WINSLOW — How long does it take to build a football tradition? Oh, about six years.
Not talking about Winslow High School. The Black Raiders and their extended community have been crazy about this game since Butkus was a baby.
Their gridiron devotion is a given. Nobody attends a game at Poulin Field on a chamber of commerce autumn afternoon without walking away thinking that ghosts are the gatekeepers. Perhaps a few of them used their supernatural pull in Saturday's 17-6 win over Dirigo for the Western Class C championship.
It's splitting hairs and taking alphabet-soup liberties, but next Saturday at Fitzpatrick Stadium will mark the third different enrollment classification under which Winslow has played in a state final. The Raiders were a fixture in the 1970s and '80s when the PTC was considered the 'A' division to Southern Maine's 'AA'; a '90s juggernaut in 'B'; and now this, in their second season since settling in 'C.'
No offense to Winslow, but the closing of mills and the migration of families to greener employment pastures notwithstanding, its resounding success is an expectation. And it's easy to forget that Dirigo — a school whose athletes know a little something about expectations — endured an entire decade-and-a-half in which the only living beings handling its football equipment were moths and mice.
When current Dirigo seniors Brett Whittemore, Spencer Trenoweth, Thomas Barnett, Zack White and Co. were in third grade, they didn't even have a stand-alone high school football team in town for aspiration's sake.
The school shelved football as a budget cut following the 1989 season. Only when former players became fathers and coaches in local Area Youth Football did whispers of resurrection become reality.
Dirigo campaigned as a cooperative team with RSU 10 colleague and kinda-sorta-neighbor Buckfield, playing its home games by a babbling brook on a recreation department field behind Buckfield's community center and town garage.
Going it alone a year later seemed ambitious or insane, depending upon how charitable you were feeling that day. Progress was measured in first downs and occasional scores against the opponent's junior varsity. Wins were sporadic.
Help was on the way, however. By 2007, longtime wrestling coach Doug Gilbert had brought his intensity to the program, guiding the Cougars to a winning season. They missed out on a playoff spot in a multi-team tiebreaker.
The next year's team won eight games and earned a trip to the playoffs. And nobody in the close-knit community ever will forget the 2009 encore, when quarterback Nic Crutchfield, receivers Alex Miele and Kyle Hutchinson and fullback/defensive end Tyler Chiasson led the charge to a perfect 12-0 season and a Class C title.
It took two seasons to completely restock the shelves. There were a pair of quarterfinal playoff losses and an almost complete turnover of the coaching staff, with Gilbert handing the reins to Crutchfield's father, Dave.
This fall's flourish should be a sign to us all that Dirigo Football, Part II, is no one-year wonder. It's back on the map to stay.
These Cougars had a zest for life that admittedly drove the elder Crutchfield crazy, at times. But they also exhibited the toughness, guile, resilience and short-term memory loss that every championship-caliber program requires.
Three teams — Winslow, Oak Hill and Traip — tied for the Campbell Conference regular-season title. At one point or another on this three-month journey, Dirigo defeated all of them. On the road, at that.
In five of their eight wins, the Cougars either were tied or trailed in the second half. When Winslow went into the halftime huddle with a 3-0 lead on the strength of Dylan Hapworth's field goal, it was a reasonable assumption that Dirigo would finish this exercise of rope-a-dope with its usual finishing flurry.
Not this time. Turnovers, ill-timed penalties and a few perceptible moments of panic sabotaged a day on which Dirigo out-gained Winslow, chalked up more first downs and shut down the Raiders' triple-trouble backfield the way nobody else had.
Time will heal, though, and this year's Cougars will recognize that they were part of something bigger than any shimmering trophy. They further solidified the restoration of Dixfield, Peru, Canton and Carthage as a football community.
Not to the exclusion of other activities, mind you. Dirigo forever may be associated with a run of 11 consecutive girls' basketball regional championships that began in 1995. Its baseball and boys' basketball teams are reigning Class C champs and will have better than a puncher's chance of repeating. Wrestling could be due for a banner winter, too.
Dirigo stands second to no school in the tri-county region as one that teaches its athletes the right things, the right way. And I'll go on record as saying that none of the games kids play deliver lasting life lessons with the efficiency of football.
This community did its young men an immeasurable service by reviving the sport.
Existence is one thing. Tradition is another.
Dirigo's current wave of football players built that, and the bricks and mortar won't be disassembled anytime soon.
Kalle Oakes is a staff columnist. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter (@Oaksie72).