LIBBY — Years ago, before the mills went away and the terrible secret of the mine was revealed, the whistle blew to signal the end of a shift and thousands of workers streamed down U.S. 2, admiring the splendorous Cabinet Mountains before arriving at Libby High School.
They walked back behind the school, mingled with their friends and neighbors, filed neatly into the bleachers and settled in for the evening. They howled with delight when the freshman football players revved up their chainsaws and roared as the home team, renamed the Loggers in the 1950s, took the field and bravely battled the competition.
The thriving town of Libby produced some top talent in the state and some terrific teams, too. In 1967 the Loggers won a state championship, beating Glasgow 26-7 in front of a reported 2,000 fans at what was then City Ball Park. The win was punctuated by Libby Mayor Earle Winfrey, who won a bet with his Glasgow counterpart, Ken Bruce, and raised his trophy — literally the Glasgow mayor’s pants — above his head on the field in front of photographers and fans.
Some years later, a kid named Vince Huntsberger would arrive at the school and they drove from the mills and the mine to see him, too, before he left for the University of Montana, where he helped the Griz win a national championship in 2001 and picked up a single vote for the Heisman Trophy his senior season.
THEY STILL COME to see the Loggers today, although not from the same places.
There are no lumber mills here anymore. The last one closed more than a decade ago, the final blow in a series of whacks that took more than 1,000 jobs away.
The W.R. Grace & Company vermiculite mine, infamously, isn’t operating either. The culprit in a massive asbestos contamination, the mine was shuttered after being exposed in 1999, taking hundreds of jobs and leaving a generation of residents either sickened or dead.
The football team also isn’t the same. Entering their homecoming game on Friday against Lincoln County rival Troy, Libby hadn’t won a game in more than two years, losing most of those games rather decisively. There have been great seasons for the Loggers in the last decade, but the last two years — which have coincided with the school’s move down from Class A to Class B because of shrinking enrollment —have been ugly.
Still, on homecoming the stands were full, the views were spectacular and the chainsaws were buzzing.
WAYNE BAKER WAS a football coach in Libby for many years, serving as the head coach in the 1990s, some time after his days as a college football star and NFL lineman were through.
Baker is a mountain of a man — the size you expect from a professional football player — and he was in the front row on Friday to cheer on the Loggers.
“We started this chainsaw tradition years ago and that was quite a novelty,” he said. “A lot of the teams used to like that, some of the teams were a little intimidated.
“We were playing a team that came down from Canada and I was talking to their coach before they came down and he said ‘is it true you line up with chainsaws and the teams have to run through there?’ I said ‘yeah, we do that ... we do take the chains off the saws.’”
For years, the tradition was for freshman Libby football players to hold the chainsaws on the sidelines, revving them loudly when the Loggers would make a big play and forming a tunnel through which the team would run before and after the games.
This year, most of the Libby freshmen are suited up to play with the varsity team, including a few in the starting lineup. The chainsaws, still running on the sidelines and still welcoming the teams on and off the field, are operated by eighth graders now.
There are a few in the stands, too. In Libby, chainsaws are welcome on football Friday nights.
Provided the chains are off, of course.
LIBBY AND TROY are not great football teams. On this particular Friday there are botched special teams plays, errant passes, loads of penalties and missed blocks.
The crowd, though, doesn’t seem too bothered, especially when speedy sophomore JJ Davis takes a punt back 40 yards for a touchdown to give Libby a 7-0 lead barely two minutes into the first quarter. It is Libby’s first lead of the season.
“We scored in the first quarter against Eureka last week and that was the first time we’d scored in the first quarter all year,” longtime Libby coach Neil Fuller said after the game. “It felt pretty good.”
The Loggers would add a second touchdown in the opening quarter when senior quarterback Braydan Thom connected with fellow senior Logan Nelson from 20 yards out.
Thom has been a part of the Loggers football program for four years, sticking with the team through some lean days. He is one of only five seniors on the roster, only three of whom had played before this season.
“There are times, like after a tough loss, you kind of wonder ‘why are we doing this?’” Thom said before the game.
“But you always have teammates that back you up and are encouraging you.
“Our teams are not the most physical teams, not the biggest people up front, but we just try to work with what we have,” he added. “We don’t always get the results we want but everyone always tries hard.”
Things have not been much better lately for the Trojans. After losing a bevy of seniors last year, including superstar Sean Opland (now at Montana State), Troy has been crushed in its first five games of the year.
But first-year coach Kody Hoffman is still as animated as ever on the sidelines, screaming encouragement loud enough to be heard in the bleachers across the field. His Trojans are out-gunned, even tonight against Libby.
“Troy, they do a great job, their coaching staff does a great job,” Fuller said.
“They’re in the same boat we were last year.”
EVENTUALLY, LIBBY RUNS away from Troy, scoring 21 points in the third quarter to induce a running clock.
In the fourth quarter, the Loggers line up for a field goal but the snap is bobbled. Somewhat miraculously, the Loggers holder is able to throw a completed pass in the mayhem, resulting in a first down inside the 5-yard line. Fuller, likely sensing he has gotten away with something, sends the field goal team back onto the field on first down.
This time, the kick is blocked.
The Trojans celebrate.
LIBBY WINS ITS homecoming game, 35-0.
The two teams, and most of the Libby student section, join hands on-field for a prayer after the game. Nik Rewerts, the activities coordinator at Libby and himself a former football player for the Loggers, is quick to point out that the prayer circle is completely voluntary and completely student-organized. He says the school has been careful to investigate the legality of such a circle. He is sweetly worried, clearly, about how it might look, worried about someone his students might accidentally offend.
Fuller, indeed, is not part of the circle. He is picking up tiny bits of trash from around his bench while the prayer is happening, bowing his head only as the final words are spoken. He walks back to the locker room and is stopped and congratulated several times by smiling fans. He is humble and polite, introducing his assistant coaches, both former players of his, as he takes his seat in the coaches office.
“I told the kids, ‘there was a time not too long ago where we expected to score every time we had the ball,” Fuller said.
“We want to get that back.”
Troy 0 0 0 0 — 0
Libby 14 0 21 0 — 35
LIB - JJ Davis 40 punt return (Chandler Bower kick), 9:52
LIB - Logan Nelson 20 pass from Braydan Thom (Bower kick), :42
LIB - Laine Young 20 run (Bower kick), 10:22
LIB - Davis 70 punt return (Bower kick), 7:23
LIB - Tim Carvey 38 pass from Thom (Bower kick), 5:23