Gut Check in the Heartland

Augustana College is a period piece, a place where the pioneer spirit is still at work—especially on the football field.

  1. Bubba and Lug, Bird and Kimball, Youngquist and Kruser, are stretching it out before practice. Pads and jerseys, gold and blue mesh, bloody fingers, muddy cleats, about a hundred Augustana College Vikings, arranged in orderly rows. They wear their helmets, the rain drums a hard tattoo, a steady beat to the music of hurt that floats in the heavy air.

    Second practice today, eighth day of preseason training. Two a days, they call these. No girls, no glory, no one even around, school doesn't start for another week. Dive drills, wind sprints, training stations. Gantlets and sleds. Ice packs. The time-honored ethic of sow before you reap, an investment of pain before pleasure, the good old American way. Lightning strikes the horizon, an ominous thread of voltage running between black clouds and earth. Thunder cracks and rolls, directly overhead.

    "Now, this is football weather, dude!" says Bird, a sophomore.

    "You really wanna die young," says Bubba, a senior. He notes the goal post, tries to remember his science. Will the uprights act as lightning rods? Will they all be fried?

    Beyond the goal is a four lane, and past that is an empty complex that used to be International Harvester. The town is Rock Island, Illinois. Cornfields, soybeans, vacant storefronts, drooping Victorian clapboards, pork-chop sandwiches, Mississippi riverboat gambling. The Prairie State, settled by Swedes, winter home of the bald eagle, just across the river from Kevin Costner's Field of Dreams. Twenty year...