Trojan football players wield machetes for good

Staff writer

Summer weightlifting and conditioning sessions are staples of Kansas high school football. Machetes, however, are not.

When Hillsboro High School head coach Lance Sawyer told the team one morning during weightlifting they were going to be slashing volunteer corn out of a soybean field, Trojans seniors Justus Hilliard, Jakob Hanschu, and David Dick weren’t quite sure what to think.

“I think the first reaction I had was ‘What?’” Jakob said.

“I was kind of reluctant at first,” David said. “I didn’t really know how to respond to it. I didn’t know what to expect.”

The idea for the unorthodox workout came from Sawyer’s father, Doug, a McPherson County farmer. His friend and neighbor, Arden Penner, was in a Hutchinson hospice dying from cancer, and Penner’s soybean field needed one last cleaning.

“He thought it would be a great opportunity for the kids to get out and work together,” Lance Sawyer said.

Four coaches and 21 players left Hillsboro at 6:30 a.m. for the farm, located southeast of McPherson. Doug Sawyer gave them an orientation, and machetes, when they arrived.

“He told us more of why we were doing this,” Justus said. “His friend had developed cancer and he was in the hospital and they were saying he didn’t have that long to live. He said he’s known for having one of the cleanest, best fields in Kansas, and he thought he would like to come by to see his field neatly cut before he died.”

Then the Trojans headed into the field, machetes in hand.

“Half of them had never been in a field before,” Sawyer said. “I guess they didn’t know what they were getting into.”

“It was humongous,” Justus said. “There were two of them, about 150 to 160 acres each.”

Jakob said the density of the corn was deceptive.

“It probably doesn’t look heavy, but it’s spread out, and there’s a lot in that area,” he said. “There were some areas we were hacking left and right, everywhere, and there were times I didn’t have anything in my row for as long as could be. We tried to stay in an even line so no plants would get left.”

“Once we got in the rhythm, it was actually kind of fun hacking away at the corn stalks,” David said.

As the day grew hotter and the players began to tire, another senior put things in perspective.

“Graham Pankratz brought up the fact that we were going to be in the heat the next week in shoulder pads, doing a lot more physical exercise, so we might as well get used to it,” David said.

The team cut corn from 7 a.m. to noon, took a break to eat 20 pizzas ordered by Doug Sawyer, then went back to work for two more hours.

“We did 320 acres in one day, so we walked probably about 11 miles,” Lance Sawyer said. “They loved it. The first four or five hours it was pretty good. Then they got tired.”

As fatigue set in, Jakob and Justus knew it was time for the seniors to step up.

“Walking up and down the rows isn’t the most exciting thing,” Jakob said. “That we kept going showed our freshmen they didn’t need to stop.”

“They knew they had to push through, and we had to tell them, ‘Hey, we’ve got this, guys,’” Justus said. “You could tell when their heads were getting down, and we were like, ‘Clear that out of your mind, let’s get this done.’”

The seniors may have earned respect for their leadership, but they were impressed with the underclassmen.

“Having done this with them, I think it shows they’ve already proven that they can work hard,” Jakob said. “For us, seeing that people under us are willing to work that hard, that’s going to make us have respect for them.”

Sawyer said the experience was a unique opportunity.

“How many times do those kids just talk for seven hours?” he asked. “They don’t do it. They’re all in groups outside of things like this, they all have their own friends.”

Jakob agreed with Sawyer.

“Being seniors, we kind of stick more to the senior class,” Jakob said. “This helped us reach out to the freshmen and sophomores, people we don’t hang around with as much. It helped us to get to know them a bit more, and that’s good for our team.”

Justus said the experience would help the Trojans during the season.

“I think when we’re struggling in a game we can reflect back on what we did and how we worked together for one goal, and just tell each other ‘Hey, remember what we did, we can do this now, we can win this game,’” he said.

The players never met Penner, who died Aug. 11, but they were glad they did something to help.

“We all felt really good afterward,” David said. “It wasn’t just for us, it was mainly for him. Knowing you did such a good thing warms your heart.”

“I feel good that we did that for him before he passed away,” Justus said.

Sawyer said the experience was all he hoped it would be for his players.

“Those kids get along so well, and chemistry isn’t going to be an issue this year,” Sawyer said.

 

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