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What the return of high school football means to an oil boom town

Like so many small towns on the Great Plains, Alexander, North Dakota, had been shrinking as more and more young people moved away. But for the first time in 28 years, Alexander has a football team, thanks largely to an oil field that has drawn workers and families from around the country. Emily Guerin of public media reporting project Inside Energy reports.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    High school football is the center of life for many small towns in rural America.

    Due to the oil and gas boom in Western North Dakota, one town is celebrating the return of that tradition for the first time in over a quarter-century.

    Emily Guerin of Inside Energy, a public media reporting project, brings us the story from Alexander, North Dakota.

  • EMILY GUERIN:

    It's the day before the first game of the season for the Alexander Comets. The players are really excited.

  • JAYY MORGAN, Student:

    I can't wait for tomorrow to come. My head's going to explode right now if tomorrow doesn't hurry up and get here.

  • EMILY GUERIN:

    For 28 years, Alexander didn't have a football team. Now it does, thanks to new kids like Jayy Morgan, number 34.

    Last year, Morgan's mom moved from Bakersfield, California, to North Dakota. She came for a job at a truck stop in the Bakken oil field.

  • KEVIN CLAUSEN, Football Coach, Alexander Comets:

    Let's go from the 30 all the way down. Now we can at least see where we're at here.

  • EMILY GUERIN:

    Football coach Kevin Clausen says about half of the kids on the team are here because of the oil fields.

  • KEVIN CLAUSEN:

    But I feel like, because of the oil boom, we now have a football team. You know, it brought many families to this school, which increased the enrollment, and, you know, gave the school the capability to actually do this.

  • EMILY GUERIN:

    Before the oil boom took off in 2008, Alexander's single K-12 school only had 55 kids, and there were no varsity sports. Like so many small towns on the Great Plains, Alexander was shrinking, as young people moved away and farms grew larger and more mechanized. LESLIE BIEBER, Superintendent, Alexander Public Schools: Well, now, Brian, do you identify which muscle you injured?

  • EMILY GUERIN:

    Superintendent Leslie Bieber remembers what that felt like.

  • LESLIE BIEBER:

    I don't want to say that it was bad. It wasn't, because you still had that small community coming together, and helping each other out. But it was sad to see a community die.

  • EMILY GUERIN:

    The Bakken oil boom has changed all that. The town has grown by 60 percent since 2008. And now there are more than 200 kids in the school, and the kids are still coming, despite low oil prices and thousands of leaves. There's finally enough students to bring back varsity sports, including football — well, six-man football.

    The school is still too small for 11-man, and yet Bieber says people in town could not be more excited.

  • LESLIE BIEBER:

    When we laid the sod for the football field, it was 90-some degrees. Community members came in the middle of the afternoon to help lay the sod when it was 90-some degrees. That doesn't happen unless you are excited about bringing that back.

  • EMILY GUERIN:

    The Comets' first football game took place during Alexander's Old Settler phase, the town's annual celebration of its farming and ranching heritage.

    Before the game, everyone, including the football team, wandered over to the massive barbecue pit. There, the men of Alexander were digging up meat that had been slow-cooked overnight. Working the meat-cutting table is Jerry Hatter, the mayor of Alexander. He also works for a drilling company.

    Hatter has a pretty complicated relationship with the oil fields, like many people I met here. On the one hand, he is grateful for all the new families moving into town. On the other hand, it's overwhelming.

    JERRY HATTER, Mayor of Alexander, North Dakota: Everything grew so fast, and there were so many people, and Western North Dakota never had a lot of people. And I think just the influx of all the people is what really did it for a lot of people.

  • EMILY GUERIN:

    Alexander may have been slowly dying before the oil boom, but some people liked it that way. Hatter is one of them. JERRY HATTER: I hate the fact that I can drive down places that there was never anything, and it's nothing but solid pumping units and roads and traffic. And it's changed the landscape, but it's given me a lot. So…

  • EMILY GUERIN:

    The oil boom is really love-hate for people here in Alexander, so that's why the return of football is so important. It's something everyone can be excited about, no matter how they feel about the oil field.

    After the barbecue, it was time for the big game. The place was packed. People drove their pickups right up to the edge of the field. Both old and new Alexander were there, locals like Mayor Jerry Hatter, people who lived here long before the boom got started, and newcomers, people drawn here for work.

    Everyone was hoping the Comets would win, but as the game went on, that seemed like a long shot. The Grass Range/Winnett Rangers from a small high school in Eastern Montana were bigger and more experienced than the Comets. They intercepted a lot of Comets' passes and scored a lot of touchdowns.

    But unless you looked at the scoreboard, you would have no way of knowing the Comets were losing by a lot. The crowd cheered at every tackle. People were just happy to be there. This is the sense of community that was missing those 28 years that Alexander didn't have football. And bringing it back is especially meaningful for people like Leanna Halvorson-Dean.

  • LEANNA HALVORSON-DEAN, Alexander, North Dakota:

    In this community, farmers, ranchers, you get caught up in your lives and you lose track. And it's just nice to have everybody back.

  • EMILY GUERIN:

    Even if it wasn't the glorious victory they hoped for, just having football back is a win for Alexander.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Emily Guerin in Alexander, North Dakota.

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