HARLAN, Ia. — Creston/Orient-Macksburg’s football players walked onto the turf at Harlan’s Merrill Field in a group Friday, with team captains leading the way, holding hands.
“Where my dogs at?” A player shouted. The rest of the team barked in reply.
As the Panthers neared the visitor sideline, one of them raised a red flag with a school logo. The players ran down the field as the fans cheered. It was a week of hurt and healing for Creston/OM parents, students and community members.
This was a chance for some normalcy in a week that was anything but.
A photograph of five Creston students, later identified as football players and kicked off the team, went viral Wednesday. The students wore white hoods associated with the Ku Klux Klan. One held what appeared to be a Confederate flag. Another hoisted a gun. In front of them was a makeshift burning cross. The story was picked up nationally.
In most years, the football game itself would have been the talk of the towns — both schools are members of the Hawkeye 10 Conference. But not this week.
The photo continued a national dialogue of race in America. It created other debates as well: school discipline and the consequences of actions and the boundaries of free speech, among them.
Creston/OM coach Brian Morrison told the Register on Thursday that he spoke with all parents of the students in the photo and said the players were no longer on the team. The Register reported late Thursday that lawyers had gotten involved and discipline may be challenged.
“Litigation is what it is,” Morrison told the Register Thursday. “At this point, they’re not with us.”
Administrators and teachers met at Creston and took extra steps to talk to students in the hallways.
Harlan, an athletic powerhouse and perhaps Creston’s greatest rival, offered support.
The host school took extra precautions Friday by hiring a couple of extra law enforcement officers and discussing extra vigilance to avoid potential problems. Harlan students were emailed by the school to urge them to be respectful.
None of the players believed to be included in the photo were observed on the Creston/OM sideline by this reporter Friday night.
Still, fans were apparently weary of the continuing controversy that swirled around the town.
A reporter from another media outlet who attempted to interview parents in the stands was escorted out of the stands by a police officer when several of them complained, officials from both schools confirmed. Administrators from both schools afterward told the Register that additional attempts to interview fans also would lead to them being escorted out. The officials were concerned it was disruptive and would agitate the crowd.
A member of the football team’s staff saw a photographer on the sideline and exasperatedly said “leave him alone” to no one in particular.
“We’re here for a positive reason,” Creston activities director Jeff Bevins said. “It’s time now to start the healing.”
Making the best of a bad situation
Even a bad situation can be used as an opportunity to teach and move forward. That’s Bevins’ perspective.
“Everything’s a learning opportunity,” Bevins said. “It’s a learning opportunity until you’re six feet under.”
The community faced a situation this week that has offered one.
When a photograph of students displaying offensive behavior creates an impression across the state and country, how do you move on?
“We need to come together to figure out what to do to heal,” Bevins said. “In the long run, to make it a healing process.”
Creston has a good student body, he said. There were no physical confrontations at school, no discipline problems reported to him.
“We don’t have a lot of factions at our school,” Bevins said.
Teachers were encouraged to talk to kids more. To look for students who might be struggling or questioning, the kids with their heads down.
“The more eyes we have on kids, the more we know what they’re doing,” Bevins said.
He said he’s not dealing with the online discussion that goes beyond the community’s borders.
“I can’t do anything about those people,” Bevins said.
Friday’s game had extensive media coverage. Several sportswriters and radio station broadcasters sat in the press box. A news reporter went to the stands. A TV station news reporter stood in front of a camera near the end zone.
Like other members of the community, Bevins is eager to change the subject.
“Sometimes I hate the development of the cell phone,” Bevins said.
A helping hand
The distance between Creston and Harlan schools is about 90 miles. But there’s a kinship between the conference rivals.
Before the game began, Harlan’s marching band did an about-face toward the Creston stands then played part of the opposing school’s fight song as parents and fans clapped along.
Every school in the western Iowa league contacted Blevins this week, essentially asking “How can we help?”
That extended to the coaches. Harlan’s Curt Bladt, who has won an Iowa-best 11 state football championships, spoke with Creston/OM’s Morrison to offer reassurance.
“I said, ‘You’ve got a group of good kids. Take a little time to heal and go about your business,'” Bladt said after the game.
It was “I Care Week” at Harlan, a time when students are urged to reach out to others in need.
Harlan activities director Mitch Osborn, who was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 2014, received support from the other conference schools during his fight. Three years after his diagnosis, he was working at the game Friday.
Before the game, Harlan administrators acted to make sure that cheering, not trash talking, was going to be coming from the stands.
An email was sent to Harlan students:
“We expect you to be great, like you always are. We expect you to live up to the values that rural Iowa has.”
Creston/OM’s players were able to concentrate on the game, not disruptive chatter.
“(Harlan understands) the situation and our kids felt welcome, no doubt about it,” Morrison said after the game.
‘What the community stands for’
Harlan Community schools superintendent Justin Wagner heard about the racist photograph involving Creston students this week. But he believed the image didn’t represent the community.
“What we know of them, what they stand for, what the community stands for, is the right things,” Wagner said.
One of the families of a Creston student issued a statement to the media this week:
“On behalf of the Travis family, we sincerely apologize for the hurt and strife we have caused this community,” Jamie and Megan Travis said in the statement. “We do not condone the behavior that was expressed in the recent photo that was disseminated throughout various media sources.
“We understand that our son has conducted himself in a way that is inappropriate and has caused disruption in the community. Our son recognizes his poor judgment and respectfully asks forgiveness from his classmates, the school and the community. The photo in no way reflects our family values. Our family strongly believes that all individuals are created equally in God’s eyes.”
Creston/OM quarterback Kylan Smallwood, an African-American student who is a two-year starter at quarterback, told the Register Thursday that he was shocked when he saw the photograph.
“I would see that kind of stuff like Charlottesville and think that’s pretty messed up,” Smallwood said. “I never thought that would happen to our small town.
“I don’t want to be playing with kids like that.”
Creston/OM lost to Harlan 42-7. After the game, the players hustled the bus. None spoke with the media.
Friday night in Harlan was about a high school football game and an attempt at normalcy in a week that was anything but.
“Our community was outstanding this week,” Morrison said. “I can’t be prouder to be part of this community, this team.”