No replacement referee for me as I hit the road for another Friday night football game. Leaving Payson to go to Joseph City, Arizona for an eight man football game at around 3:20 on a Friday and 110 miles later I arrive in Joseph City, a town famous for its coal fired power plant. Located on Interstate 40 literally in no man’s land I was excited as I had arrived and had beat the visiting team to Joseph City.
The Duncan Wildcats were behind me as I passed them going into Holbrook. Getting to the field it is a great feeling to be recognized and shown great hospitality by their Athletic Director, Mike Sterkowitz. Mike and I go way back as coaches of girls basketball. Coming out on the field, I am warmly greeted by others that I have known for so many years and I am ready for work but yet I am ready for having some fun on a Friday night.
Duncan is a small school of about 120 students located in SE Arizona and they arrived about six hours after they had taken off. Taken off means they rode on the old yellow bus and drove through New Mexico just to get to Joe City. It’s like crazy what they had to do to get to the game.
A special night with a close to full moon and it was homecoming at Joseph City who has a student body population not much bigger then Duncan. Cookouts going, people dressed up, students excited, football team pumped up, what a beautiful night.
Duncan has a special memory for me since my father was a principal at the middle school in the 1970’s. I still recall family names and I was excited about working their sideline knowing their head coach, Eldon Merrell. It is extra special when you walk over to the sideline before the game and the coach personally greets you with a warm hello because you know each other. It was a special moment,
Not only do I know Coach Merrell but I know several of his brothers as well. His brother Hollis is now the superintendent of schools in Snowflake and another brother Travis is a vice president of National Bank of Arizona. Irony is always a small part of my life as Travis is the one who had to come to Payson about four weeks ago to tell my wife, Carolyn, that her position with the bank had been eliminated and she no longer had a job. What weirdness is that? And of course, it wasn’t anything to do with him but it is kind of weird.
Both Joseph City and Duncan are rated teams in the 8 man leagues in AZ. Joseph City is a perennial power who has won several state championships in a row and is always competitive. Duncan literally gets off the bus at around 5:30 and is kicking off at 7:00.
The bus ride had taken its toll and they found themselves down 22-0 by halftime but fought gamely in the second have and ended up losing 50-20 in a fun game to officiate. Great sportsmanship all around and once again I found myself just blessed to be part of a game that was lopsided in score but not in spirit. Clearly Duncan is a good team and will be in the playoffs. Joseph City, well I know they will be there.
But the story doesn’t end with a game. The rest of the story to me is simply amazing. You see, Coach Eldon Merrell is not only the head football coach but he is the head basketball coach. Not only the head coach of two sports but he is also the Principal of the high school. That is unheard of in most places but hold on, I’m not finished. Not only is he the Principal of the high school but he is the Superintendent of the school district. It is a great story that only continues.
Coach Merrell’s father, Donald Merrell, is a long time board member, travels with the team and keeps the stats for the football team. He told me that the bus would pull in to Duncan at about 4:00 am Saturday morning. This was after leaving at around 10:00 Friday morning. Oh by the way, who was driving the bus? Yep, the head coach/principal/superintendent Eldon Merrell. He is the bus driver as well, so now you know an amazing Friday Night Football Story in Arizona that just might be one for the ages. Coach Merrell is truly amazing and his story should be told.