By CON MARSHALL
Game day is a big deal in scores of college and university towns across America. That is true in Chadron, just as it is in Lincoln, Ann Arbor, South Bend or Tuscaloosa.
Fans don’t flock to watch the Eagles by the tens of thousands like they do in the heavily-populated areas and fill stadiums that hold more bodies than there are living in a 150-mile radius of Chadron. But they do come from great distances and the past several years have been jamming into Don Beebe Stadium at Elliott Field in the shadow of C Hill at Chadron State until there’s standing room only. And, in some instances, there’s not much of that anymore.
Perhaps with the exception of Fur Trade Days in the second weekend in July, Chadron’s biggest crowds are on the autumn afternoons when the Eagles are in action. No evangelist, governor, orator or movie star can draw the multitudes like a football game. (Of course, the last movie star to openly visit may have been Freida Romine in 1916 when she portrayed Calamity Jane during the filming of a western that was never released.)
But even graduation when moms, dads, grandpas, grandmas and, as CSC president Janie Park likes to say, “cousins by the dozens,” fill the Armstrong Building to the rafters doesn’t produce as large a nose count as when the gladiators of the gridiron collide.
“Football games bring us the most business,” said Matt Reeves, manager of the Best Western Motel in Chadron. “Most of the teams stay with us and then we have the parents, grandparents and alumni who follow the Eagles. We never have to worry about having any vacant rooms when there’s a football game scheduled.”
Reeves noted that it’s not just the motels that benefit from game day. So do the restaurants, gas stations and retail businesses.
Business is particularly brisk when the Eagles have a good team, or as Reeves puts it, “All ships rise on a high tide.”
Brad Smith, who became the Eagles’ head football coach 20 years ago this fall and is CSC athletic director, said his wife remembers when there were more weeds growing on the floor of the stadium than there were people sitting on the seats. That was the first year he was the head coach following a dismal few years when fans didn’t have much to cheer about.
Smith quickly turned things around. During his third year, the Eagles went 8-2 and were in the playoffs. That brought back the fans in droves and a drive was kicked off to triple the seating capacity until today the stadium and auxiliary seating hold at least 3,600, or about two-thirds of Chadron’s population.
Thankfully, the rocked banks on the south side of Elliott Field allow fans who can’t find a seat or don’t want one to watch the game while they are standing. So far, the topography is such that no one has ever been turned away from a CSC game.
Both Reeves and another Chadron motel mogul, Larry Hollers, owner of the Westerner and Grand Motels, say the excitement about the Eagles is higher now than it ever has been.
“I had a rancher from down around Valentine call me this week and say he wants two rooms for the next game because he wants to come and watch that (Danny) Woodhead kid carry the football,” Hollers said. “I told him that it would be worth his time and money, but also told him there are a lot of other good players on the team, too.
“It used to be that most of our customers the night before the game and afterwards were parents of players,” Hollers continued. “But now, we’re having people come whose kids don’t play football and fans who just want to watch the Eagles. I’m so excited about this team myself that I can hardly sit still. I’m about getting to the place where I was with the Cornhuskers when (Tom) Osborne coached them. I’m thinking they can’t be beat. I suppose I’ll get disappointed sometime, but they’re looking awfully good.”
The attention Coach Bill O’Boyle’s Eagles are receiving will undoubtedly quicken as the Eagles’ winning streak, which was at 16 regular-season games following three non-conference victories this fall, grows and Woodhead draws closer to becoming college football’s all-time leader in rushing, all-purpose yards and scoring. It should all happen sometime in October.
During the first three games, the senior from North Platte, who was last year’s Harlon Hill Award winner, has gained 541 yards rushing and grabbed 10 passes for another 249 yards. He’s averaging almost 10 yards every time he touches the ball. And, he’s already scored nine touchdowns, giving him 95 during his star-studded career. Only one player has ever scored 100 TDs in his college days.
Danny’s antics aren’t going unnoticed. Reporters from the New York Times, Denver Post, Omaha World-Herald and USA Today have already been to the campus to interview him. Sports Illustrated saluted him in its “Who’s Hot” feature earlier this month.
Woodhead and Co. have also sparked a reunion. Members of the CSC teams from the late 1970s when Danny’s uncle, Kent, and father, Mark, were playing for the Eagles are getting together on Oct. 13 to watch the 2007 team tangle with Fort Lewis. The call for the get-together was sounded by Chadron native Bill Ryan, a standout on those teams of 25-plus years ago.
“I told them they’d better get to Chadron before he graduates,” Ryan said. “They’re never going to see a better running back in their lives than he is. I think after they see him, they’ll all thank me for doing them a big favor.”