The Burney High football field sits nestled among the pines trees. Lines are dug into the turf to mark the boundaries and every five yards for when snow hits the town.
Hayden Crook and Connor Pfadt remember going to Raider games as youngsters, standing along the sidelines dreaming of one day playing football on that field.
“It’s something we’ve been looking forward to since sixth grade,” Crook said. “We’d watch the varsity team and think ‘that’s going to be us someday.’ ”
And they were … until this year.
As juniors, Crook and Pfadt teamed with Langston Tate as the Raiders’ Big Three to lead Burney to its best season in decades, going 7-4 in 8-man football. Jed Tate’s program was on the rise and looking to challenge for an 8-man title.
Then the pandemic hit and the California Interscholastic Federation bumped back the start of football, twice. Burney, like many mountain schools, had no choice but to cancel football. The uncertainty of when a season might start, the lack of teams for the Raiders to face and the small-school dilemma of sharing multi sport athletes all factored into the decision.
The dreams of a senior season for the Raiders were over, as were the boys’ hopes to play together one more time. Tate moved to Montana to prepare for college and Pfadt and Crook were trying to figure their next step.
“To not have a season was crushing,” Crook said.
Until a statewide movement from coaches and parents got the state to look at, and revise, its youth sports guidelines for football.
Suddenly, nearing the 11th hour, football was back on … but not for Burney.
“Connor and I had a conversation one night and were like ‘You know what? We’ve been pushing each other as hard as we can since grade school. We thought we can’t let this one adversity stop us from playing out senior season.’”
So Crook and Pfadt talked it over, talked with their coach and their parents and made the decision to leave their hometown for one last shot to play high school football.
“It took a lot of convincing,” Crook said of getting his parents’ blessing. “ I think I showed them I was mature enough to find a place to stay and had the funds to do it; Mature enough to not get in trouble when I was down here and stay focused on school and sports.”
For his part, Pfadt said it was a no-brainer, that his parents were all-in and the pair roomed with his uncle in Redding.
Pfadt and Crook transferred to Foothill, not knowing anyone and hoping to land a spot on the Cougars’ roster.
— ShastaCountySports (@ShastaCoSports) May 1, 2021
“Those guys came in Day One and said ‘Coach, we don’t care if we hold water. We’ll do whatever it takes to be part of the team’ and they bought in,” said Foothill head coach Joey Brown. “They made it incredibly easy for our guys to buy into them.”
It was, however, a learning curve. There was a new system to learn and teammates to get to know all while basically living like a college freshman during the second half of your senior year.
“I’ve grown up in Burney my whole life and going to Foothill was new for me,” Pfadt said. “I’m glad I did it because it helped me grow up.”
In 2019, Crook ran for 769 yards and 10 scores in Burney’s 7-4 season. Pfadt, the quarterback, was 40-of-94 passing for 773 yards and 11 scores. He added 712 yards rushing with 17 TDs on the ground.
At Foothill, the pair was happy to find a spot on special teams to start.
“Those guys came in with the right attitude ready to work,” Brown said. “They didn’t expect anything and were ready to work for everything they got and deserved every opportunity they received.
“They made the most of it.”
Pfadt found his way onto defense, special teams and caught passes against Shasta and Enterprise.
And in the final game of the season, Crook provided a spark for the Cougars, who were looking to knock off Shasta. The 5-foot-9, 200 pound back provided a nice change of pace to Cooper Laloli and ran for 59 yards on nine carries. The final carry of Crook’s high school career? A 12-yard touchdown that gave Foothill a 21-14 lead late in the fourth quarter.
“That was the icing on the cake tonight for Hayden,” Brown said of the score. “He’s a guy who was the bellcow at Burney and played 11-man and 8-man and comes here and learns a new system, quick, and starts to flourish at the end.”
Pfadt and Crook both said seeing a Raider find the end zone in an Eastern Athletic League game was a special moment.
“Football is football,” Crook said. “I knew it would be faster, the competition stronger but I know myself and I know I can rise up to any challenge you put in front of me.
“I wasn’t worried about it, but it fueled me, made me work harder.”
Neither said leaving home was a decision they’ve looked back on.
“I would do it again over not being able to play any day of the week,” Pfadt said.
Brown said their story is why high school athletics, especially through the pandemic, matter.
“We’re so proud to call them Foothill alumni,” the coach said. “At the end of the day, the records don’t matter. Those guys got to play a game they love with guys they love and that’s all that really matters.”