UNDERWOOD, Minn.—Last Friday, Jeff Gronner and his Cromwell-Wright football team school bused 3½ hours westward to the small Minnesota town of Underwood.
Yes, the Underwood Rockets are much like the Cardinals. State tournaments trips are an annual habit and seemingly everyone who calls the community home breathes nine-man football. And sure, Underwood also had an opening on their regular season schedule much like Cromwell-Wright did.
While the Rockets lost Laporte, the Cardinals saw Wrenshall cancel its varsity season due to a lack of numbers. So it was only fitting the pair of tiny football-driven towns filled their scheduling gaps against one another last week.
But this story is much more than playing. It’s much more than the final score — Underwood 32, Cromwell-Wright 19. It’s about going back to where the playing was once done by Gronner. It’s about revisiting the moments he’ll never forget as a teenager. It’s about Gronner getting to go home.
Gronner graduated from Underwood in 1993 and helped lead the Rockets to their first state tournament appearance his senior year as a fearless defensive end in the fall of 1992.
Gronner, now 40, went on to play at Concordia University-Moorhead and has since moved to Cromwell — a town much like Underwood, with a single four-way stop on Highway 210 — where he has been head coach for 18 seasons and has had even more success than when he played.
While Underwood has been to the past two state tournaments, Cromwell-Wright is coming off their latest of 16 trips last fall. The Cardinals have won four Prep Bowl titles — their most recent in 2010 — and the Rockets have been there often. Their last championship game was in 2013.
The only time the teams met before was in a 2010 state semifinal at the Metrodome, which the Cardinals won 18-12.
That’s why the scene just off of Highway 210 west — 160 miles from Cromwell — was so nostalgic for all watching.
Overlooked by a rocket statue, the field’s green grass was tightly mowed, while the white yardage lines were painted to perfection. On the hillsides, dozens of cars parked with their tailgates open on the edge of an overflowing dirt parking lot. Some even parked in the nearby ditches to get their tickets.
Black and orange Rockets jerseys and school colors streamed the sidelines, as parents, grandparents and town residents cheered on the hosts, while homemade banana bars circled the bleachers. Speaking of food, the concession stand line was long and the 20-student pep band loud. The public address announcer was friendly and his mix of music rocked.
A light rain came down early, but it didn’t hinder the crowd. It seemed as if all 341 people in Underwood came to watch the pair of top-10 program in the No. 5 Cardinals (2-1) and sixth-rated Rockets (3-0). Everyone was there, including Underwood Principal John Hamann, sporting an orange polo on the sidelines. Afterward, the local pizza joint was jumping, while Cromwell-Wright players were treated to lasagna before kickoff and free subs and sports drinks after. It was perfect.
The game itself didn’t start perfectly for the Cardinals, as they fumbled on the first play. Underwood turned it into a touchdown and soon after, scored again. It was 12-0 in a hurry, but Cromwell-Wright responded to take a 13-12 lead, only to be down 18-13 at the half. The back-and-forth affair was a matchup of juggernauts where the Rockets simply hung on longer.
Junior quarterback Zion Smith’s three TD passes led the Cardinals, but it wasn’t enough to top the senior-laden Rockets, keyed by Dylan Kalenze’s trio of rushing scores.
The final score and stats were a far cry from what Gronner’s mother, Linda, was concerned about. Wearing the neutral colors of a pink shirt and blue jeans, she was simply happy being corralled by her 10 grandchildren as she watched the two prestigious teams play from her sideline blanket.
“It’s pretty neat,” she said. “Underwood is a small town, just like Cromwell. I think that’s what makes it special. All you really want is for both teams to play well. And they are.”
Linda, 68, explained that the local Harvest Festival was going on in town, while their family was celebrating her husband, Rick’s, 70th birthday over the weekend, including Jeff Gronner who stayed. She said steak was on the menu.
“It’s a fun time for us,” Linda said. “And a fun time for the people of Underwood, who remember when Jeff played.”
Rick, meanwhile, was wearing a red Cardinals ball cap, with a grey, orange-lettered Underwood shirt. Standing on the Cromwell-Wright sideline, he said he was rooting for his son’s team. Despite defeat, Rick was simply content with seeing his son again, only his second time home this summer.
“Jeff gets pretty wired,” Rick said of his intense-coaching son. “But it all worked out that they could set this up to play.”
As handshakes commenced at midfield, Gronner gave his best to the Rockets, as did they, both wearing smiles. Underwood assistant coach Brian Hovland is actually Rick and Linda’s next-door neighbor and stays in touch with Jeff.
Jeff Gronner noted the game was good for his junior-dominated group, as it posed an early-season test they needed.
“They’re one of the top teams in the state,” Gronner said. “I was extremely happy with how we competed.”
Rockets coach Chuck Ross, in his 18th season, agreed.
“We want to compare our team to Cromwell and I’m sure they want to do the same,” said Ross. “Jeff’s kids played hard and that’s a reflection of him. He was a good player here.”
Ross’ quarterback, senior Justin Masloski — who scored a touchdown of his own last week — gave Gronner and the Cardinals the ultimate respect.
“They have a great group of guys that drove a long way,” he said. “I respect them for coming all the way out here.”
In fact, if the two teams meet again, it would be for the state championship in Minneapolis. Go figure for these two.
“If we do, it’ll definitely be a dogfight,” Masloski said.
“That’s what I told them when we shook hands: ‘Hopefully we’ll get a chance to play you again,’” Ross added.
Remember though, this story doesn’t revolve around scores, stats and numbers. The coolest part is that someone got to come home and coach in front of much of his family.
Including his other family, too, the people of Underwood.
“Jeff’s an awesome individual and a great coach,” Ross said. “I wasn’t here when Jeff was, but I heard a lot of good things about him. I’m sure it was special for him to be back.”
Gronner said the uniforms the Rockets have now look much slicker than the ones that he donned back in the day.
“We had orange jerseys and white helmets,” he said, and laughed.
“It was an awesome field, and an awesome atmosphere here, I hope we see them again, Gronner continued. “It was fun. I’ve seen a lot of people I haven’t seen in a long time. The first four guys to shake my hand were all ex-teammates.”
Handshakes that he won’t forget, until they meet again.