Like an ebullient child the week before Christmas, Duane Horsky counts the number of days until the first Friday in September.
Driving past Bear River High School on hot August evenings and seeing boys running wind sprints and practicing formations, Horsky grows giddy with anticipation; the nine-month wait is nearly over.
“I wait all summer for football to start,” Horsky said in an interview at the local high school near Lake of the Pines.
“Once I see the kids out there practicing, I know it’s getting close to that time.”
It’s been 40 years or more since Horsky last played the game. His children have long since graduated from high school and he doesn’t have any Cardinal-and-Gray-clad grandchildren.
But year after year, Horsky can be found sitting in the stands at every game, home or away, sporting a tattered Bruins hat and a Bear River jacket cheering on the school’s football team.
“Once you’ve played the sport, it stays with you forever,” Horsky said in a low serious tone, indicating deep affection for the sport that has existed long after he played his last game.
“Football gets in your blood.”
Horsky’s dedication is unmistakable; but in Nevada County, not entirely shocking.
In a rural community with only two high schools, Friday night football games are as much an avenue for entertainment as they are an inherent thread of its culture.
Housing two of the oldest towns in the state, Nevada County’s high school football tradition began as early as 1901 when Nevada City and Grass Valley each had their own high schools and a heated rivalry.
“What better entertainment is there in this area than going to a football game on Friday night?” Roy Brooks of Grass Valley asked. “High school sports are clean, they’re cheap to go to, and a source of pride for the community.”
Brooks said he has been a fan of NU football since he moved to the area in 1951. Although he never played, he said he was so amazed by the 5,000 to 6,000 person crowd that turned out to each game, he has been a season ticket holder since graduating from NU in 1954.
“Football players around here are special people,” Brooks said. “Most of all, they’re winners.”
Although Bear River and Nevada Union are in different sports divisions and face each other only in scrimmages, such as the one slated for Sept. 3 (Meet the Bruins, Meet the Miners), each high school’s football team draws an abundance of community support and forms consistently competitive, if not winning, programs.
“It’s fan support that makes teams. And like anything, the teams are only as good as we build them,” Brooks said in a late-July interview.
Horsky is not a coach or a parent, but he is certainly responsible for helping create Bear River’s sports program.
When the high school entered the Sierra Foothill League in the mid-1990s, Horsky said the school had to prepare extra fields for the junior varsity sports teams.
After countless hours of hoeing and tilling dirt on the fields, Horsky was awarded an appreciation plaque from the high school.
“I’d do anything to support the sports program here,” Horsky said. “I’m their number one fan.”
And, he has the jacket to prove it.
In a special ceremony held on the football field, Horsky was given the maroon nylon jacket that he wears to every game with the words, “Super Fan” embroidered across the breast.
In equally impressive displays of community support, Brooks said NU football fans are unique for the financial contributions they give to the team.
Each year, Brooks said dozens of local businesses donate thousands of dollars to football boosters and it would only be a matter of time before the community raised enough money to replace the Hooper Stadium grass with the synthetic turf for which the program is currently seeking funds.
“The community will make sure the team gets its Astroturf field. It is raising the money right now,” Brooks said assuredly.
With or without a turf field, Brooks and his friends talk about the NU Miners as they would any professional sports team.
Sitting in lawn chairs at late August preseason practices or while at Frank’s Pizza Parlor in downtown Grass Valley, Brooks and his friends spend countless hours before the first game, assessing the team’s talent and weighing its odds for winning another Sac-Joaquin Section title.
“We talk about these players as like we would the Sacramento Kings or the 49ers,” Brooks said. “We wait all summer for the chance to watch these kids play under the lights on Friday nights.”
Five Jr. Miner football players and four Jr. Miner cheerleaders have all been selected to participate in the Sacramento (SYF) Youth Shrine Bowl, which benefits Shriners Hospitals for Children.
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