HOT SPRINGS — On Saturday morning, Steve Johnson grabbed his coffee mug, coat and cushioned bleacher seat and got into his car in Whitefish. He drove south through the Flathead Valley and traced the big lake before turning at Elmo, winding south into the high, wide prairie of Sanders County. In this open landscape, homes are as sparse as cellular service. Instead it’s mostly chaparral and sage, cattle and even a herd of bison roaming the farmland and rolling hills that rise in the horizon. A few horses stand frozen in solitude. Hawks perch atop wooden power lines. A small sign along Montana Highway 28 reads, “Don’t Despair We’re Located in the Middle of Nowhere.”
After about 80 miles, Johnson arrived at the junction of Highway 77, marked by a white sign painted in bold, black letters, “We Are Proud Of Our Savage Heat.” Turning west, the two-mile roadway funnels into the isolated outpost of Hot Springs, population 547.
On this overcast Saturday in late fall, a few businesses were open, including the historic Symes Hotel and Alameda’s Hot Springs Retreat, where guests dipped into the namesake thermal pools that put this destination on the map. But most places, like Six Shooter Pizza, were temporarily closed for the biggest event in town. Even the woman behind the counter at the liquor store had one topic on her mind.
It was game day.
Johnson joined the nearly 100 people who gathered at the football field behind the lone school in the heart of town. The Class C six-man high school playoffs were kicking off and the undefeated Savage Heat of Hot Springs were hosting the North Star Knights, whose 12 players journeyed nearly 300 miles from north-central Montana to take on the Heat’s roster of 15. Four years after winning the school’s first and only state championship, the Heat are back in the title hunt, creating a buzz around town and igniting the thrill of small-town football.
“(Six-man football is) amazing. It’s so wide open. It’s big scores. There’s trickery and so much strategy,” said Johnson, a lifelong football fan who frequently travels to watch Class C games across the state. “They are really fun to watch.”
The unconventional action of six-man football wasn’t the only reason Johnson drove nearly an hour-and-a-half to watch Hot Springs instead of staying home to catch the Griz game or another college football matchup on television.
“It’s the spirit of the school and the community spirit,” he said, looking out at the field and the crowd, which included ranchers, retirees and local businesspeople, many of whom didn’t even have kids playing or in school but still came out to hoot and holler and rattle cowbells, win or lose.
“This is quintessential hometown America. It is just really neat to get out and appreciate something like this.”
In Montana, a state with barely one million people spread across 147,000 square miles, there are 105 Class C high schools representing the smallest communities in Big Sky Country.
In Class C, six-man football is the smallest classification, below 8-man and 11-man, the latter category featuring schools in Class AA, Class A and Class B.
Montana is one of only five states with sanctioned six-man football, along with Texas, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico.
To field a six-man team in Montana, a school cannot have more than 65 students. In 2014, there were 36 programs; this fall, there are 30 from tiny towns in all corners of the landscape, from Ekalaka to Bainville, Fromberg, Valier and Box Elder. For communities that are even too small to field a half-dozen players, the nearby schools can partner up for co-op teams, like Stanford-Geyser-Denton, Grass Range-Winnett and Mon-Dak, which features players from Westby and Grenora, North Dakota.
Hot Springs and Mon-Dak in particular have developed a special familiarity after colliding in the playoffs in recent years, and when the two teams play it requires a trip spanning more than 780 miles.
Six-man football is slightly different than the other classifications. For example, the field is 80 yards long and 40 yards wide compared to the standard size of 100 yards long and 53 1/3 yards wide. With six players on the field for each team, everyone on offense is eligible to receive a pass, including the center and other linemen. Yet the quarterback, or whoever receives the snap, cannot directly forward the ball beyond the line of scrimmage. After a touchdown, it’s one point for running or throwing an extra point, while kicks are worth two. Field goals, which are few and far between, are worth four points.
All together, this creates an action-packed, high-scoring atmosphere that often ends with a final score more resembling a basketball game than any gridiron contest.
In six-man football, Hot Springs has developed into a dynasty in only a few years. This year’s team has outscored opponents 679-32. Last weekend, the Savage Heat defeated North Star 66-0. It snapped a five-game streak of scoring more than 70 points. It was the sixth defensive shutout and advanced the Heat (10-0) to another home playoff game, this Saturday at 1 p.m. against Bainville.
The dominating nature of this squad harkens back to the 2012 team, which went undefeated and won the school’s first state championship in a 77-0 rout.
The 2012 win was a watershed moment for a rebuilt program on the rise.
For decades, Hot Springs frequently suffered losing seasons and even had to cancel the season for a couple years in the 1980s and 1990s because there were not enough players to field a team.
In 2001, the school co-oped with Plains, but the team mostly played and practiced down the road away from Hot Springs, which hampered the town’s collective spirit surrounding the program. In 2011, the school made a bold decision to break away from the successful Plains team and field its own six-man team. Jim Lawson, a Hot Springs graduate and local rancher who served as an assistant on the co-op team, took over as head coach and began building a new program.
“A lot of us who stayed close to home and saw it struggle for several years thought the co-op was a really good thing because the team was succeeding,” Lawson said. “When we broke away, the question was, ‘Are we going to have enough players to even have a team?’”
A year later, Hot Springs was hoisting the championship trophy, and five years later, it’s a perennial playoff contender with a community full of fans. Since 2011, Hot Springs has a record of 52-5. Since the championship season, the Savage Heat have gotten close to bringing more hardware home. Last year’s squad lost in the final seconds of the semifinal round to Box Elder and the year before that the team fell in the quarterfinals to Mon-Dak.
“Us local people who knew the history of the football program in Hot Springs questioned if it was a possibility to ever win a state title in football,” Lawson said. “When it happened it was really special. It’s hard to explain. It was something that you can really appreciate when you had seen the struggles we had gone through for many years.”
This latest squad features only five players over 6-feet tall. The heaviest weighs 190 pounds. In place of the typical bulkiness of most football teams, Hot Springs’ players resemble a track squad, speedy and agile.
Among this talented group is one of the all-time great Montana high school players in Trevor Paro. He might also be the best example of Class C’s versatility and grit. At 5-foot-8, 175 pounds, Paro is the all-class touchdown leader for high school football, a feat he achieved last weekend in the 66-0 victory over North Star. Paro, the team’s running back, return specialist and all-around defensive standout, now has 123 career touchdowns, surpassing the previous all-class record of 119, set by Travis Bertelsen of Wibaux from 2005-08, according to the Montana High School Association.
“It’s pretty cool knowing how many people have come through the state of Montana and knowing I’m the leader,” Paro said after last Saturday’s win. “The biggest thing now is making sure we get three more wins.”
This season, Paro has scored about once every three times he has touched the ball.
“His speed changes everything,” Lawson said. “Offense, defense and special teams, it’s tough to corral a kid like that.”
Paro joins the list of notable small-town athletes who achieved greatness despite playing in relative obscurity, a storyline many Class C stars, such as NFL running back Chase Reynolds of Drummond, have had to overcome. Before the success of the Savage Heat, the pride of Hot Springs was most notably Todd Riech, who graduated from high school after a standout athletic career and became an Olympian. He threw the javelin at the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta.
Last weekend’s record-setting score was punctuated by the raucous home crowd that has supported the undersized athlete and his teammates from the beginning.
“Once I broke (the record) it took me awhile,” he said. “It finally hit me that I broke the all-time record when I looked up at the fans cheering. I thought, ‘This is crazy.’ It was definitely a moment to live for.”
These games, perhaps more than most others in larger towns, end up being a community event and a vibrant display of hometown pride. In early October, when White Sulphur Springs traveled to Hot Springs, there were nearly 500 people in attendance between the two towns.
“Most of the time, all of Hot Springs will be here,” said Mike Perry, the school superintendent and activities director. “It’s the one place where the farmers and ranchers can get together and see each other and talk about old times.”
It’s not uncommon for Paro and other players to run into residents at lunch or the grocery store and hear well wishes or questions about the latest opponent.
“We have one of the best fan bases, not only in six-man but in the entire state of Montana,” Paro said. “It’s just awesome.”
The pools of geothermal groundwater bubbling up around town may be the most well-known source of respite and healing, but the high school and its sports teams are inextricably tied to the community’s identity.
In many ways, this town and its residents have seen better days. In a county with one of the highest unemployment rates in the state, Hot Springs ranks at the bottom of the state for median household income per capita, at barely $22,000 annually. According to the latest U.S. Census data, nearly 28 percent of the town’s residents live in poverty. Jobs in the timber and mining industries have largely vanished.
Yet visitors will be hard-pressed to find a community as diverse and tight-knit as Hot Springs.
“Hot Springs has a huge demographic, from farmers and loggers and retired people and the old hippies,” said Randy Woods, a Hot Springs native who has served as the town’s mayor the last nine years and chief of the volunteer fire department since 1994.
“Everybody here lives and does everything together,” Woods continued. “And the town of Hot Springs and the surrounding area has always been very supportive of the schools, whether it be for all the sports or all academics. The town is always behind the school system, no matter what. Whether it’s a winning or losing team, there’s always a good crowd.”