MOORHEAD-First-year Moorhead Park Christian football coach Lawton Burgstahler saw fear in the eyes of his players on the sideline. He didn't sleep for three days, after losing to Underwood 48-0 in Week 2 of the football season. The visions of a concussion for a senior, two freshmen getting hurt in the first half and having to pluck banged up kids out of the game stuck with him. The pain he saw nearly matched the pain in the decision he knew had to be made.
He knew the Falcons could not continue like this. This wasn't about losing a football game anymore.
"I'm doing this out of safety, and I'm here to build this program," Burgstahler said. "I'm here to build it, and I want this game to be fun. If that's not a good enough reason, I don't know what is."
The decision to forfeit the varsity football season was not an easy one for Burgstahler or administration at Park Christian. It's been discussed since the Falcons had to forfeit last season's playoff game.
"We had like 10 or 11 players for the final game of the season and one player left by ambulance," Park Christian athletic director Kurt Motschenbacher said. "It kind of brought home the point that we really have low numbers and continue to play against top seeds in the playoffs. It was too much of a risk, so we ended up forfeiting the playoff game, which I think was a good call."
The plan this season is to still play six more games, as the Falcons just picked up a game with Circle of Life Academy, which has 15 players on their roster, for Friday. They will still play Laporte and hope to play some junior varsity games. The four seniors and one junior on the Falcons will probably play the first half against junior varsity teams and then get pulled to be fair.
Motschenbacher knows from experience. His son, Jared, is one of the four seniors on the current team, with three of those seniors having football experience. There was nothing easy about supporting a decision to end his son's varsity football season.
"It's hard because he went through his younger years and we didn't have a JV program and he filled that role," Kurt said. "He said he was scared some days and didn't like football because he was going against these bigger and more experienced kids. It just seemed like the right thing to do. I think he understands that."
Jared does understand it. He remembers the fear.
"I didn't even play as a freshman. I played as a sophomore, and I hated it. I didn't like football," Jared said. "I had to go on varsity and get hit around. It was miserable. Even junior year, it was better, but I still didn't like it that much. I just remember hating it like crazy and wanting to quit."
The upperclassmen could see the fear in the eyes of the freshmen and eighth-graders Burgstahler was talking about.
"I didn't notice it until I saw them come off the field," junior quarterback and safety Darien Bogenreif said. "It was almost a look of fear that they didn't want to go back out because they're playing 18-year-olds when they're 14 or 15. I can imagine that. I had to do that a couple times, but they're consistently doing that every play."
"I couldn't have done that," said senior running back and defensive back Brandon Lien. "The first game they weren't too bad, but the second game, in the fourth quarter, they didn't look so good. They looked scared."
Jared knew what that look in their eyes meant.
"You can just tell they're scared," Jared said. "When they come off the field, their eyes are deep in their heads. They don't say anything because they know they have to step up and do it, but you can tell in the way they run they're scared to be out there."
A decision was made because of fearful eyes of athletes put in a position impossible to win. Burgstahler was asked by people how he could quit or abandon his team.
"I'm doing this for my guys," Burgstahler said. "Every loss from all the forfeits goes on my record. I hope people see that. We're doing everything we can to get them games to push forward with this season and still giving them a chance to play this great game of football. I have to start these freshmen not because they beat out a junior or sophomore, but because I don't have anyone else.
"My seniors also understand where I'm coming from and they'll come back four years from now and see these freshmen and they'll see a dominating team. There's a vision ahead of this. Their sacrifice will hopefully pay off in the future."
"Like the seniors said, the program is more important than they are or even the next four years of all of us are," Bogenreif said. "It's to keep the program alive. It'd be terrible if all the freshmen all got injured or bruised or broken up. It'd be bad if they didn't come back next year. Our program would be dead in the water."
Lien has plans to come back to see something he started.
"I hope they get more experience and they get bigger and stronger and in four years we got a good football program," Lien said. "That'd feel pretty great, knowing I gave up my season, so they could have a better season and the future program could have better seasons."