Historically polygamous community in Utah holds its first-ever high school football game

The town of Hildale has rallied around the team as a way to move forward, away from its polygamist and fundamentalist past.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Water Canyon High School football players prepare for their school's first football game in Hildale on Friday, Aug. 12, 2022. Sports were banned in the former polygamous community of Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints, but now a changed town is embracing new traditions.

Hildale • They don’t have a locker room so the players get ready in a biology classroom, helping each other stretch their jerseys over pads as bottles of Pedialyte and rolls of athletic tape share a table with dioramas of intestines.

If they puke during their first-ever football game, one boy jokes, at least they’ll know where in the stomach it came from, right? Some of his teammates laughed. Others seemed more nervous that it might actually happen.

All sports were banned in this secluded desert community in southern Utah, until just a few years ago. Now they were preparing to go out onto the new sod field under the redrock buttes for the first time, playing where no one had before.

It was the inaugural Friday night lights for the town that was once a stronghold of the polygamous Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints and run by its leaders.

The nerves were justified.

As they geared up, a couple of players said quiet pregame prayers below posters detailing the forest ecosystem. A video compilation of rodeo cowboys getting slammed by bulls played from a projector onto the whiteboard; with most of the team having never played football, it was the closest thing they could think of to get in the mindset of being tackled.

“Dude, did you see that hit?” one of the players asked. “It looked like that guy’s eyes were gonna pop out of his skull.”

The nearest kid tapped on his helmet, testing the strength for reassurance.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Water Canyon High School football players suit up and hydrate in a biology classroom before their first game in Hildale on Friday, Aug. 12, 2022.

Most of the boys on this team were born in Hildale or the twin town of Colorado City across the state line in Arizona. Together, the area is called “Short Creek,” and they grew up here when it was still ruled by religion.

Some of the players remember their families being part of the FLDS faith — which splintered in the early 1900s from the mainstream LDS Church after it banned polygamy. Members came down here to practice plural marriage off the grid, in a remote place where the closest neighbor was the Grand Canyon and they could freely follow edicts from their prophet.

In the early 2000s that leader was Warren Jeffs, who made a strict faith stricter by explicitly outlawing sports, along with children’s toys, television, music other than approved hymns, the internet and public education.

“We were kids,” said Lester Barlow, now a senior and team captain, who plays outside linebacker. “We just wanted to play and have fun. And we couldn’t.”

Dissenters were kicked out, but some also began to leave the church, fearing it was becoming extremist. After Jeffs was sentenced to life in prison for sexually assaulting underage girls he considered brides, more withdrew. The exodus has continued to today; at least two of the football players’ families left the faith this year, the team’s coach said.

While pockets of believers remain, over time the town has become more secular — less the image of prairie dresses and “Zion” loyalty signs hung above doorframes than it once was.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Basketball hoops are blocked off by large bales of cardboard as Warren Jeffs forbade his followers from playing sports, as seen in Colorado City, Ariz. in 2012.

To many folks here, Water Canyon High School and the football team have now become a symbol of the way forward.

“We know what we need to do to uplift our community,” said Barlow.

“You know exactly what you need to do tonight,” echoed Coach Heber Horsley in a pep talk in the classroom before their first game last month. “We’ve practiced. Just do the things we taught you how to do.”

The boys responded in unison. “Yes, coach.”

“You ready for this?”

“Yes, coach.”

They headed toward the field.

— — —

Barlow was one of the last players out, taking his time to lace up his once-white cleats.

They’ve been stained a dusty red from running up the sand hills on the edge of this town, dodging sagebrush as part of his conditioning. It’s a familiar route.

He ran away up those same sand hills as a kid, trying to escape Hildale.

His parents were then and still are today FLDS believers, and Barlow said he knew at an early age that he didn’t want to be a member of the faith. So he left.

He was caught a few times at the edge of the town that once was covered in surveillance cameras, as ordered by the Prophet Jeffs. But at age 11, Barlow recounted, he got out and met up with a sister who’d also left and was in nearby Cedar City.

His parents have tried to reclaim custody of him through the courts; it has not been granted. But he’s back in Hildale now, having returned for his sophomore year of high school, living with another sister who is no longer part of the faith.

Barlow said he passes the compound where his parents live in this small town and thinks about where he might have been instead. It’s hard to be back, the shy 17-year-old said, but he wants to be part of the effort to reform his hometown.

“We’ve changed,” he said. “And we’ll keep changing.”

Many of the residents here no longer consider themselves fundamentalists, though some still practice polygamy. They see it as an early and essential part of Mormonism, decreed by the faith’s founder Joseph Smith. And many who left are coming back here to rebuild in a more open, accepting way; most of them share a story similar to Barlow’s.

The residents don’t want to forget where they’ve been because they don’t want to go back there. And there are reminders everywhere of what this town used to be. Many of the concrete walls ordered to be erected by Jeffs to block out the outside world still stand, hard to remove.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Large concrete walls suround a compound built for Warren Jeffs in Hildale in 2013.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The words "Pray and Obey" appear in a Hildale compound where Warren Jeffs lived with his family in 2009.

The house marked “PRAY AND OBEY” where Jeffs used to live with some of his 79 or 81 wives — there are conflicting figures — still stands, with the iron letters never taken down, though it’s now a treatment center.

The high school, itself, with slightly less than 400 students in grades 7 to 12, was the bishops’ storehouse before it was converted and purchased by Washington County School District. And it sits next to the compound that Jeffs had built for when he thought he’d be released from the Texas prison where he still sits, sometimes sending revelations back here to his remaining followers.

Students shuffle alongside the large house as they change buildings when the bell rings, with the boys in jerseys high-fiving as they pass each other. It’s since been converted into an inn for tourists cheekily called Zion’s Most Wanted Hotel. One of the football players works there after school.

You could see the compound from the stands of the football stadium as the sun set and the scoreboard lit up to take its place. The football stadium is newer, taller and there’s hope for more things like it to come in.

The boys stretched on the field, pulling their arms behind their heads in a circle, led by Barlow and Dylan Horsley, the quarterback.

“There’s no holding back this time,” Horsley instructed his teammates. “It’s not a practice.”

— — —

The stadium lights illuminated the field, with the cliffs behind becoming a jagged silhouette.

From the box at the top of the stadium, the announcer bellowed a reminder of the importance of the night: “We welcome you to our first-ever game.” Below, Coach Heber Horsley paced the sidelines.

Water Canyon was up against Grand County, whose Red Devils mascot elicited a few laughs — considering the town’s history — for being its first opponent.

Hildale quickly fumbled twice, losing the second snap. Grand County, whose players had a five-hour drive to get here, got its first touchdown less than two minutes in.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) To many in Hildale, Water Canyon High School and the football team have now become a symbol of the way forward.

“We can’t afford to make any more mistakes,” Horsley yelled. “Refocus, guys.”

The 45-year-old coach pulls at his dark beard and mustache when he’s stressed, and the first quarter was taxing for his chin.

Horsley is to credit for building this team. He moved down to the area with his family at the age of 18, as members of a faith group in Centennial Park, Ariz. Many members of that sect practice polygamy but don’t follow the Jeffs family line of prophets.

It struck Horsley then, having grown up in Salt Lake County, that there weren’t any sports here.

By the early 2000s, he made up for it, building up an area little league baseball team, a youth basketball team and a flag football team. The parents of Centennial Park were more open to sports; no one from Hildale or Colorado City initially joined, with the ban from Jeffs enforced at the time.

It took a few years and Jeffs’ imprisonment to get some buy-in there.

But with time, more players joined until Horsley had enough for a high school team. He helped nearby El Capitan High School in Arizona form a team first, before his job took him out of the area for a few years.

Then, he saw the posting for a coach at Water Canyon High. “When this came up, I said it’s time for me to get back in,” Horsley said. “I’m not sure I even realized how different it would be.”

Of the 36 players he recruited for the inaugural Hildale team — which is most of the boys in grades 9-12 who attend the small school — only four had played football before.

That included his son, Dylan Horsley, and a few boys who’d played on his flag football league, though they’d never played tackle (which, he added, is the hardest part for new players to understand: how hard a hit will come).

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Water Canyon High School's Heber Horsley coaches David Barlow during the team's first game, against Grand County, in Hildale on Friday, Aug. 12, 2022.

He spent the summer training the boys, 12 weeks of brutal conditioning and Xs and Os on whiteboards to learn the plays that weren’t something they’d grown up watching on TV, like many kids in America.

Because of how they were raised, some continued to wear long sleeves under their jerseys, choosing modesty even on the oppressively hot southern Utah days.

“Most of us are just totally new to this,” said Fred Jessop, who’s playing defensive tackle. He’d never touched a football before this spring.

He’s the tallest boy on the Hildale team by far, towering two heads above most of the players, four above the shortest. Across the field, most of their opponents in the red helmets looked like him. His teammates were undersized kids, gritty but smaller and unseasoned.

His family left the FLDS church when Fred was about five years old. Willie Jessop, his dad, was a former bodyguard for Jeffs, who became disillusioned after his arrest.

Willie Jessop watched his son from the stands during the first game. So far, he joked, Fred is better at pounding steel posts on the family ranch than he is at pounding into players on the field, but he’s trying.

“It isn’t like these kids grew up playing,” he said. “They started at the ground. The real fun of it is giving them a chance.”

Jessop got a tackle early in the first quarter, sending a puff of red dust into the air. The grass hadn’t quite taken to the dry desert dirt yet. His dad cheered.

— — —

At the end of the first half, the Hildale boys were down 40 points to zero.

In a huddle just outside the stadium, Horsley reminded them of the plays they’d practiced. “Yes, coach,” the players answered, trying not to be discouraged.

As they started to walk back inside, the crowd roared for them. They shouted “You got this, boys” and “We believe in you.”

The coach smiled at the encouragement. He looked back at the team before the whistle. “Most crowds would’ve left by now. These people care about you. Let’s give them a fight.”

To be honest, the support wasn’t exactly what he expected to see.

When Water Canyon High started its basketball team a few years before, the small crowd at the first game was silent. The team would score and no one would cheer. The residents didn’t know how to react, having never been to a game before.

“Every other town in America probably knows what to do,” Horsley said, “but it just wasn’t part of the culture here.”

Over the last few basketball seasons, a small group of parents got better at cheering. But football is bigger, more players, more people in the stands. The coach worried it would be silent again, or worse, that the opposing team might take advantage of the quiet to make fun of the boys, calling them polygamists or joking about how many siblings they have. It had happened when the basketball team went to away games in other towns.

Horsley knew the students had a pep rally earlier in the day to teach them how to cheer. And he’d instructed the parents of the players what to expect, coaching them, too, about how football works and how to support the boys.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Water Canyon High School football team at a pep rally on the day of the team's first game, in Hildale on Friday, Aug. 12, 2022.

But he didn’t know how it would go.

To see what looked like everyone in town here, in the stands, leaning over the rails, with cowbells and pompoms, was a relief and a joy. He could hear parents telling others in the crowd what a first down meant or why a flag was thrown. They’d even joined in to belt the national anthem together when the singer’s microphone cut out.

To the crowd, the score didn’t matter.

For every turnover or tackle forced by the Hildale team, they launched into cheers. They stomped their work boots hard onto the metal stadium stands, in a thunder that matched the graying skies.

In these seats, Willie Jessop added, they’re not a former cloistered religious community, but just another American town celebrating a love of football.

His family has been a big part of the rebuild of Hildale, running the bed and breakfast next to Water Canyon and leading the way for others to enroll their kids in public school after they signed theirs up first — the high school was the first public school here in more than a decade, opening in 2014. The schools in place before, when Jeffs was still in charge and prohibited attending, had such small enrollment that they had to close.

Jessop believes education has made the biggest difference here, bringing in opportunities, new perspective, a chance to be recruited and go to college, something to cheer for, and the end of the reign of Jeffs.

“The thing the school district gave us was light,” Willie Jessop said. “These stadium lights drown out the darkness — they even reach over concrete walls.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Despite their home team trailing 50-0 in their first-ever football game, Water Canyon High School fans stick around until the final play.

The school district superintendent watched from the bleachers, too. And teachers who have come in from surrounding cities to work here spent their Friday night cheering; one brought his trombone to add some pep. Sitting alongside them were former officials in the FLDS church, including Jeffs’ first advisor. James Jeffs was there, too, the first preps star from this town, who played basketball and track on Water Canyon’s teams.

Mayor Donia Jessop was there, as well — the first elected leader of the town not to loyal to a polygamous sect.

“I don’t know what it is about football that gets a community together like it does,” she said. “But it really does. This is a new age for us.”

— — —

The game didn’t end how the team wanted it to. The lights on the scoreboard showed the defeat in neon. Home team: 0. Away team: 50.

The field was covered in cleat marks. The boys jerseys were covered in dirt. They tried hard.

“Don’t hang your head, for hell’s sake,” Horsley said in the final huddle. “This was our first game ever. It was supposed to be like this. Be proud of yourselves.”

The crowd was still cheering for them. “Good game, good game,” they shouted.

The boys exchanged fist bumps with each other and knocked pads when they hugged.

Lester Barlow said the team has become like a brotherhood for him. With a quick flicker of a smile, he joked that it helps that many of them already share the same last name — which you could hear as the announcer captured the plays.

“That’s a tackle by No. 30 Lester Barlow,” he said. “Daniel Barlow there with the catch.”

“We’ve got Aaron Barlow with the run.”

There are nine Barlows on the roster and three Jessops, the most common surnames in Short Creek, where most everyone is a cousin.

“Yeah, we’re all related somehow,” added Aaron Barlow, a junior and wide receiver, whose family used to be part of the Centennial Park group. His teammates have nicknamed him “The Turtle” because he takes his time to respond to questions. But he promises he’s faster on the field.

“I think it helps us get through the craziness here,” he said. “We all understand what’s happened.”

After the final whistle, the field stayed lit while little kids ran across it, pretending to play football. Everything outside of the stadium was dark. The speakers played “Legends Are Made.”

The players gathered in one final huddle. Putting their hands together on the grass, they chanted, “One, two, three, family.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Water Canyon High School football players prepare to face Grand County in their school's first football game, in Hildale on Friday, Aug. 12, 2022.

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