Prep football: Duchesne celebrates 37 straight wins
By Aaron Falk
The Salt Lake TribuneFirst published Sep 07 2013 11:33PM
Price • Trent Roberts feels the laces rolling off his fingertips, sees the ball spiraling through what’s left of a Friday evening blue sky, past the setting sun as only a silhouette and into his receiver’s hands.
The 25, 20. The 15, 10, 5. Touchdown Matt Muir. Touchdown Duchesne Eagles.
"Make sure you get that one on the highlights!" a father hollers at a cameraman roaming the sideline.
The visiting fans who have filled the east-side bleachers at Carbon High School cheer even louder. They are men in cowboy boots, the sun shaded from their eyes by John Deere caps. They are mothers of children long since graduated from Duchesne High School. All of them are here for a chance to witness history.
They are farmers and teachers and oilfield workers. They remember the busts, so they relish the booms — and in all of Utah high school football, none ever has been bigger than this.
Booms and busts
The story of Duchesne gridiron starts with such a boom.
A surge of commercial oil production from the hardscrabble Uinta Basin earth in the early 1970s brought a wave of newcomers to the area. Among them was Mark Hall, who moved with his family from Las Vegas to Duchesne in the summer of 1972 so his father could open an auto parts store to service the new influx of oil rigs.
Hall, a junior, had played wide receiver in Nevada. But in the mix of farm boys and oil seekers from Oklahoma and Texas who came out for the very first football practices at the tiny high school, nobody ever had played quarterback.
"I knew I was never going to get the ball," said Hall, who volunteered to take the job and play the position his son Max would play 25 years later at BYU.
Hall remembers trudging down the street from the high school and chasing cows and sheep off the pasture where the team played that first season.
"When I got there, I don’t think I had ever seen a cowboy in my entire life," Hall said. "But the people were awesome. There wasn’t a lot of money in Duchesne at the time. Those local cowboys were loyal. They were hard-working, tough kids."
The Eagles posted a winning record that first season. A decade later, even as oil prices began to fall, Duchesne won its first region championship, starting a run of seven in eight seasons. But the Eagles never could get over the top.
For principal Stan Young, a former Duchesne football coach and a local basketball coaching legend, the memories of disappointing losses linger. He thinks back to a playoff game against Kanab in the mid-1980s.
"They were fourth-and-30. Hail Mary. Our DB tips the ball, knocks it down, but their guy is laying on his back in the end zone. ... It sticks like Velcro."
The wins eventually would dry up for Duchesne, and for 16 years in the ’90s and early 2000s the Eagles went without a region title. Coaches left nearly every season, taking with them their schemes and any hope at consistency.
"It got pretty lean for a while," Young says.
Things are booming again in the basin. The Eagles’ streak began Sept. 3, 2010, with a 42-point stomping of West Wendover High. Just more than three years later, as the lights flickered on and big Matt Dye rumbled for a score, the team had yet to lose.
But if you ask around Duchesne, the turning point came in 2003. That’s when Jerry Cowan came to town.
A star safety at Southern Utah University, Cowan signed with the Baltimore Ravens the year before but didn’t stick with the team. After he was cut, it didn’t take long to hear from his college roommate’s father, who had a job offer for him.
"When the job opened up," Young, the principal, says, "I didn’t call anybody else."
Cowan brought discipline and consistency to a program sorely lacking both. He implemented a weight-training program and, when players failed to show up, he made visits to their homes to drag them to the gym. He spent hours breaking down opponents on film and perfecting his Wing-T offense with his players. In 2006, Cowan’s Eagles ended a 16-year drought without a region title en route to the school’s first state championship in football.
But like the opportunity and hope that has drawn so many to the Uinta Basin over the years, a chance to cash in soon would lure away Cowan. After the 2007 season, he left the program and returned to his hometown of Moab to work in the uranium mines. He handed the team over to his good friend and assistant coach, Billy Hoopes, who led the Eagles to championships in 2010 and 2011.
Cowan, however, would realize he had gone chasing one boom only to leave another behind.
"I was working in a mine underground," he said. "Every day I was down there, I thought, ‘What am I doing here?’ Football has always been my passion. I missed being around the kids and more than anything the community."
From the alfalfa fields along the Duchesne River to Al’s Food Town on Main Street, where football banners line the road, the streak has been the talk of the town. There have been reporters at practice. Somebody from USA Today called the school.
"People are talking about it," Young says. "You go into the stores, wherever you go. They say, ‘Hey! Where we at? Thirty-three? Thirty-five? Who do we play to get the record?"
The answers: 36 consecutive wins coming into Friday night, with a chance to break Timpview High’s state record with a win over the Carbon Dinos. Cowan, back as the Eagles coach, however, would prefer to ignore the hype for now. Take it a game at a time, he tells his players.
That’s how they played when they beat rival Rich twice in overtime in 2010. That’s how they played when Class 3A Park City came to Duchesne in September 2011 and quickly fell behind 21-0 with the sun in their eyes, on a field filled with holes and covered with dead grass from hash mark to hash mark. That’s how they played last year when the Eagles went undefeated, winning each game by an average of 26 points, and rolled to their third straight state title.
"I tell these kids they’re 2-0. They haven’t done nothing," Cowan says.
Later he admits, "We say it’s just another game, but it’s really not."
Dylan Despain catches a pass, makes a tackler miss and finds some space to run.
"I thought he had it," his older brother, Braiden, says as he paces the sideline. "One too many jukes."
Dylan, a junior running back, missed all of last year with a broken leg. And while he’s played well this year, he still hadn’t found the end zone. He spent the week watching game film on his cell phone, blocking out thoughts of the streak.
The real pressure, however, comes from the name on the back of his jersey.
"That’s big shoes to try to fill," Dylan said this week, as he sat in his family’s home, sharing football stories with his five older brothers, all of whom played for the Eagles. "He’s MVP. He’s MVP. And I’m not as big as them. You feel a lot of pressure, honestly."
The Despains have seen both sides of Eagle football — thrashings received and given, trophies raised, knees blown out and hearts broken.
Kendall and Logan Despain remember the years Duchesne moved up to Class 2A to avoid losing football entirely. They remember playing San Juan, lining up with their 15 or so players and facing a sideline filled with Broncos. The beatings were harsh sometimes, and the stands mostly were empty.
"If we didn’t win, or they didn’t see nothing special, they didn’t come back," Landon Despain said.
Three of his younger brothers would go on to win championships, with two of them, Weston and Braiden, earning Class 1A MVP honors. But Landon Despain may have been the most talented of the group. The brothers all delight as they share memories of him trucking linebackers then breaking off down the sidelines for scores. They delight as they remember the time Bronco Mendenhall came to town to watch Landon play. But that was before he blew out his knee in camp at the start of his senior year.
The talk in the living room turns to their father, Keven, who died of complications from diabetes in 2010, a month into the Eagles’ current win streak. Keven was the one who taught the boys their love for sports, worked for hours with them on football drills, had them throw balls at a square on the side of the garage until it had faded.
They always could hear him yelling and whistling from the bleachers. He called for coaches to take his boys out of a game if he thought they weren’t hustling. He treated them to steak and lobster dinners when they gave their all.
"I think he would be proud of the streak," Dylan says.
"I know he’s happy," Kendall adds.
The streak has meant something to all of them — validation, redemption — as it has to many in the town.
"Coming from a small town, you could be the best on the team, but really you think, ‘I’m just from a small town.’ " Landon says.
As Dylan finds room down the right side for his first touchdown of the season, the brothers who did not have to work in the oil fields Friday cheer him on.
This is their streak whether or not they played a down of it.
Time to celebrate
The Eagles are on the road, playing against a Class 3A opponent, but it hardly matters.
Duchesne dominates on both sides of the ball. Behind the powerful running of Muir, Despain and Dye, and a three-touchdown performance from the quarterback Roberts, Duchesne pushed its lead over the Dinos to 35-0 by halftime. On defense, the Eagles let Carbon into the red zone once but forced a fumble on the 18 to stop the drive.
As the clock ticked down to zeroes, the Eagles raised their helmets in the air and searched for a moment for the right word to chant.
"History!" they yelled in unison before letting out individual howls at the sky.
After the celebration, as players hugged their families and took pictures on the field, Ellis Muir stood with his son Matt and smiled.
"I think we had the whole town here tonight," the father said. "It was either do or bust."