RANSOM − If there is discouragement behind the eyes of Luke Ritchie − it's difficult to tell.
It's Monday afternoon. The Western Plains High School football coach stood with his whistle to his mouth, directing 14 boys running across a neatly mowed and painted field. They line up − as they've been doing all afternoon. A small but fast youth runs through the struggling offensive line − and coach Ritchie quickly blows the whistle.
"It doesn't matter how good your running back is if you don't block," Ritchie tells them.
They look at him inquisitively − a group of boys ranging from fifth graders to high school juniors. Only a couple have ever played football competitively.
"My suggestion is on Saturday or Sunday, watch some real football," he tells them.
"Can you watch it on Netflix?" asks one boy.
Afterward, Ritchie doesn't sugarcoat his words.
"This is what I'm dealing with."
Fall is marked by combines cutting corn and milo - a time when the air turns crisp and the days shorten. It also brings out community spirit across Kansas as residents - wearing their school colors - head for the high school gridiron.
Yet, here, on the football field at Ransom, a former football powerhouse in Ness County where All-American and NFL Pro-Bowler Nolan Cromwell once played, Ritchie and other school officials are doing everything they can just to keep the Friday night lights burning.
The rural Kansas prairie has been slowly depopulating since World War II. Fewer farmers are farming more acres. Families are smaller. Youth aren't returning - heading to bigger cities to find work.
The population shift is apparent in student enrollment and on field − and not just at Western Plains. More than a half dozen schools have dropped from 8-man to 6-man football in the past two years in an effort to field a team.
Western Plains switched to 6-man in 2015 after not being able to scrape together a team in 2014. But this year, with graduation and youth moving away, only one boy of the school's 32 high school students was still coming to practice when the district ended the season.
Ritchie, however, didn't take the option for another season off. Every Monday this fall, he has been loading a small bus with boys from the the elementary and junior high in Bazine, driving them 30 miles to the high school at Ransom. He stands on the field with his whistle − teaching 14 boys wearing red and yellow flags not only the rules of football, but the thrill of the game.
"I feel like we could do more, I should do more to get kids excited about the sport of football again," said Ritchie as he sat in the science room before a Monday practice.
"A lot of kids want to sit around and stare at a screen. We fight that as well. We fight enrollment numbers, I can't do anything about that. But what I can do is give kids opportunities to get outside and play. Instead of just staring at a screen − let's go outside and play and have some fun."
Ritchie, along with the administration, wants to make Western Plains football great again.
Small town Saturday night
There wasn't much to do in Ransom on a summer Saturday night.
In the early 1970s, the Cromwells, like most in this small town, only had one channel on television. Not that Nolan Cromwell ever wanted to watch much television, nor did he really pay much attention to life outside his western Kansas roots.
The future Rams safety and four-time Pro Bowler admits he didn't even know where Kansas State or the University of Kansas were located until the recruiters came calling.
No, in the eyes of 17-year-old Cromwell, there wasn't much to do here if you didn't like sports. But then again, there really wasn't anything else he wanted to do. Many Saturday nights, he and friend Eugene Flax would head over to Principal Ralph Kenworthy's home and ask him for the keys to the high school gym.
"He would give us the keys and tell us 'you're responsible.' We would open the side gym door and 20 to 25 people ranging from sixth to seventh grade to 45 years old would come in and play basketball. We would play until 12:30 or 1 in the morning."
Born in 1955, Cromwell is the fifth of William "Buck" and Lucille Cromwell's eight children. Buck was cooperative grain manager who moved the family around with his different management jobs, said Cromwell's sister, Darlene Tillitson, who still lives in Ransom and works at the bank. Before moving to Ransom for his junior year, Cromwell attended school at Kensington, Lenora and Logan. Cromwell was a student at Ransom High School his junior and senior year.
All the Cromwell kids were athletes. After school and chores, Cromwell spent free time playing sports with his siblings. That included his two older brothers and their friends.
"They always included me, and you learned to love the game and the excitement about the game," he said from his home in Washington state.
"I didn’t know any different," Cromwell said, adding, "I didn’t pay that much attention to college or pro football at that time. I just wanted to be better than my brothers."
The community was centered around school, sports and farming, said Cromwell, describing the support like a scene from the movie, "Hoosiers."
"When we would go play a football game or basketball game, a lot of the time there would be 20 or 30 cars following the buses to the games," he said, adding it didn't matter if the game was in Dighton or as far as Hugoton.
Back then, Ransom had several big families with athletic farm kids, said Tillitson. There were the Flaxes, the Lutters, the Albers, to name a few. The class size averaged around 25 students − enough to field a 11-man football team.
The weight room was used minimally - boys built their muscles working on the farm or for other farmers by throwing bales and doing other manual labor, said Cromwell, who worked for area farmers.
They were a hard-working, close-knit team, he recalled.
"We had great chemistry," he said. "We had so much fun practicing and playing. We would even design plays. We would take the offensive guard and put him in the backfield."
Cromwell was strong and quick, which allowed him to excel at every sports he played at Ransom. He was a three-time state champion in track. He also and earned consensus all-state honors in both basketball and football. Ransom only lost one game in the two years Cromwell was their quarterback − a close game to Dighton.
It didn't take long for recruiters to take notice. The letters started coming his sophomore year at Logan. K-State and the University Kansas made trips to games. Oklahoma called. Principal Kenworthy even sported purple to help with the decision, said Tillitson.
In the end, Cromwell chose KU where he would play football and run track.
Like most rural Kansas towns, Ransom, population 300, is built on agriculture - a fact marked by the tallest building, the white elevator.
It still has a hospital and a grocery. But the community isn't immune to depopulation.
In 1930, Ness County had more than 8,350 people. Today, there are about 3,000 residents. Better technology and machinery allows farmers to work more land than their ancestors, which shows in the U.S. Agriculture Census statistics. Ness County has 557 farms − half of the number before the Depression and nearly 200 fewer than when Cromwell played football.
The waning populace has brought about consolidation across Kansas, including along the two-lane K-4 Highway where Ransom is located. Towns that once had their own high school - like Claflin, Marquette and Assaria - have all consolidated with neighboring communities.
"I think people have been ingrained so much that you graduate high school and move away to bigger and better things," said Ritchie.
Ransom consolidated in 2004, changing from the Ransom High School Longhorns to the Western Plains Bobcats. The district includes five communities: Ransom, Utica, Arnold, Brownell and Bazine. Ransom has the high school and an elementary. Bazine, population 330, has an elementary and the junior high.
Even with consolidation, Western Plains is one of the state's smallest districts. The school is small enough that Ritchie teaches not only junior high science at the building in Bazine, along with geography and kindergarten through eighth grade health and physical education.
After not fielding a team in 2014, Western Plains joined other schools in the same predicament, forming the state's 6-man division in 2015. This year, Kansas has eight schools playing 6-man, although two − Western Plains and Colby's Heartland Christian − are forfeits on the schedule.
Ritchie said in the end, there were four boys coming to practice. Three were from Healy High School, which the district had a cooperative agreement with for football. The other was a Western Plains junior.
The Western Plains administration began meeting about what they could do to bring football back to Western Plains, said Pat Flax, the school's athletic director.
"It was 'what do we do to make sure this won't fade away,'" she said.
The Ransom Rambler
It wasn't until college that Cromwell earned the nickname "Ransom Rambler."
"It came from someone who wrote an article when I went to KU," said Cromwell. "I think it had to do more with my junior year - because of the offense we ran."
His junior year, he switched from starting as safety to the starting quarterback. He didn't pass much and he was injured his senior season. But as a junior, he ran for 1,124 yards and was named the Big Eight Player of the Year.
His parents attended all his siblings' sporting events, he said. They would get up early on a Saturday morning and drive the camper to Lawrence. The Cromwells were usually the first to arrive in the parking lot.
"We swear she invented the continental breakfast," Tillitson said the family joked of their mother. "She packed food and if anyone showed up all, she was going to feed them."
Cromwell remains in the Top 12 for KU's all-time rushing leaders, and the only quarterback ranked that high. A second-round pick in 1977, Cromwell spent his entire 11-year career with the Los Angeles Rams where he was one of the NFL's premiere safeties.
Cromwell was the National Football Conference's defensive player of the year in 1980, made four Pro Bowls and was on the Rams' 1979 Super Bowl team. He also still holds the Rams' franchise record for career interception return yards at 671, and is second in career interceptions with 37.
After his playing career ended, Cromwell coached until 2014. Today, he enjoys retirement, which includes visiting his two children, as well as hunting and fishing.
"Looking back on my football career, I played NFL, college," said Cromwell. "But some of my fondest memories are at Ransom High School. That is some of the fondest memories I have. The togetherness and how we played - no one worried about who was scoring touchdowns. We'd get in a huddle and say 'who hasn't scored.' And our coach, Doug Spillman, made it really fun."
With Western Plains dedicated to revive football, Ritchie wrote a letter about the program, which was sent out to parents and posted on the school website.
He talked about pride and community spirit. He quoted Vince Lombardi: “The difference between a successful person and others is not a lack of strength, not a lack of knowledge, but rather in a lack of will.”
Ritchie, who grew up in the area and played sports at Lewis High School, knows the school is the heartbeat of rural communities.
"If you lose your school in your community, you lose your community, period," he said.
Whether it is right or wrong, football and other sports programs are part of a community's identity, he said.
"If your team is not in the newspaper in the box score, people forget about you," Ritchie said. "We do too much good things out here at Western Plains - academically and everything else, that we don't want to be forgotten about. If it takes getting a successful football program put together so people notice the good things we are doing out here - then we need to do that."
More Western Plains youth should be playing football, he said. One reason might be they just don't understand the game.
In his letter, Ritchie wrote about the Monday flag football practices - an effort to teach fundamentals along with building a love of the game. Moreover, the lights would flicker on every Friday night with community flag football games through Oct. 21.
The first Friday night game was Sept. 23. The weekly event has been a success, said Ritchie.
"Usually there is at least one naysayer," he said with a chuckle, but added he hasn't heard any negative comments about what he and the school are trying to accomplish. "Most importantly, the kids are excited. They ask me "'We get to do this every Friday night?'" I don't know how many times I've been asked that this week."
"I think this will work," he added. "The kids seem excited about it. The community is definitely excited about having football back - turn the lights and play on a Friday night whether it is flag football or not it's exciting."
James Rolo walks by No. 25 daily.
The old red jersey once had a more prominent display, but the Western Plains students have garnished a number of awards since consolidation 10 years ago that are taking over the trophy case. Right now, the jersey is tucked behind a plaque celebrating the undefeated 1971 Longhorn season and a signed football from the team.
Cromwell's No. 25 was permanently retired after he graduated.
"Every day I walk by where they hid his stuff behind the pictures," said James, a junior from Bazine, adding he thinks, "Man, it would sure be nice to be in his shoes right now."
James, who stands at 6 feet tall, just wants to play football. He lives in a household of Chiefs fans. He loves baseball, too, but Ransom doesn't have baseball. In junior high, along with other classmates, the school district bused him to Ness City to play football.
Ritchie had already talked to James about being the quarterback.
"He told me 'Coach, this is going to be my breakout year,'" said Ritchie of Rolo's enthusiasm. "He will talk sports until he is blue in the face."
James hopes he can play in pads under the lights his senior year. For now, during a Monday flag football practice, he threw passes to his peers as they practiced catching a football, then led one of the scrimmage teams as quarterback.
It's a different era than when he was growing up, Cromwell said. This is a community where three or four high schools in his day have combined into one. There wasn't the internet or hours watching television to battle. It would be tough for a kid from a small school to get noticed and go pro.
"I see what they are battling," said Cromwell.
Not all James' classmates have heard of Cromwell. One junior high student sitting in Ritchie's classroom said he had never heard the name.
"And he has uncles who played with him," said Ritchie.
James said one teacher who played with Cromwell tells them stories in class. Those tales get James excited about the future. He sees what his coach and the district are trying to do. He thinks the kids coming to Monday practices are getting excited about a future football program.
"Coach ain't out here to be our friend," James said. "He's out here to be our mentor − coach us into young men. I think he has done a great job with me."
It's suppose to be homecoming.
But that happened a few weeks ago during Ransom's Oktoberfest - the crowning date planned when school officials thought there wouldn't be any Friday night football.
However, on this Friday night, the lights are on at the Western Plains field. A string of cars and pickups pull in, parking along the field.
It's a sight that makes Ritchie happy.
"It's fall, we are supposed to be on the football field," he said with optimism.
It's still quieter than most Friday nights. There are no cheerleaders. No pep band. No announcer. But in the stands sit supporters who are cheering, including Denice Flax, who chats with Ritchie's wife, Tracy.
Denice and husband, Kenneth, have three children playing on this Friday: Darren, a seventh grader; and Jayme, an eighth grader. Their oldest, 26-year-old Jonathan, returned, too, clipping on red flags as a Western Plains alum.
More than two dozen students, alumni and community members came to play flag football. Even former player Daniel Hair - now a college freshman - said he left the milo field early to support his school.
"I think this is great," Denice said. "The kids can learn from the alums. It shows them our community cares - wants them to succeed."
Kenneth Flax said his older brothers played with Cromwell, including Eugene. Flax graduated in 1980 - the last year Ransom had 11-man football.
"Through my high school career, we had 40 out for football," he said, recalling one Friday night game where they scraped the snow off the field so the team could play. "We put bread sacks over our socks then put our shoes on to keep our feet from getting wet."
Maybe Jayme will get to play high school football next year, he said.
Bazine resident Connie Stieben came to support her grandson, James Rolo. It's great to see the crowd and the alumni support, she said. Yet, she admitted as she sat on the bleachers with her husband, Larry, it's not the same.
"It's sad," she said. "We should be going to a ball game."
Kansas Agland Editor Amy Bickel's agriculture roots started in Gypsum. She has been covering Kansas agriculture for more than 15 years. Email her with news, photos and other information at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling (800) 766-3311 Ext. 320.