If the football field in Pasadena is the Rose Bowl, then the one at Butner High in Cromwell, Okla., is the Dust Bowl. The old scoreboard at Nolan Coker Field lies facedown in the weeds, its legs thrust upward like a dead animal's. Trees are erupting through the rotting bleachers. Next to the baseball field there's a pile of foot-long pipes—the remnants of the football goalposts—stacked like firewood. Soon they'll be welded together to make foul poles. "My son and I used to water this field with a garden hose," says Nolan Coker, 62, who's walking on the gridiron named after him. "It's deteriorated a bit since then."
Back when football mattered at Butner, Coker was die coach. He retired from the sideline in 1975, satisfied that he'd built a winning tradition (60-29, only one losing season in nine years) and made Butner football games the grandest gathering in town. "When we played Okemah, there'd be a line of cars all the way back to the general store," Coker says. "We'd have as many as 4,000 people, and there weren't enough seats for everyone in the bleachers. Afterward the booster club invited everyone to die cafeteria for pies and cakes. It was a real social event."
A rural school with students drawn from a 100-square-mile area, Butner lies smack in the middle of Oklahoma football country. Just 25 miles to the east on I-40 is Henryetta, where Troy Aikman lived as a teenager, and 30 miles to the west is Shawnee, which produced Denver Broncos cornerback Darrien Gordon. But after Coker left die team to become Butner's principal, the Eagles embarked on a trail of tears: 20 losing seasons in die next 22 years. Low-salaried coaches—die school couldn't afford any better—shuttled through town like vagrants, and the team roster, which peaked at 35 players in '73, had shrunk to 20 by '91. That year the school board decided to switch from 11-man to eight-man football.
Then one night in May '96, without warning, the school board cut football altogether. Budget reasons. "It was a massacre," says Kenny Dickerson, Butner's athletic director. "They projected a loss in revenue, so they dropped teachers' salaries and the whole sport of football."
Outraged, parents called a town meeting, and two months later die board decided to give football another chance. But there were problems besides money. Lack of interest, for one. After seven kids quit during the '96 season, the Eagles finished the year with 10 players. Butner's enrollment has never been high—there are a little more than 100 students from grades nine through 12—but this fall the baseball team had 15 players, and 25 kids tried out for basketball. Why couldn't the school find 15 who wanted to play football? "They just weren't interested," says Dickerson. "It kind of became a stigma to play football."
With so few experienced players, injuries had become more common. In '96 Butner's quarterback suffered five concussions, and a year earlier a freshman tight end named Joe Little broke his leg so severely that he had to have three surgeries. "It cost $25,000 to repair Joe's leg," says his mother, Reta. "I love football. I just don't want to see my kids playing it."
Finally, after the '96 season, Butner's third straight 1-9 campaign, the school board moved again to ax the program. This time it announced its plans in the town paper and invited football supporters to come to the next board meeting and voice their concerns. Only two parents showed up; they both wanted to drop the team.
So football lies fallow here, and the rhythms of fall have changed. Gone are the homecoming dance and the various fundraisers: spaghetti suppers and fish fries and Indian taco dinners. Gone are the cheerleaders, who don't emerge from hibernation until basketball season. On Friday nights you can find Mike Stan-field at the mall in Shawnee, but as a sophomore two years ago he was a fullback and noseguard on the last football team. "I was mad," he says. "The players wanted to keep football, but the community let it go."
Cromwell (pop. 250) has changed, too. Ed Warrington played on Coach Coker's first team, back in '66, and no one in town will forget the night he scored the only touchdown in Butner's 6-0 upset of Maud High, then the third-ranked team in the state. Warrington, the retired owner of a filling station on I-40, worked on the chain gang at Butner home games until the end. "It gets in your blood," he says. "Football was a way of life here. I still go to games every Friday night in Wewoka, Seminole, Okemah, wherever. Sometimes I'll go with friends. Sometimes I just go by myself."
Last year Butner sold all of its football equipment to Okemah High for $4,000. Before long the only evidence that Eagles football ever existed will be the red helmet in the school's trophy case, the one with a white letter B and the simple epitaph: 1964 TO 1997. "As long as people saw the equipment and the goalposts, they might think football could work here again," says Dickerson. "So we decided to extinguish all hope. We'll have a crane come in this winter and take care of the bleachers."