Provided by Branson School District)

Shortly after early publicity triggered donation of the goalposts and some other items, Doherty suspected that the gargantuan project actually had a chance of success. He put together a community leadership team that devised a plan — and key to the process was a man named Charlie Forster, grandfather to two of Branson’s players and a former board member at El Pomar.

“He sat down and said, ‘Here’s the road map,’” Doherty said. “There was not an ounce of doubt in his mind that we’d get this done. We followed his path and it worked as he said it would, as far as applying for grants and telling our stories.”

Forster, battling advanced-stage cancer, didn’t live to see the project come to fruition. He died a couple months ago, but Doherty kept him abreast of the campaign’s progress, even exchanging emails the week before he died. So Forster knew that the effort was destined for success.

“We’d gotten a significant amount of the funds raised, and I was able to let him know we’d raised $300,000 as fast as we did,” Doherty said. “That blew everybody’s mind. So I shared that amazing news with him.”

A three-part project

The project will unfold in three phases, with the football field starting construction Wednesday and scheduled for completion two months later. Branson’s first home game of the 2021 season is scheduled for Sept. 10 or 11.

A second phase will install a compacted gravel walking path around the field that locals can use for walking or jogging. The only paved area where people currently walk is the highway that runs through town. Eventually, the hope is that the walking path can be replaced by a 400-meter track.

The third phase of the project will be the pavilion and picnic area. Doherty said that once the plans became fully formed, the response from the community was “overwhelmingly positive.”

Branson Bearcats run through drills on their practice field, a patch of dirt even more barren than their game field. Still, they practice here to minimize cleat traffic that might make the main field even worse. (Provided by Branson School District)

“There were a couple of doubters and a couple of folks that didn’t understand why we were going to try to raise this much money for one sport,” he said, “unless we showed people this is more than just a football field. We’re going to be doing things with the school, with community events, with all sorts of things. We have big dreams for what this facility is going to be and what it means to the town. Once people got a hold of that, we have just had amazing levels of support.”

Friends and opponents alike have stood behind Branson’s effort — including, Doherty said, a coach who was the first to refuse to play on the old field. 

“He reached out to me,” Doherty said. “Within a couple of weeks, he was one of the first to make a donation to the project. Several other coaches have. They spread our stories in their communities. It’s been a really neat thing.”

Joe Headley, the longtime Manzanola High School athletic director, praised Doherty’s ability to shepherd the dream to reality and noted that Branson’s success ultimately is the success of every small school in the region.

“They have something shiny to show off next year,” Headley said. “Whenever a small town has something new and shiny to show off, it gets other schools thinking they can do that. It sets the bar higher. Those are generational type things. To have that new facility is going to benefit every kid who’s able to play on it, regardless of what team they represent.

“There can be no complaints about Branson’s field now,” he added. “I’m happy and excited. My son gets to play on it.”

So does AD Doherty’s son, Brody. He’ll play his senior season on what now will be a regional showcase instead of an eyesore. And while Branson’s players embraced their dry and ragged field as a symbol of the toughness it took to survive playing on it, Brody notes that at least three players who had taken a break from football have voiced their intent to rejoin the team next season.

“I don’t know why they quit, but I know why they’re coming back,” Brody laughed, looking forward to finishing his high school football career on a high note. “When you only have a roster of 12 players, that’s a big swing. I don’t want to count our eggs before they hatch, but I’m pretty optimistic about our chances.”

Kevin Simpson is a co-founder of The Colorado Sun and a general assignment writer and editor. He also oversees the Sun’s literary feature, SunLit, and the site’s cartoonists. A St. Louis native and graduate of the University of Missouri’s...