When history said that Roberto Hernandez’s dream was impossible he decided to pick up the phone. He had dreams of playing college football ever since he fell in love with the game in seventh grade, and he knew another winless season getting his doors blown off wasn’t going to make those visions reality.
He texted volunteer assistant coach Tommy Gardner the summer before his sophomore year and said that he was organizing workouts. He’d already let the remaining members of the St. Stephens football team know he’d be at the big grass field at 6 p.m. Hernandez asked Gardner if he had a ball and maybe some cones.
Before leaving his place, which Gardner was more than happy to ditch until sundown, the coach texted David Kills Pretty Enemy, an upcoming sophomore who just moved back to Arapahoe from South Dakota. Don’t be scared, Gardner told him, come out.
Three years later Hernandez and Kills Pretty Enemy became trailblazers. Last week, in front of the St. Stephens High School and Middle School populations, they nervously signed their letters of intent to play football at Dakota College at Bottineau. With a swipe of their pens they became the first from St. Stephens to play football beyond the high school level.
“I knew these two would go a long way,” Gardner said. “I saw the potential.”
Not many have admitted to finding potential in St. Stephens football. The school didn’t have a football program between 1966-2012 and didn’t win a game in its first three seasons back. The last season of that stretch was Hernandez’s freshman year. The Eagles went 0-7 and allowed an average of 80 points per game.
Hernandez remembered being hounded by the seniors that year to be better. There was the one time he was left out on a missed assignment and an opposing player knocked him clean off his feet and onto his back. Big-eyed, he went to the sidelines for a play before his determined return to the huddle.
“We got blown out all the time,” Hernandez remembered. “After that we started getting organized to get some wins, man. After I got the doors knocked off me I said I ain’t going to let that happen again.”
Kills Pretty Enemy was in South Dakota playing 11-man football during that slumping season but he made it to Arapahoe in time for the turnaround. He fell in love with football and its possibilities during his freshman season there. After the initial push from Gardner he happily joined the Eagles, even if he was under the impression it was an 11-man team. Even if the realities of the high-paced 6-man game didn’t coincide with his 6-foot-2, 400-pound frame, he wasn’t going to stop chasing his dream of playing in college.
“I was big enough to play in college,” he said. “Then I got excited and got going.”
Their hard work immediately paid off. St. Stephens won its first game of their sophomore year. Then, technically, the next. That following game against Ten Sleep was called at halftime due to lightning and since St. Stephens was winning at the time that stands as the official result. The Eagles didn’t win another game that season and then lost their junior season altogether.
But the workouts and the drive continued. Billy Brost and Dee Harrison finished the 2017 season as co-coaches after the abrupt retirement of former head coach Lyle Valdez. That’s when both first coached Hernandez and Kills Pretty Enemy. They saw the work ethic and drive in both young men. Brost accepted full head coaching responsibilities for the 2018 season and Harrison stayed on as assistant coach. Gardner moved from volunteer to the Eagles’ only other assistant coach.
“He’s gotten more out of us than anyone here,” Hernandez said of Brost. “Other coaches just sent us here. Then he came here and we got better.”
Added Kills Pretty Enemy: “He sees the potential we have. Other coaches, they don’t really do that with us.”
With Brost, the two made the 14-hour drive up to Bottineau for a visit this spring. There they asked the coaching staff questions and answered questions the college coaches had for them. The coaches at Bottineau were impressed. They extended an opportunity to the two Eagles as long as they went to class and did their best, they said.
Shortly after Hernandez and Kills Pretty Enemy committed they received emails containing their workouts. They want Kills Pretty Enemy to drop some weight this summer. He’s excited to prove to them that he can do it. Hernandez has already started his workouts, although he’ll get a break for a few days when he competes in the Nebraska-Wyoming Six-Man Shootout.
They both admitted that the closer signing day came, the more nervous they got. This was a major life decision they were making and they were doing something that nobody from St. Stephens had done before them.
“It’s scary and exciting at the same time,” Kills Pretty Enemy said. “The days are getting closer until we step onto that field.”
They walked into the St. Stephens gym, adorn with basketball honors, as nervous as ever. Before welcoming their mothers up to the table with them for the signing, the two sat through short words from all of their coaches about the enormity of the landmark moment. A good amount of those words were directed towards the other students, possibly future Eagles football players.
“Believe this coaching staff can open doors for you if you work hard enough,” Brost told the audience.
Gardner followed and Harrison ended the assembly with a few words of his own.
“It takes effort, time, commitment and everything you have,” he said. “Don’t be scared to do the work. Don’t be scared to go to class.”
Then the coaches stepped aside and gave the spotlight back to Hernandez and Kills Pretty Enemy, who signed their letters of intent to applause and exhale. They proudly wore their Dakota College-Bottineau hats while posing for pictures.
With one final “Eagles” chant, the school dismissed. Some of them hung out together before track practice. Others left, administrators feared, to participate in the many activities that make working at St. Stephens different than most other schools across Wyoming.
There’s harsh realities that face the Eagles every day when they step through the chain-link fences that surround and divide the high school and middle schools. And while both Hernandez and Kills Pretty Enemy both admitted to cases of senioritis, they didn’t stop going to class and they saw through their commitment to making history.
“We have a lot of obstacles other schools don’t,” Brost said. “Eligibility, drug tests, troubles with the law, those are things that other schools don’t have to deal with on a daily, if not hourly basis. That’s our reality. It’s a credit to Burto and Dave that they avoided all those problems.”
Years after getting blown out, the two believed in themselves enough to continue their work ethic. Then came the coaches who believed in them and helped them achieve their dreams. Now, despite all the outside factors and history of lacking success, two St. Stephens Eagles are bound to play college football.