This story originally appeared in Mile High Sports Magazine. Read the full digital edition.

The Drive

Wednesday night. Late December. Eastbound I-70 from Denver. The limitless tenebrosity of the Plains swallowed us up and spit us out after 120 miles in Flagler, a town once named Bowser after the dog of the owner of the general store and post office. Officially incorporated in 1916, the town, which had a few different appellations after Bowser, settled on its present name after Henry Flagler, a railroad and oil man.

The trip always reminds me of a Kansas-City-bound trucker’s song:

Watkins, Bennett, Strasburg,
Byers, Deer Trail, Agate,
Limon, Genoa, Arriba,
Flagler, Seibert, Vona,
Stratton, Bethune, Burlington.

I had driven 11 miles past Flagler just last November en route to Seibert, where I saw Hi-Plains High School, with the help of a few Flagler players and coaches, defeat Cheyenne Wells for the Colorado high school 6-man football championship. My story on that game was the first time “Only in Colorado” had featured a location east of Denver. Eastern Colorado folks have long been resigned to living in the “other half” of the state but MHSM recognizes that each “half” possesses its own unique beauty and grace.

Father-Son Players

My son and I had been to Henry’s town before, in the year 2000, when we played together in the Flagler American Legion Annual Christmas Basketball Tournament. I was 54 and beyond a last hurrah, while he was still hearing the muted cheers at 27. Besides hundreds of pick-up games (thousands counting the driveway and canball in the basement) it would be the only time we played together in an organized game.

I played in the tournament for several years in the 1960s and ’70s. Doug continued the family tradition when he moved to Hugo, Colo. following college and hooked up with guys from Limon and Hugo for many tournaments throughout the ’90s. In a remarkable run of blind inertia and a fanatic attention to his physical condition, he has played in at least half of the Flagler Legion tournaments since.

When he invited me to go along, I welcomed the chance to spend time with him and to revisit a place that held fond memories. But I asked him what possessed him, at the age of 43 and no longer a full-time resident of “neighboring” Hugo, to continue to play in a small-town team tournament that spanned 10 days in the heart of the Christmas season. I know he loves the game and plays in a year-round league at the Denver Athletic Club. But why Flagler?

Here was his reply:

“When I first moved out to Hugo – by way of Denver and Dallas, two major metropolitan cities – I had very little in common with the people that lived on the plains of eastern Colorado. For the first time in my life, I was an outsider and I knew it. I could feel it. I was ‘different.’ I didn’t know things they knew. I didn’t dress like they dressed. My friends weren’t their friends. And while the people there were genuinely nice, I knew that I was on the outside looking in. I wasn’t one of them, not yet.

“But as was often the case throughout my life, sports were my way ‘in.’ It’s the greatest things sports has to offer. Once the game starts and a score is being kept, nothing outside of that matters; who you are, where you’re from, what you look like, dress like or think like – all of that is inconsequential. If you can play, or even if you just like to play, you’ll fit in sooner than later. The only place I felt 100 percent comfortable out there, was on a basketball court. And the best place – the first place – I realized that, was at the Flagler Tournament. On the court, it didn’t matter that I was a ‘city kid,’ or that I didn’t know a steer from a heifer, or couldn’t operate a John Deere 4010. On the court, I was an equal because I could play a little.

“In Flagler, the tourney is more than just the people you’re playing with or against. It’s an event. It’s tradition, pattern. People from all over go there not just to play, but also to watch. I was lucky enough to be playing on a pretty good team, so I played in and won a lot of tournament games. But in retrospect, winning or losing wasn’t all that important. The Flagler Tournament afforded me the opportunity to get to know people and for them to get to know me. Instead of ‘Isn’t that the kid who moved out here from Denver?’ it became, ‘That’s the Ottewill kid – he’s a pretty decent ballplayer.’ When you’re new to a place, that’s huge. I’ll always have an appreciation for the Flagler Tournament and the people who put it on because of that. I made friends there that I still call friends today – teammates, opponents, referees, organizers, townspeople. So, why do I make the 120-mile drive to go back and play, some 20 years later and long past the prime of my basketball life? The same reason a kid tries out for the junior high basketball or football team. To play. To fit in. To belong. That still holds true.”

On this night, he unfolded his 6-foot-3 frame from my beleaguered 1996 Volvo and shook off the chill of the night and the effects of a two-hour drive and headed for the door of the Post 81 American Legion hall. A lone street light illuminated more than a touch of gray and an emerging bald spot. At 43, he was going to play in one more tournament. One more, but probably not his last.

We entered the square, tin-covered building, erected at 303 Navajo Avenue in 1950, at ground level and were immediately drawn to the bar, festooned with Christmas lights. A lone drinker nursed a longneck Coors Light.

Near the entrance was a glass case that displayed four pages from a November 2010 Mile High Sports Magazine article written by Doug about the tournament. It was entitled, “The Constant – The holiday tournament at the Flagler American Legion is an unrivaled tradition.” It was a good feeling to know that the folks at the Legion thought enough of the article to display it prominently and permanently. The people from “the other half” appreciate recognition.

Sons of the Legion

We were immediately greeted by three long-time residents of “the other half” – old friends, D.C. Moss, Tony Ford and Mike Campbell, who would referee almost all of the men’s and women’s 19 tournament games. It was halftime of the night’s first game and the refs, as good a trio as you’ll find at a town-team tourney, were enjoying a beer, the only pay they’ll receive over the next 10 nights.

Moss and Ford, 1962 and ’66 Flagler High School grads, have spectated, played in, organized or officiated almost every one of the 65 Legion Christmas tournaments. Moss, who led his high school team to the 1962 Class C championship game against Peetz at the Denver Coliseum, watched his dad and his mom play in the first tournament at the Legion in 1951. Ford owns the local Stop & Shop, which his family opened in the same year as the Legion hall. He also owns groceries in Stratton and Limon. People in the big cities overrun with Safeways, King Soopers and City Marts have no idea how important a good grocery store is to a small town.

Campbell, whose liquor store supplies beer and spirits for the Legion bar, is younger than his two partners. He’s coached all over eastern and southeastern Colorado, including a stint as the Flagler varsity girls coach.

All three are members of the Sons of the Legion, the group who has kept the Legion – and the tournament – going. While there are at last count over 170 American Legion posts in Colorado, it’s no small feat to keep one operating – especially in a small town. Consider that the youngest vets from our foreign wars are getting pretty damn old (the youngest WWII vet is 90, Korean vet 82 and Vietnam veteran 60); the American Legion posts need some young blood. That’s where the Sons of the Legion (no relation to the Sons of Silence) come in.

Tom Arensdorf, the retired Flagler superintendent, has also been instrumental in maintaining the bar, a mainstay of any Legion post, although it’s now open only on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Arensdorf, who is from La Junta but married a Flagler girl and brought up his family there, recently took a temporary superintendent job at Karval, 80 miles southwest of Flagler, and may not be able to devote as much time to the Legion. Just another obstacle the Sons of the Legion must overcome to keep the town’s most venerable institution going.

Another important Son is Flagler’s busiest resident, Tom Bredehoft, mayor and owner of The Flagler News and the I-70 Diner, which sits in the shadow of an elevated pink Cadillac and has been serving locals and the interstate crowd since 2007. Bredehoft and Arensdorf also occasionally referee some of the tournament games.

There’s also Jerry Smith, another ’64 Flagler graduate who runs the clock and keeps the book for all the tournament games. I remember him and Ford and Moss as formidable opponents back when I played. We laughed when remembering those games, but we were deadly serious at the time. Old competitors are like elephants – heavy, weathered, wrinkled and never forgetting the glory days.

The Game Pounds On

Every one of the American Legion halls in Colorado has a bar, but few if any have a bar with a basketball court directly overhead. That pulsating sensation you feel while sitting on a Post 81 barstool isn’t your whiskey-soaked head but 10 overweight town-team ballplayers pounding the hardwood a few feet above.

What began as a quiet and nostalgic reunion with old rivals got louder and louder. The two teams playing above us had begun their half-time warm up. A horn sounded, likely signifying to the officiating crew that it was time to put finish their beers and head back up for the second half.

We walked up the wooden stairs, smooth and rounded from 65 years of boots and sneakers. I paid my $4 entry fee, and was almost standing on the court. The memories were instantaneous and the court seemed as familiar as an old Converse. The piano in the northeast corner that Doug wrote about in 2010 was no longer there, but the shell backboards (maybe the last fan shaped boards in captivity), the 18-foot ceiling, the cement walls just two feet from the baseline and the mercifully short, 72-foot court all screamed one-of-a-kind with maybe a touch of “Hoosiers.” Talk about “Only in Colorado.”

Doug joined another seven guys standing in the bleachers, waiting for the first game to begin. His team was a random assortment of guys from all over eastern Colorado and the Front Range wearing jerseys that said “High Altitude Flooring,” the company owned by Eric Stum, the team’s organizer and shooting guard.

By the looks of their early offense, no one else knew each other either. They got pounded by a younger, faster and bigger Simla team. Doug missed early shots then found a rhythm and shot well but too late.

We visited with the refs and Arensdorf briefly after the game but declined an invitation to join them for a beer.

“That’s the problem nowadays, Moss noted, looking at us lightweights and the empty bar. “When the game is over, the teams and their spectators take off. Nobody showers, nobody stops in the bar. Tony and I used to have to stay until 2 a.m. to run the players out of the bar, then clean the locker rooms and get ready for the next day of the tournament. The bar revenue used to be an important factor in the Legion’s finances. Not so much anymore.”

It was the first time I could remember driving home after the tournament without having had a few beers at the Legion or a few more from a cooler in the car. Older, wiser, safer and boring.

I figured that after the loss Doug might pack it in for the tourney, as High Altitude Flooring was now in the consolation bracket, but he informed me it was double elimination. He drove back the next night, and the Floors notched an easy win against a team from Idalia.

The tourney took three days off for Christmas and resumed on the 26th with the Floors starting to gel and winning again, this time with a narrow, 1-point win over a local Flagler team. Doug guarded Bryant Elrick, the Flagler varsity coach’s son and a recent graduate of Mines.

“I held him to one less than they needed,” Doug said. “He must have had 50, though,” triggering my own memory of guarding young players right before I hung it up.

On the 27th they lost in overtime to the same Simla team that beat them in the first round. Toward the end of the Simla game, on a hard drive with a clear lane to the basket, Doug was fouled by one of Simla’s young players who said, “You didn’t think you were gonna dunk on me, did ya, old man?”

When old town-team players die they are buried by the young.

I love the spirit of the Sons and my son. Post 81, which has honored many American heroes, should receive a medal of its own for keeping the Christmas tournament thriving for 65 years. That’s heroic.

And kudos to the thousands of players over the years who have lit up the Legion’s fabled cracker box gym and created a sonorous soundtrack for legions of Legion drinkers on many a dark December night.

Those who play out of the limelight, purely for comradery and the love of the game, are heroes in their own right.