SLAYTON -- When Jaden Deacon ran for 274 yards and five touchdowns in Murray County Central's 40-0 season-opening victory against MACCRAY, it seemed as if the junior running back and the Rebels might be headed for a fall filled with cheers.
That's turned out to be true. But there have also been plenty of tears.
A few days after that dynamite performance, Deacon was severely injured in a car wreck that left the Rebels and their fans reeling. The news was a Labor Day shock.
"When I first heard he was in a car accident, my heart just dropped," said MCC head coach Patrick Freeman.
The Rebels' reaction was similar.
"I was at a friend's house when we got the phone call, and we automatically thought the worse," said junior halfback Carter Benda.
Then Benda pauses for a moment.
"Everyone became pretty emotional," he said.
The sorrow lingers, but the Rebels have helped diminish that sentiment thanks to one of the most glorious football seasons in school history. Murray County Central finished the eight-game campaign unbeaten and top-ranked among Minnesota's Class A teams by the Associated Press. The Rebels began the playoffs on Tuesday at home against Wabasso and have their sights set on a long postseason run.
Just think what might have been if Deacon had been able to play.
"He was absolutely a leader for us and a guy we were expecting to play a big role both offensively and defensively," Freeman said. "You could see that in the first game. He's a quality kid and a guy we were really going to rely on."
The Rebels have persevered thanks to a solid senior-laden defense and a running game that features junior quarterback Abe Paulzine, junior receiver Christian Tentinger and Benda. Senior linemen Nate Kleven, Kevin Garcia, Christian Kuball, Chant Mitchell and Dawson Blankenship are dependable blockers and defenders. Seniors such as Justin Scotting, Corey Einck, Peyton Coulter, Brock Smith and Logan Steinle have also contributed mightily.
Benda has become a star. During the eight-game regular season the 165-pound speedster ran for 1,147 yards and 14 touchdowns, averaging 7.5 yards per carry. Benda also caught three passes for scores and twice took kickoffs back to the house.
Benda is a swift, hard-nosed player. But he’s soft-spoken.
"Jaden was one of our best running backs and we all had to step up and support him as best as we could," Benda said in a quiet, deliberate tone.
He's put pressure on himself to perform, and the results speak volumes for the success of that effort.
"Jaden's out, and I have to step up bid," Benda said. "Try to help lead the team and do whatever I can to help us get where we're trying to go."
Freeman couldn't be more proud of his club's reaction.
"This group really takes pride in doing things together," Freeman said. "They hang out with each other at school and in the locker room there's great chemistry. When Jaden went down, they wanted to make sure they were there for Jaden and there for each other."
The commitment continues.
In fact, the entire MCC community has gotten behind the Deacon family. Hundreds of T-shirts manufactured at 507 Designs in Slayton, reading #DeaconStrong, were sold and have become a familiar sight throughout Murray County.
Recently, Hadley Buttermakers star pitcher Sam Erickson helped organize a fund-raising bean bag tournament, dinner and silent auction at the Hadley Community Center, with all the proceeds going to the Deacon family to help with expenses. It was a day that many in the area won't soon forget.
Especially the Deacons. Jaden’s family feels the love all right.
"Shortly after the accident when we were unsure of the extent of his injuries, when all the what-ifs set in, we would read the abundant messages from the team, friends, coaches and community members and feel so powerfully uplifted by the thoughts and prayers,” Jaden’s folks said in a text message. “It’s been almost overwhelming with how much support we have received from this community! We are so blessed and thankful for the love and continued support. It will be a long road to recovery for Jaden, but will be much easier having this community backing him.”
Freeman, who has been in the Slayton community for about 10 years and has had abundant success as a football coach, is also thankful.
"It means everything when you have the team, the coaches, the players and the community all rallying for each other," Freeman said. "That's what makes small-town football so special. When you see something happening to someone, it's not just one person stepping up and helping out. It's everybody. It's a very memorable thing. It's helped bring the team, the school and the community together. And we're all so glad progress is being made and Jaden is going to be OK."
"Me and Jaden grew up together, just two doors down, and it just sucks not being able to see him play," said senior center-linebacker Dawson Blankenship. "He's been good ever since he's been little. We called him 'Jaden Graham' (after NFL star Jimmy Graham) for a long time."
Senior receiver-defensive back Peyton Coulter said the Rebels have grown up in a hurry as a result of the horrible accident.
"It made us come together a lot more," he said. "We realize how fast things can change, the season, your friends, everything."
Deacon is on the mend, but nearly two months after the accident he remains in a wheelchair. He's been able to attend games, which his buddies certainly appreciate.
"It's been something we've rallied around," Blankenship said. "We talk about it every day, that family is the glue that holds everything together. Jaden is part of our family and always will be."
Said Coulter: "Our goal is to play for him and make him proud of the team, because he's still a big part of it."
The Rebels had more heartache last week when senior Logan Steinle suffered a broken ankle in a 34-0 victory over Adrian-Ellsworth.
"We've probably faced more adversity than we ever have," Blankenship said. "But it's made us stronger. We've done well this season and we're hoping to keep it going."
Scott Mansch is a part-time writer at The Globe. He appreciates tips and story ideas and can be reached at email@example.com