Mountain Football

A Game for Cowboys, Miners and Other Large Mammals 

By George Sibley
Originally published in The San Juan Horseshoe 

            Football is becoming America’s national sport, for better or worse. But I can’t watch the game without thinking what a paltry imitation of the real thing the modern citified version of football is, compared to its origins in places like the Gunnison valley, around the turn of the last century.  That the people of the valley seem to have completely forgotten the valley’s role in the development of this co-opted game is, to me, a measure of the real damage television has done in so packing people’s minds with inanity and trivia that there is no room left for history.

            Football grew out of a field sport played in most places where there were, as it were, fields.  Children played the game with “pigskins” – actually the bladders of pigs inflated and tied off. Then they grew up, however, more or less, they joined the bigger boys in playing the game with the whole pig.  One wonders how many hundred-yard games today’s running backs would have if they had to run with a full-grown porker under one arm.  The player called the “center” today had an even more difficult job, however, since it was his task to hold the pig down when it had its feet on the ground until everybody got lined up (“centering the pig”), when he could finally hand it back to the quarterback – then called one of the “fatbacks,” along with the five other team members allowed to carry the pig. 

            And getting the opposing teams lined up was not an easy thing.  Then as now, there were eleven players to a team, but since population density was not so large as it is in the modern city, they were not limited to human stock.  That beer commercial of a couple years ago was accurate in noting that horses like to play football, but they have it all backwards – or maybe I should say “frontwards” – since every son of the soil knows that horses kick backward rather than forward.  In the earliest days of the sport, horses and mules thus made really formidable linemen until a common-law rule was adopted requiring them to line up frontwards rather than backwards.  Facing the 350-pound offensive lineman today is nothing compared to lining up across from the back end of a half-ton draft horse, whose four-point set is a prelude to an attempt to kick your skull completely out of your skin. 

            Formidable as they may have been in scrimmage, however, horses, mules and the occasional mulish cow alone did not make a very effective defensive line; most of them only dimly comprehended the goal of moving the ball down the pasture, and seemed content to stay on the scrimmage line kicking away at each other until – as the saying went – the cows came home.  So it was necessary to have a sprinkling of humans on the defensive line to try to sneak through the melee of flying hooves and get to the fatback with the ball. 

            It was, needless to say, primarily a running game, with only occasional short forward passes, since there were few enough men capable of carrying the pig, let alone lofting it through the air – or worse, catching a flailing, panicked pig at the end of the pass.  The origin of the term “tight end” came out of those infrequent and usually desperate efforts, not as the descriptor for a player but as something the downfield fatback prayed fervently that the pig would maintain.

            So in most of the country, football was originally a country sport, played primarily by cowboys too dumb or uncoordinated for rodeo, and only came to the attention of the city-dweller as the city gradually crept into the countryside, through agribusiness and other industrial pursuits – like mining.  It was, therefore, a natural for a valley like the Upper Gunnison, which went to agribusiness and mining early on; by the turn of the century, the two main towns in the valley – upvalley Crested Butte, a twig on Alexander Hamilton’s mighty spreading imperial chestnut, and downvalley Gunnison, one of Thomas Jefferson’s agrarian scrub oaks – were looking for some ritualized way of expressing their mutual cultural antipathy that continues to this day.  And that led to what would have been the First Annual All Souls Mountain Football game, had there in fact been others; but as things turned out, it was the first and only.

            In 1901, there were no high school football teams in the valley since girls made up the majority of high school students, and girls have usually been too smart to engage in field games, especially those involving other animals.  But the young men of the valley – those between the end of their eighth grade education and the beginning of their eventual marriage – were all cowboys, and when they got tired of fighting each other, they would usually gather up a mixed scrimmage and play an afternoon and evening of football.

            Roughly the same conditions applied upvalley, although there most of the young post-eighth-grade men went to work in the coal mines of Crested Butte.  Since a few of the downvalley youth migrated up to Crested Butte for lowpaying mine jobs when it turned out there weren’t enough low-paying ranch jobs, and some of the upvalley people escaped into ranching after some years of diligent saving, there had been enough cross-cultural fertilization so that the miners had learned about Mountain Football, and started playing it themselves.

            So in 1901, each town picked its team of champions from among the handy mammals in its end of the valley.  Because they were all strong from hard labor, naturally hardheaded, and thoroughly testosterone-soaked, they decided it should be an unusual game – one that fully expressed the mingling of natural respect and cultural contempt of each faction for the other’s place and lifestyle.  That was when someone suggested that the field should be the whole 28-mile stretch between Crested Butte and Gunnison; that was agreed on.  The rules were the standard Mountain Football rules:  no guns or knives, all mammals on the line of scrimmage had to face forward initially, and the game was over when one team or the other could no longer field eleven functional mammals.

            All Souls Day that year, unfortunately, dawned with one of those unusual late autumn snowstorms.  But no one, except perhaps for some of the saner spectators, was going to let that stop them, so the game went on.

            Since no one was capable of kicking even an inflated pig’s bladder, let alone the whole pig, from Crested Butte to Gunnison, and since Crested Butte had the upfield advantage – more than a thousand vertical feet of upfield advantage – the agreement had been made that Gunnison would get the ball first, and the “kickoff” would be the morning train taking the pig and the whole Crested Butte team down to Almost where the game would start – the Mountain Football equivalent of a touchback, starting on the 20-yard line of the standard modern field.

            Crested Butte, which was short on big horses and had to make do with mine mules, had a lighter line than Gunnison, so Crested Butte naturally expected that Gunnison would start with some power running plays.  They were, therefore, taken completely by surprise when the pig went to one of Gunnison’s fatbacks, who tucked the pig under his arm and leaped onto the back of another fatback, which happened to be the fastest cutting pony in Gunnison, and took off on an end run up Taylor Canyon. 

            Crested Butte took off in full pursuit, but realized they had no chance of catching the runner before he “turned the corner” at the Jack’s Cabin Cutoff and ran up the sideline all the way to the Butte. So the Buttians immediately benched on of their mules and substituted the train, which was still there watching;  overpowering the engineer, they backed the train all the way to Jack’s Cabin, in time to intercept the Gunnison runner heading full tilt along the base of Round Mountain.

            There is confusion about what happened next:  either the runner tried to lateral the pig to another Gunnison player, or accidentally fumbled the pig – a frequent occurrence.  At any rate, the pig was loose and suddenly streaking due west to the shelter of the cottonwoods along the river.

             A Crested Butte linebacker scooped up the pig and ran for the train, which compliantly headed for Gunnison again.  Since the train wasn’t very fast then, however, some of the Gunnison players took off on those fast cutting ponies.  They got back to the Almont railroad tool cache far enough ahead of the train to pry up a section of rail, which dumped the train in the river. 

            Once again, the pig got loose, and headed west in full squeal, over the rise toward the Ohio Valley with both teams in hot pursuit.  Exactly what happened after that is a matter of considerable mystery.  The reader must remember that this game was being played under adverse conditions, with a foot of snow down and more coming thick and fast. 

            The fact on which all agree is that no one ever saw any of those players again after that morning.  Or the pig.  The storm dropped three feet of snow and more everywhere above 8,000 feet, and it was a week before the trains were even running on schedule.  Theories abound:  some say they probably all expired in the mountains in the storm;  others think they may have made it to Baldwin over in the Ohio Creek drainage, called a truce, had a drink or three, then had to go to work in the coal mine there to pay off their bar bill.  Still others note that on All Souls Day, the door between the worlds is open, and claim that both teams might just have galloped through that door in pursuit of the pig, and might yet be continuing their game in the wider fields of another universe.  Some people swear that, if a person is foolish enough to be out in the hills on Hallowe’en night, even now, that person might hear the squeal and hullabaloo of the First Annual Mountain Football Game roaring over the hills.

            Whatever the fate of those stalwart pioneers of the sport – one can imagine the contempt with which they would view the current citified version of the sport, played with little dead pigskins on fields where the players can’t even get properly dirty, and with no truly large mammals on the teams at all.