A prairie football phenomenon

A small Alberta high school keeps punching above its weight
Friday, October 14, 2011 - Raymond, Alberta - Raymond High School football player #2 Austin Geddes checks out his form in the mirror of the boys change room before they take to the field for a Friday night game against Catholic Central High School in Raymond, Alberta on October 14, 2011. Photo by Chris Bolin for Macleans Magazine
Friday night lights on the prairie
Photographs by Chris Bolin

“I told my wife last week: you can have the baby any day but Friday,” says Darryl Salmon, head coach of the Raymond Comets high school football team. Stephanie Salmon was due to deliver the couple’s second child on Tuesday, Oct. 18. Her husband’s team had a home game on Oct. 14—a “nothing game,” as even school athletic director Todd Heggie admits. The Comets, 4-2 against provincial Tier I competition, had already secured a spot in the playoffs. Two bye weeks for the team lay ahead, leaving plenty of time for the baby to arrive without disruption.

And Coach Salmon is, frankly, not short of help coaching his squad—not in Raymond, Alta., which generally has a few ex-Comets hanging around who played college or pro football. Fans of Canadian university football will remember Salmon as the starting quarterback for the University of Alberta Golden Bears of 2004, when the team went 7-1 and returned to the Canada West championship game after a 20-year absence. As a head coach, Salmon is not easy to pick out on the sideline, spending most of his time in close contact with his QB while others tend to the complicated choreography of line play and defence.

No one in Raymond—though it’s hard to be certain—would have begrudged the boss a night off. He didn’t get one. Sure enough, Stephanie was awakened by contractions at 5:30 a.m. on the morning of game day. She handled it with the aplomb of an experienced pocket passer, arriving at the Raymond hospital at 8:30 a.m. Seven-pound, seven-ounce Maddie was born at about 11:30 a.m. And when the Cougars of Calgary’s Catholic Central High kicked off to the Comets at 7 p.m., Salmon was there on the sidelines. “He’d have stayed with me if there had been a problem,” says Stephanie, “but under the circumstances, I figured I could spare him for a few hours.”

That kind of stoic virtue may be part of the secret of Raymond, a town of 3,868 in southern Alberta’s irrigation belt. Founded as a Mormon colony in 1901, Raymond has been producing athletic excellence, along with sugar beets, for generations. Its basketball Union Jacks were the terror of the Dominion from 1930 to 1945, winning the senior men’s provincial title almost every year. In the ’60s and ’70s, even junior-varsity and small-college opponents were helpless against a seemingly endless sequence of tall lads named Tollestrup—one of whom, the six-foot-six Phil, was drafted out of Brigham Young University by the NBA’s Buffalo Braves and was the third-highest scorer at the 1976 Montreal Olympics.

The boys’ basketball Comets are still formidable. In fact, they’re the reigning champions of the province at the 4A top level of competition, and also won in 2009. But the winning tradition has long since spread to football, and it’s now routine for young Raymonders to block and tackle in the fall, before going on to shoot hoops in the wintertime. Calgary Stampeder offensive-line great Lloyd Fairbanks starred in both sports before going on to a 17-year CFL career. The Tollestrups were eventually succeeded by the Ralph extended clan, which sent receivers Brock and Brett to the CFL. The football Comets have been Tier I champions of Alberta three years running, thanks in part to multi-position threat Jimmy Ralph (who was also regarded as the best high school point guard in the province). Overall, they have won seven championships in the past 15 seasons.

Visit the Football Alberta website, and you’ll notice that Tier I is described as being for schools with 1,250 or more students. Raymond High’s population is not one-fifth that number. The Comets played in Tier III until 1992, and even then were above their class, according to the technical guidelines. But when they won a third straight Tier III championship by a final-game score of 63-0, the authorities decided to throw the rules out the window. Raymond has been abusing bigger schools ever since, even though its top athletes typically stay on the field for both offence and defence. “Calgary’s schools have a rule against doing that, but we can’t afford to, owing to the numbers,” notes Coach Salmon. (He adds that opponents sometimes complain about this “advantage.”)

The town’s collective refusal to stay put on the bell curve is apparent in the Catholic Central game. When the Comets take the field for the pre-game workout, they have 35 or 36 players in uniform. None are at all large—in fact, none seem quite as large as the Maclean’s correspondent who is here to watch them. The Cougars, meanwhile, disgorge more than 50 uniformed kids from their bus, including a few ham-shaped linemen who look almost CFL-ready. It seems like the recipe for a massacre—especially with Raymond’s starting QB, Brad Baker, sidelined by a torn medial-collateral ligament in his knee. Jimmy Ralph, who graduated in 2010 and is completing Mormon mission service in Chile before facing college recruiters, isn’t going to show up to save the day.

But as the game progresses, the advantages of deep local tradition and strong coaching gradually begin to tell. The game begins as a ground war, and the most gifted player on the field is almost certainly Central tailback Jacob Palmarin, who starts breaking big off-tackle gains in the second quarter. But with the temperature near zero, Central has a case of the fumbles, and fails to turn Palmarin’s yardage into points. It is the outnumbered Comets and backup QB Jonathan Keeler who have the boldness to take to the air on offence; rush-dependent Central has no answer. Raymond leads 13-7 at the half, bolsters the defensive line, and grinds out a 23-15 victory.

The crowd on hand to see the game is disappointing—but only by Raymond standards. About 300 people, a number that would be celebrated in southern Alberta and would shatter records in the north, turn out to watch a “nothing game” on a chilly night. For a big game, Heggie says, the total would easily be 1,000. (An ’80s Comet basketball legend, Heggie adds with pride that the gate revenue from basketball games covers the much higher costs of the football program.)

To the visitor, Raymond is much like any other sleepy Alberta town, offering only the most subtle hints at any uniqueness. The children are a little blonder, the public buildings a little more stately. The Subway sandwich shop has a sign announcing with regret that it can’t offer food on credit, though it will take personal cheques. The teenagers have the same slovenly, conspiratorial air as they do anywhere else, and experiment with the same four-letter words.

But you won’t find them wearing NFL-branded track pants or kangaroo jackets; Comets gear is de rigueur. “From a very young age, you do start thinking about whether you have what it takes to be a Comet,” says Raymond-born CFL veteran Brock Ralph. Ralph resists simple explanations for Raymond’s “magical” sporting success, but he admits that in a small town where almost everybody attends the same church, “you can spend a lot of late nights lying awake in bed.”

One overlooked factor, Ralph says, is that Raymond is just an hour’s drive from the U.S. border. (Hockey is almost an afterthought here, although the town is pulling hard for 17-year-old Brooks Maxwell, a rookie forward with the WHL’s Red Deer Rebels.) In the ’90s, its football team adopted the practice of testing itself against U.S. opposition, the way its basketball boys always had. “The U.S. visits changed everything,” Salmon agrees. “We play exhibitions against Americans before our regular season starts, and when we come back, local opponents like LCI [Lethbridge Collegiate Institute] aren’t quite so intimidating.”

American schools, says Salmon, used to give the small-town visitors a break sometimes by playing under Canadian rules for a half. But now that word has gotten around the Rocky Mountains—the Comets, to take just one example, played the Idaho state champs in Blackfoot, Idaho, last season and crushed them 34-19—nobody makes that mistake anymore. David can only beat so many Goliaths before they start getting wise to that damned sling.