Homecoming week is among the best of the school year, five fun days filled with dancing, dress-up, coronations and, of course, the big game on Friday night.
But Homecoming is more subdued this week at MACCRAY High School.
The football team hasn't won a game yet but that's really a minor concern right now. Students are worrying daily about a classmate and friend who is fighting hard for his life in a Minneapolis hospital. They're also still mourning the recent death of a great Wolverines booster and a woman who was a friend to all who crossed her path, a 41-year-old wife and mother known affectionately as "Ma Bedel."
The entire community is learning how hard it is to savor the fleeting joy found in crowns, sashes and football Fridays at a time when their lives have been thrown asunder by the sobering realities of terrible happenstance, pain and loss.
"We have a motto every year, and it's something we talk about from the first day of camp," said Wolverines head football coach and athletic director Mike Dammann. "We want it to be a lesson about something important and this year's motto is 'Count on me.' Sometimes a motto is just a motto, but this year it's something that we can really take to heart."
On Labor Day, Julie Bedel died in a two-vehicle crash north of Pennock. Julie was the wife of Gary and the mother of Tanner, a MACCRAY athlete who graduated last spring and is enrolled at South Dakota State. Son Stefan is a MACCRAY senior and a starter on the Wolverines' offensive line, and daughter Jade is a 7th-grade student who also is an aspiring athlete.
Just as the Bedel family and the MACCRAY community were coming to grips with her death and preparing for her funeral, they learned of another crash, just miles from the intersection where Julie's accident occurred. MACCRAY senior and starting center, Jake Listerud, was seriously injured in a one-car accident on Sept. 6 and was airlifted to Hennepin County Medical Center. He's still at HCMC fighting severe injuries and complications.
"It's been hard to explain," Dammann said. "It's like it's not even real. It's been hard to concentrate on football, and we're the adults, the ones who know how hard life can be sometimes. I can't imagine what it's been like for the players and students."
Despite the dizzying, almost unimaginable upheaval in his young life, Stefan Bedel was among the MACCRAY football players who piled into a Suburban in the days following his mom's funeral and Listerud's accident and took off for Minneapolis to visit their teammate and buddy.
"It's been good," Stefan said of the MACCRAY community's response to the tragedies. "Everybody has been there for everybody. We made some trips down there to see Jake and it's tough for him right now because so many things keep coming up. He's been fighting hard and I know he'll keep doing that."
The Bedel family is doing the same, and they have the memories of a kind, generous and devoted Wolverines fan to bolster them when times are darkest.
"We have our good days and our bad days," said Gary. "We just try to take it a day at a time."
Tanner is busy as a SDSU freshman and Stefan and Jade are both involved in school and church activities, which keep them busy and in the midst of great support groups, Gary said.
It's just the way their mom, always teaching through her words and deeds, would have expected her children to deal with such situations.
"She was really good with kids," Stefan said. "All our friends, they'd just come right in the house to talk to my mom. She was friends with everyone."
"She loved kids and she was very outgoing," Gary said. "She could go up to a group of kids and just start talking to them about anything. She loved being around kids all the time in sports and in church."
And, man, did she love MACCRAY sports. The Bedel family always seemed to be in the car, going to who-knows-where, to take in all the kids' athletic events.
It wasn't long before they all the Wolverines came to know her as "Ma Bedel." Dammann had those words printed on stickers that the players now wear on their helmets.
"She was a big football supporter and she loved watching all the boys play," Dammann said. "She was always very positive and supportive of the team."
But not just for football.
"She never missed a football game, home or away," Stefan said. "She was at all the home volleyball games, even though she didn't have any of her kids or relatives or anybody in it. And half of the away games, too."
The Bedel family and the MACCRAY community is beginning to understand how their landscape can seem so stark and, at the same time, so uplifting, as they deal with the loss of such a large presence in their lives and as they pray for the recovery of another who has been laid low. Dammann said that despite the devastating events of the last month, he sees good lessons in them for young people.
"We tell our kids to play in the moment," Dammann said. "They only get a few opportunities to do things in their lives and playing football is one of them. They're learning it's about sticking together as a team and as people - 'Count on me.' We talked about it all fall camp and now it's real life. This is the time when they need to count on us."
If he didn't before, Stefan is grasping the meaning behind the motto. Within hours of the accident, friends and well-wishers offered up dinners, kindness and more. He got to school when he could in those first days. When he couldn't, somebody was there to help out. The support has been unwavering, he said.
On the field, the Wolverines, who won nine games a year ago, have yet to claim a victory in three games this season. But he's seeing that reality through a different prism now.
He laughs when he thinks back to a year ago, when brother Tanner was voted MACCRAY's Homecoming king. As the big week approached this year, Tanner teased his younger brother.
"He said, 'You'd better win,' " Stefan said. " 'It runs in the family.' "
Sure enough, Stefan was voted this year's Homecoming king. And while the Wolverines will try their best tonight against 3-0 Canby, wins and losses aren't really what it's about anymore.
"We've been doing pretty good as a team," Stefan said. "We're on a losing streak but we've played some hard teams. After we lost to Dawson-Boyd (41-6 last week), we all thought we played pretty well against a team ranked No. 1 in the state. 'Count on me', that was the first thing we said when we started out; that was our motto for the year and I think it's a really good fit. We're going on that a lot."