FARGO — On Monday, Nov. 6, Wyndmere-Lidgerwood senior tight end Connor Barton was pulled out of his chemistry class and told to gather his things and go home. He thought he was in trouble, but he didn’t know for what.
He arrived home to the news his dad had died at the age of 48. He always knew exactly where his dad was sitting at every sporting event. He could hear him giving the referees grief, and he could hear his mom tell him to sit down and let the refs do their job. His father was not going to be at Friday’s state championship football game at the Fargodome to see his last high school game.
On Tuesday, he woke up and his mom asked if he wanted to go to school.
“I think I’m going to go because I still got a state championship I got to play and my team needs me still,” Barton told his mom.
He was the first player to get the North Dakota 9-man state championship trophy, after Wyndmere-Lidgerwood rolled Shiloh Christian 60-26 Friday. With tears in his eyes and a smile on his face, he lifted it as high as he could.
“He was just a great man,” Barton said. “He was always there for everyone no matter what they were going through, no matter what he was going through. He was always there to have other people’s back. Whenever someone was down he was always out there to make sure they kept a positive spirit.”
The Warbirds won a state title with the initials of Barton’s father on their helmets.
“Today I woke up bright and early and it had finally set in that he was not going to be here for it, Barton said. “I still knew I had a job to do out here. My teammates had my back the whole time. The community was unbelievable with my family. I came out here and I played it for him because I knew that’s what he’d want me to do.”
Wyndmere-Lidgerwood (12-0) never trailed, but the Warbirds only had a six-point lead at half thanks to three touchdowns from Luke Foertsch, including a 97-yard kick return on the opening kick. Shiloh Christian (11-2) opened the second half, driving to the W-L 12. The Skyhawks fumbled, the Warbirds recovered and W-L used an 88-yard drive to make it a 32-20 lead.
“We kept fighting,” said Foertsch, who tied a Dakota Bowl record with six touchdowns. “They pushed the ball down our throat. We were kind of down on ourselves to be honest. Came out, forced a fumble and just rolled from there.”
By the time Shiloh Christian found the end zone again, Wyndmere-Lidgerwood was up 53-26 with 3 minutes, 36 seconds remaining in the game. Foertsch finished with 168 yards and four touchdowns on 10 carries and a touchdown reception, along with his 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. The Warbirds Charlie Moffett was named the state’s senior athlete of the year.
The Black Pelican Bar in Wyndmere made sandwiches for the trip for the Warbirds on Friday. There was no special ingredient in Foertsch’s.
“He’s been eating all year,” said W-L coach Scott Strenge, who was named the 9-man coach of the year. “Everyone got to see what kind of kid he is and what kind of athlete he is.”
It was Strenge’s idea to put the initials of Barton’s dad on the helmets for Wyndmere-Lidgerwood.
“It felt like you got hit in the gut really, really hard,” Strenge said. “It was just a sick, sick feeling because dad is dad. You can’t replace dad. He was such a great guy in our community. It’s hard. It’s never going to be the same.”
On Monday, Barton was told his dad was dead. On Tuesday, he went back to school. On Friday, he lifted Wyndmere-Lidgerwood’s first state championship trophy since 2010. Next Monday, he’ll attend his father’s funeral.
“He was always there in the back of my mind,” Barton said. “I always knew I was here to play for him. I put him on the back of my mind, but I kept him there. It was one of the happiest moments of my life, but at the same time still kind of hit me that he’s not going to be there when I get home tonight.”