BRANSON — Whatever drama surrounded Saturday’s matchup of unbeaten six-man high school football teams did not last long. The Branson/Kim Bearcats scored early and often and dominated Deer Trail on the way to a 72-14 victory.
But the Bearcats had cause to celebrate even before the kickoff. Seven years after the school resurrected its six-man football program, the players for the first time set foot on home turf (AstroTurf, to be precise) that did not carry the dangers of rocks, ruts and the occasional cactus.
The improbable story of the financing and construction of the field culminated in a festival atmosphere that locals described as the biggest community event in memory — a pregame ribbon cutting and postgame party to mark a $535,000 project that came together in a matter of only a few months.
That it all happened with a resounding triumph came as a relief to players and coaches who didn’t want to disappoint upwards of 400 fans — a remarkable turnout — who looked on from the beds of pickup trucks, on blankets or in camp chairs that hugged the home sideline. The town that officially counts 57 residents according to the 2020 Census shrugged off 90-degree heat to christen the new facility.
The consolidated team that combines kids from towns 42 miles apart also said farewell to the patch of rangeland that players and coaches acknowledged, with a glimmer of pride, constituted the worst football field in America. But in this picturesque ranch country, there was really no natural, viable alternative to the dusty, wind-whipped pasture. Although the town has plentiful drinking water from springs beneath the mesa that rises to the south, there isn’t nearly enough to maintain a grass football field.
Having little choice, players wore the scrapes and scratches inflicted by their field as badges of honor. But other schools in the region last winter shocked the town with the announcement that they were no longer willing to play on a gridiron they considered unsafe.
That left Branson Athletic Director Brad Doherty with a couple of options. He could find a more hospitable “home” field on a neutral site miles away. Or, he could rally the town to raise nearly a half-million dollars to purchase and install synthetic turf.
Doherty embraced Option B — and never looked back.
By mobilizing donors, appealing for both public and foundation support and framing the effort as the ultimate rural underdog story, he attracted support for a project that may be centered on football, but ultimately aims to create a multi-use facility. In addition to the field, plans call for a quarter-mile walking path and picnic pavilion to be constructed in phases after a seemingly impossible $535,000 goal was met after a three-month fundraising blitz.
But the first completed phase of the project — field, scoreboard, press box — turned Branson from the sleepy southernmost dot on the Colorado map into the hub of a celebration.
The festival atmosphere that consumed Branson on Saturday celebrated a small town’s — and specifically, Doherty’s — uncanny ability to think big. A driving force in the community who everyone affectionately calls “Mr. Brad,” Doherty charted a course that brought in lots of grassroots support. More than 4,200 donors contributed an average of $27 each.
He also followed the “road map” set forth by a man named Charlie Forster, grandfather to two of Branson’s players and a former board member at the El Pomar Foundation in Colorado Springs. Doherty was in touch with Forster just weeks before the campaign reached it goal, but he died of cancer before it came to fruition.
In a pregame ceremony that offered a long list of thank-yous, though, Doherty’s leadership drew especially emphatic applause.
“When Brad first came to me, I’m embarrassed to say, I was a nonbeliever,” Bearcats varsity head coach Adam Lucero said. “When he told me that first cost figure I told my wife, ‘He’s crazy.’ Then the first month rolled by, and I realized: He’s gonna get this done. I think that’s when everybody started to get on board. They saw how determined Brad was.”
Doherty, who also serves as the school district’s IT director, the town’s water commissioner and as a local pastor, deflected credit elsewhere.
“It’s testimony to your generosity and God working in the hearts of each and every one of you,” he said.
The ceremony also honored victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Marines recently killed by a bombing in Afghanistan and — in a reflection of shared small-town culture — the four teens who died in a traffic crash in the Eastern Plains town of Wiley.
Then the Bearcats got down to football and delivered their own thank you to the home fans with an energized performance that staked them to a 57-6 lead — by halftime.
This wasn’t the first time Branson bucked the odds. Two years ago, through crowdfunding and grants and with an assist from new technology, Doherty found a solution to Branson’s drinking water filtration problem — an issue that could have saddled residents with untenable debt.
A shoddy football field wasn’t exactly an existential crisis, but the project’s resonance spoke to the unifying power of rural rituals like small-town athletics.
“Sports in general just brings the community out,” said Jennifer Keeler, a social studies teacher at the Branson School who had one son who grew up playing on the old field and another, Bo, who attends school in Kim and plays on the current consolidated team. “People who haven’t had kids in school for 20 years will still come out to watch. It’s just good to see the kids work at something and prove themselves.”
Game day dawns
By 9 a.m. on Saturday, Brad Doherty already had been long at work putting the finishing touches on the public address system, mapping out a parking plan for an unusually large crowd and hooking up a wireless connection to the elevated press box.
“Internet,” he said, “so we can stream the game.”
He was joined by his son, 17-year-old starting quarterback Brody Doherty, whose impact on the game would begin with pregame chores.
“If your last name’s Doherty,” Doherty quipped, “you’re guaranteed to have a job on game day.”
The space around the school and Caldwell Field gradually filled with volunteers of all ages. Andy and Molly Castillo, who have grandsons that play on the school’s junior high team, welded a handrail on the stairs to the press box while a generator rumbled in the background. They donated both the structure and the goal posts to the effort.
Rob Pickard, who runs cattle and also teaches shop at the Branson School tended to “dirt work” around the field. Eventually, the bare-earth apron will be covered by strips of artificial turf.
“We need a few more days,” Pickard said of the many last-minute details getting attention, “but we’ll get most of it done to be able to play. The field’s there, so we can work around the rest.”
A student-run concession stand sprouted beneath a canopy for shade. A gas grill fired up nearby to prepare for the barbecue that, along with a concert, would put a cap on the event.
A man strolled to the middle of the field and took in the view.
“Mind-boggling,” said Brad Caldwell, the former and now once again current superintendent of the Branson School District.
He wore an orange T-shirt favored by the Branson faithful. “Welcome home, Bearcats” it proclaimed on the front. “Clear eyes, full heart, can’t lose,” the mantra made popular in “Friday Night Lights,” was printed on the back.
He said he feels fortunate to have his name attached to the new field. Of course, he also had his name attached to the old field, which the school board named in his honor upon his retirement three years ago to recognize his work restarting the football program that had dissolved earlier for lack of participation.
He coached Branson in the first years of the sport’s rebirth, playing on the field where even soil experts said nothing like grass would grow in the native, salty earth. Caldwell, now 73, recalls a game when his quarterback jogged to the sidelines giving him what he thought was a thumbs-up. Turned out he had a cactus spine stuck in his hand.
“I told them it was our home-field advantage,” he said. “We knew where the holes were.”
He recently came out of retirement to lead the district again, and he’s reveling in a project that has brought renewed pride to the community. When Doherty came to him with the idea, Caldwell figured that maybe in two or three years they could get something done. But in less than a year?
“To have done this, in this short a time, just blows me away,” he said. “I’m pretty proud. Pretty humble, to be honest. I guess when people put their mind to something, the heart goes along.”
Wet weather meant delays
The relentless heat that scorched southern Colorado on Saturday morning served as a reminder why a synthetic turf field was the only viable option here. Beyond the shimmering green of the playing surface, cattle grazed on land that had turned mostly brown.
But once funding was secured for the project, the construction process was drenched in irony, as Pueblo-based Rocky Mountain Turf Solutions began the process of grooming that dry and dangerous patch of pasture for the surface that would eliminate all need for scarce water.
Then an unexpected development disrupted plans: snow and rain.
“When we originally met with Brad, one of the first questions was what’s the weather like down here, so we could figure out how long it would take us,” said Kent Hartman, co-owner of the company. “Brad’s comment was that it never rains downhere, it’s always dry. Then we ran into snowstorms. We’d show up for a week, have to pull off for a week or two to let it melt and dry out.”
Rain also played havoc with the schedule during an unusually wet spring and summer. The company had to mobilize a half-dozen times owing to the weather, delays that just about doubled the usual eight-week construction time and extended completion to mid-August.
Branson’s remote location also meant that the company had to do things a little differently. It rented two houses in town where its six-man crew stayed during weekdays. On Mondays, the workers would stop in Trinidad to pick up a week’s worth of supplies before heading 50 miles east across Las Animas County’s wide open spaces.
The setup made for logistical challenges, but it also made the workers feel especially invested in the project. Some days when school was in session they ate lunch with the students. (“It was like having home-cooked meals,” Hartman recalled.)
Five of the senior football players also pitched in when it came time to lay the first few panels of synthetic turf and the regular crew was called away on another project. One of the students, Fernando Gonzalez, stretched the opportunity into three months of work — and earned a job offer with the company once he graduates next spring.
He plans to take it, and join the company where his stepfather, Carlos Duran, also earned a full-time position during the installation. Meanwhile, he likely stands as one of the few high school players who can say he helped build the field he now plays on.
“It feels great to build a field for the many teams that come after me,” he said, “and to keep the tradition going.”
Hartman can’t imagine ever doing a project that feels like this again.
“As close as everybody was — the school, the community — just the unique opportunity it was,” he said. “I can’t imagine too many people as driven as Brad to first find the money and then do that for his kids.”
Once the early wet weather receded, workers were able to square the field, do an 8-inch cut into rangeland that Hartman agreed was “the worst field I’ve ever seen,” recondition and compact the soil and continue rebuilding the site. They figured a workable slope — 1% from west to east — and installed a drainage system.
Then came crushed rock that had to be trucked in from a quarry in Cañon City — about a five-hour round trip for each load, 64 loads in all. But the weather wasn’t done playing havoc with the project. Wind and dust threw off the laser systems that Hartman uses to level the field and also delayed laying in the synthetic turf.
They finally finished the field the first week in August.
“It was just a project riddled with water and wind down there,” he said. “We had to fight that the whole time. But I wouldn’t change anything. The people from Branson put their hearts into their kids and the school, and it’s great. To be involved with a small, close-knit community project was unlike anything we’d done before.”
Branson’s resourcefulness nearly pulled off another improbable addition to the new field.
A future phase of the project calls for bleachers, but Dan Doherty — Brad’s first cousin and father of three boys who all plan to pursue football on the new field — noticed something that posed the possibility of moving up the timeline to this season. Well-versed in the thrift of scanning online auctions for great deals on equipment and other items for his ranch, Dan found some fairgrounds in Salina, Kansas, that were looking to sell several sets of bleachers.
“You can only put so many people around the football field, on the ground, on the back of pickups,” he said. “Bleachers with 10 rows would increase capacity by a bunch. But all it takes is one guy with more money than you to put a damper on those plans.”
Armed with a budget, he logged in to the Sept. 1 auction hoping to score an upset. He’d already found a local volunteer with a semi-truck who’d make the trip to haul them back to Branson. Unfortunately, a Kansas bidder paid way more than Dan’s budget allowed. Bleachers will have to wait.
That minor setback did absolutely nothing to diminish the thrill of christening the field, a shimmering beacon of dark green that, in a very visual sense, now defines the state’s southernmost town in a way that reminds Dan of another football-crazy region.
“To go up on the mesa and look down,” he said, “it seems like a small town in Texas, not Colorado.”
“A really cool buzz”
The town’s excitement for high school football began building in June — far earlier than ever before — even as construction delays meant the field wouldn’t be ready for another two months. Two days before kickoff in the home opener, Coach Lucero still sensed the enthusiasm that surrounded the project.
“There was a buzz going around, a really cool buzz,” he said. “It just kind of built and built until this week — I mean, I feel like the buzz is still building.
“Every day, me and my wife would take a trip over from Kim and just check the progress on it. It was just fantastic. I mean, it’s still unbelievable. Sometimes at practice, I look around and can’t believe what I’m standing on.”
Although Saturday marked the first home game, the Bearcats already have gotten off to a fast start with two victories on the road with the lopsided scores of 56-21 and 60-6. So while there’s good reason for optimism, Lucero also harbored a coach’s usual concern about high-profile games.
‘It kind of feels like homecoming,” he said. “As a coach, you don’t really like homecoming weeks because the kids aren’t focused on football as much.”
Turned out he had nothing to worry about as his team took care of business. Even without the lacerating features of their previous field, Lucero focused on maintaining a similarly punishing style, only with nicer amenities.
“We still do what we do, no matter what field we play on — whether it’s last year’s field, the worst field in America, or this year’s field, the best in six-man football,” he said. “I always liked our old field because we kind of hung our hat on how crappy it was, and that was our identity. We remember where we came from, which was a cow pasture. And we still play that kind of ‘cow pasture football.’ And we’re proud of it.”
Lucero pointed out 13-year-old Liam Doherty — Dan Doherty’s middle son — as an example of a younger prospect who expressed disappointment that he wouldn’t play his high school football on the synthetic turf’s hardscrabble predecessor.
“He held that field in his heart,” the coach said. “And I think it was split — a lot of kids were like that. They liked where we came from, just like I did as a coach, and it kind of stunk that it got taken away from us. But we didn’t lose our identity. We just lost the field we made it on.”
Opinions began to change once the players took the field for their first practice, when only half the artificial turf had been laid. The cow pasture, they agreed, could be regarded with nostalgia. But the artificial turf is unquestionably better.
Two players gave Lucero the traditional big-game Gatorade shower as the clock wound down. And the coach acknowledged after that he’d been nervous and is glad to have this game behind him.
“With all the commotion before the game, I was freaking out,” he said. “I’m glad it’s over and now we can focus on football. Our distraction game is out of the way.”
After three straight blowout wins, the stars appear to be aligned in the big sky over this southern Colorado rangeland.
“I’m an optimistic person,” Lucero said. “I feel every year is our year — but this year especially. I tell the team every day: This is a blessed season.”