If you had to choose a town to represent America’s Heartland, Maryville, Missouri would be a pretty good choice. The town sits in the Northwest corner of the state, in a place that one resident described as “two hours from anywhere.” Drive North and you’ll hit Des Moines, South and you’ll hit Kansas City, and West and you’ll hit Omaha. But stay within two hours of town, and you’ll see nothing but big sky, small towns, and rolling hills filled with corn and soybeans.
The town is home to 11,000 people and another 6,000 when the college is in session. Downtown is made up of a handful of restaurants, bars, shops, and a four-story courthouse, one of the tallest buildings in a forty-mile radius. Drive a few miles towards the outskirts, and you’ll find a few fast-food joints, a car dealership, and a Wal-mart that attracts shoppers from over an hour away. “It’s a humble place,” one man told me. “Everyone knows everyone.”
If not for the state university, Maryville would be just like any other small farming town. But Northwest, or more importantly, Northwest football has put the town on the map. The Bearcats have appeared in eight of the last sixteen Division 2 national championship games, winning four times including last season. They are currently ranked #1 in the country and own a 20-game win streak.
Like most towns in the Heartland, football is central to life in Maryville. There are more radio stations broadcasting football on Friday nights than playing music. “There’s not much to do around here,” one resident explained. “On Saturdays in the fall, everyone goes to the game.” High school games attract a few thousand fans while college games regularly bring in eight or nine thousand. Walking around during the week, talk centers on the team’s past performance and their chances going forward.
While student interest has increased in recent years, it’s really the town that has embraced the team. Traditionally, the division 2 Championship game is held in Florence, Alabama, an eleven-hour drive from Maryville. When Northwest is in the game, the entire town shuts down as people crowd into cars and pick-up trucks to make the pilgrimage south. “It felt like a home game last year because we had so many fans there. Basically the whole town went,” a resident told me. “Many people centered their holiday travels around the game.”
When I asked sports information director Marshall Fey what made the town so loyal, he responded simply: “winning.” Last year, across all levels – middle school through college – Maryville teams had a combined record of 60 and 0. In response to their teams’ success, locals have begun referring to their home as “Title Town, USA.” All of the local businesses have pamphlets in the doorway with the phrase on it, and you can buy “Title Town” sweatshirts in the sports store. Being home to such successful programs is a point of pride for residents.
A Northwest alum who has served as a geography professor for the past three decades described this feeling as pride in place. “Football is sort of like modern warfare – it’s tribal. You have these different towns or tribes all battling each other and that creates a sense of pride in your own community.” The Professor, Ted Goudge, spends much of his time creating a variety of sports related maps (think: number of recruits from different regions of the country). One of his maps compares Division 2 success in terms of wins over the past decade around the country. He uses different sized footballs to indicate scale. Maryville has the largest football.
The team’s on-field success has spilled into the community. Increased attendance has boosted revenue for hotels and restaurants. Added exposure has led to a surge in university applications and alumni donations. A local bank even donated a multi-million dollar jumbotron this past year.
It hasn’t always been that way. A Northwest alum I sat with at the game, a farmer from Iowa whose son played at Northwest and went on to play for a year on the Green Bay Packers practice squad, told me, “none of this – the stadium, the scoreboard, the turf field was here before Mel Tjeerdsma arrived.”
Tjeerdsma (pronounced Church-ma) served as head coach from 1994 to 2010 and turned Northwest football into the power it is today. He went 0-11 in his first year. Two years later, he led the Bearcats to their first trip to the playoffs. Two years after that, in 1998, Northwest won the national championship, the school’s first title in any sport. In 1999, they won again, defeating Carson-Newman 58-52 in four overtimes. Maryville natives will tell you that the ‘99 title game was the best football game ever played.
Without the football team’s success and the economic resurgence it brought to the school and the town, it’s possible that both would have gone under. Prior to Tjeerdsma’s arrival, Missouri Governor John Ashcroft had recommended closing the school due to budget concerns, and a state-board rejected plans to improve the highway that leads from Maryville to Kansas City. Back then, football was still important in town, but the residents turned elsewhere for their fandom. “We’re in divided country,” Goudge told me. “I’d say about 50% of people root for Missouri, 20% for Iowa, 20% for Nebraska, and 10% for Iowa State.”
Longtime radio broadcaster John Coffey exclaimed that things began to change during the early days of the Tjeerdsma era. “When we started winning, it became a lot of fun going to Northwest games. After our first Playoff win in 1997, people started to get more invested in the team. Now you see all the traditions and people showing up early to tailgate.”
Most Division 2 or even lower-tier Division 1 schools schedule their home games so that they don’t conflict with the bigger teams in the state. Fey told me that when he worked at Akron, they always scheduled around Ohio State so that fans could go to the game and still watch their beloved Buckeyes. That doesn’t happen at Northwest. “We don’t schedule around anyone. Northwest is it’s own draw.” Many of the people I met were longtime Nebraska or Iowa fans, but they hadn’t been to a game in years because they spend every Saturday watching the Bearcats.
In some ways, the town feels more Texas than Missouri. Residents will tell you that it’s got the Friday Night Lights feel of the football-crazed West Texas towns. That description is not far off – it’s a small town held together by a shared love for the football team. But life in Maryville is less boom-bust than the oil-based economies of Texas. Life in the corner of Missouri goes on pretty much unchanged year after year. I asked the army recruiter in town, a man who has lived near Maryville most of his life, what changes he had seen in the town. He smiled and responded, “things don’t change much around here.” Even the most recent recession had only a modest impact on the town.
Maryville is never going to be a get-rich-quick place. Its farming roots have embedded a sense of honor around an honest day’s work. No one’s in a rush to get out or live the fast life. One student told me, “I’m from Omaha so coming here was a pretty big shock. There’s not much going on, but I love it now. Everyone’s so friendly and committed to the community.” Most people are longtime residents and many went to Northwest. The college and high school head coaches both went to Maryville High School and are now best friends who share a backyard. They have a competition going for who can win the most championship rings.
There is a sense of timelessness in the modest streets and slow conversation. Days pass slowly in Maryville, and time is marked by the passing of seasons. Football fandom matches this mentality. There is deep pride in the teams, but it’s not an in-your-face obsession – the cheers are modest, the excitement is tempered. Even the addition of the flashy jumbotron was met with grumblings from the locals who worried that it would block their view.
People here want their Saturdays, just like the rest of their weeks, to stay the same. The biggest issue in town involves a new policy that prevents tickets from being used for re-entry. Fans used to leave the stadium at halftime to return to their tailgates or stop by their houses for a quick bite to eat. The new policy prevents that. Many fans have simply purchased two tickets to ensure that they can still leave the game, but not without objection. Several alums have called upon the President to change the policy and a petition has been circulated. A sign at one tailgate I went to read: “we don’t need no stinkin’ re-entry tickets.”
On Friday night, I made the mile drive from campus to Maryville High School. It was homecoming night, the last home game of the regular season. Forty-five minutes before kickoff the stands were packed. There were old-timers carrying blankets, young kids playing tag, and teenagers holding hands. It was a postcard of America. A celebration before the game announced the Homecoming King and Queen. Posters displayed the faces of the seniors and handmade signs decorated the stadium fences. Despite the lopsided score, Maryville won 34-7, and the plunging temperatures, no one left early.
The next day, the same crowd showed up at Northwest. They were joined by others – alumni, students, a few more townspeople. The feeling, however, was largely the same. As Professor Goudge told me, this was “pride in place.” The rest of the world might change, might be swept along in a fast-moving entertainment cycle. But here, two hours from anywhere, game day means familiar faces, easy conversation, and the chance to celebrate life in Title Town.
After the game, the players gathered at mid-field for a team prayer. The town made its way from the bleachers to the sidelines. As the sun began to set on Bearcat Stadium, the town and the team came together – players posed for pictures with kids, families mingled, friends swapped stories and hugs. Another perfect Saturday in Middle America was coming to an end.