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Unity of Mahnomen-Waubun Recognized with Grant, Town Takeover

The Mahnomen Indians and Waubun Bombers became the Mahnomen-Waubun Thunderbirds under a co-op, and alumni from each school were inspired to support players wearing new colors.

MAHNOMEN/WAUBUN, Minn. — Football has a unique way of bringing people together — just ask two towns within White Earth Indian Reservation.

The bonds forged through setting team goals and working to achieve them through study, practice and execution are strong and inspire communities.

This fall, football brought two proud communities that were once bitter rivals into one team.

The Mahnomen Indians and Waubun Bombers became the Mahnomen-Waubun Thunderbirds under a co-op, and alumni from each school were inspired to support players wearing new colors.

Success followed, as the team went 13-0 and won the Class A State Championship with a thrilling 22-21 victory over BOLD in November.

A month earlier, the program had been selected by the Vikings and Innovative Office Solutions as the "Minnesota Football Program of the Year" and winner of the "In the Game Award," which includes a $10,000 grant from Innovative Office Solutions' InSports Foundation.

More than 300 communities were nominated for the award that has been presented the past four years to recognize a community that goes above and beyond in supporting high school and youth football.

The check was presented last weekend during a Town Takeover that featured appearances by Vikings Stephen Weatherly and Rashod Hill, analyst and former linebacker/coach Pete Bercich, Viktor the Viking and Vikings Cheerleaders Emma and Maddie and Viktor the Viking and staff members visited Mahnomen and Waubun earlier this month for a Town Takeover that included youth football clinics, a festival, business reception and booster event.

A robust crowd filled Bear Sports Bar on Friday as everyone enjoyed the opportunity to welcome guests — and re-celebrate the Thunderbirds — with a festive atmosphere nearly 250 miles northwest of the Vikings headquarters.

A projector replayed the title game. There was Jon Starkey's touchdown run to bring the Thunderbirds within a point with a little more than five minutes remaining, the on-screen tension that preceded a successful 2-point conversion run by Parker Syverson for the lead and the relived celebration.

It was interesting to ping-pong eyeballs from a now-relaxed Head Coach John Clark to the intense version on the sidelines of U.S. Bank Stadium six months prior.

Then came BOLD's answer drive, which made it to the 9-yard line before Jayden Heisler forced and recovered a fumble to ice the game.

Cheers, high-fives and smiles ensued.

Still the champs!

Clark knew from the get-go that team-building would be paramount to achieving success.

"If you didn't have the kids buy-in, it wasn't going to work. We had a very special senior class this year," Clark said. "They were the driving force and made it happen.

"The kids made it seamless and did a great job," Clark said. "It wasn't so easy for some community members at the start and some coaches, but the kids were great. The success we had was a direct result from the kids."

Radio play-by-play announcer Sean Bjerk was curious at the onset of the season. His questions were answered.

"Coming into the football season, knowing the two communities and how football rich they were with tradition, there's always that question of how it's going to jell together, but it was surprising," Bjerk said. "It's like they've been together for years, with how quick it came together and how solid the team was. The kids seemed to make it work for everybody. They did a great job.

"I cover a lot of high school athletics, and there's no place around that has a following like the Thunderbird programs," Bjerk said. "It's been a lot of fun watching the merger. It's really a big compliment to the communities and coaches and kids that put in all of the time."

The Thunderbirds split their home games between both high schools.

"Real different, but that was one of the things, coming together, both teams are so rich in tradition and know you merge them together," Clark said. "We kind of let the kids decide. Some things we did, and some things we took from Waubun. Obviously it worked."

The next morning, more than 400 young people participated in free youth football clinics, and residents attended a town festival that began with a drum group's performance of a spiritual Native American song.

The booster event Friday, lunch on Saturday and silent auction throughout the weekend raised $12,000 to go along with the $10,000 grant that was presented by the InSports Foundation.

Hill and Weatherly enjoyed connecting with the young people during the clinics, signing autographs at multiple points of the weekend and learning more about the communities.

"When they told me the story about how the two schools came together, that's awesome because it brings a stronger bond," Hill said. "For the Thunderbirds to go 13-0, they were blowing people out and having fun doing it. They closed the whole school down when they went to State."

The father of two beamed at multiple times, encouraging young people in drills.

"I know how important it is to give kids light when they're young," Hill said. "I'm just blessed to be here."

Weatherly worked on the finer points of touchdown celebrations with boys and girls after running back drills in the gym (the football fields were still covered by snow).

"The newer generation is not as hostile as it used to be. They were severe rivals and went back and forth," Weatherly said. "Now that they won and we're here; this is a perfect example of how football unified two communities. Moving forward, everyone will know that the Vikings came here because they were able to work together. I feel like that will go a long way in the future."

Business owner, parent and former Mahnomen cheerleader Tina Starkey was one of several individuals helping with the weekend's events.

"The kids have never had a problem. It's all of us, the alumni, who grew up here and went to school here than the kids here now," Starkey said. "Living here in this community, [the merger] had to be done. Otherwise we wouldn't be competitive. We don't have the numbers, so it was definitely a positive thing. Having this Town Takeover come in, everybody got excited. It gave everybody a reason to pull together and try to win the award and now celebrate it.

"It's been awesome," she added. "It's actually something that probably brought together a lot of naysayers or community people that weren't really buying in to the combination of the two towns."

Travis Kaste grew up in Naytahwaush, about 25 miles to the east. He works at 3M in St. Paul now but made the trip back home for the weekend.

"The sheer number of kids has been impressive," Kaste said. "I didn't think it would be that big of a turnout, but it's been pretty impressive. I think the Vikings players have been phenomenal with their interactivity and ability to have fun with these kids. I think the parents and the Mahnomen-Waubun coaches are having a good time, too."

Kaste played receiver/safety for Mahnomen teams that went to state in his junior year and won it all in his senior season, the first of four in a row in the early 1990s.

"I'm the biggest Mahnomen Indian fan. I don't like the Waubun Bombers, but you learn over time that the people in Waubun are just fine," Kaste said. "I went to Mahnomen High School, but I was from Naytahwaush. When I got there, I didn't think about being from Naytahwaush. I was a Mahnomen Indian. I had teammates from Mahnomen, Bejou."

Nick Syverson returned to the area from Alvarado, 100 miles northwest, to bring his son to the youth clinic and festival. 

"My family is from the area, so we keep tabs on the football team and when this was announced that they were in contention, we got really excited," Syverson said. "They won it, so it was really exciting. We kept looking forward to this event. When they announced April 12-13, 'We've got to make it down.'

"It brings a lot of pride. Hopefully it can bring more attention to the great football community that we have right now," Syverson added. "They had a very successful season in their inaugural co-op season. It was really great to see how the community came together. It had been a tough situation, but luckily we had players on both teams that welcomed the chance, embraced it, went for it and had a really good season and helped bring two communities that didn't always get along together."

Weatherly and Hill helped Innovative Office Solutions Marketing Director and InSports Foundation Board Member Bridget Smith lead young people through a session about setting goals as part of the clinics.

Smith said it's been great to see the In the Game Award/Town Takeover grow over the past four years.

More than 300 programs applied in August, and InSports Foundation combed through to determine the winner by October.

"It's really exciting to see the magic between the two schools coming together," Smith said.

The response by Caledonia to receiving the first award encouraged subsequent implementations.

"Caledonia was the first recipient, and it just blew up," Smith said. "The town was bleeding purple. We said, 'We need to continue to power this. It's making a huge impact in the community. It's living out our vision and purpose of the foundation of helping kids play sports while helping the community.' "

Clark envisions the award and experiences from the Town Takeover as having great potential for the future of the program.

"I picture it as a snowball going down a hill. We started at the top with a small snowball and by the time we were done, it was big," Clark said. "I think it's going to get bigger and bigger. We may not have the success that we had this year. Obviously, winning a state championship is everybody's dream, but the desire by the kids and the enthusiasm by the program is going to be something else."