In small towns, high school sports can carry a big burden. Along with being tasked to teach our sons and daughters the finer points of physicality, competition and sportsmanship, outside the arena they often serve as entertainment and distraction for fans. Sports are expected to serve as a rallying point for small communities. Sports can give us identity. They can lift us up when we need it most.

Back in October, a Darby football scrimmage — one that manifested out of a lost varsity game — performed admirably in all of its requirements and more to a grieving town after the loss of Jake "Sunshine" Sanders. Sunshine, as he was known for his bright personality that matched his long blonde hair, was a Darby graduate and former player on the Tiger football team. The popular figure around town passed away two days before the scrimmage, and the team and community planned a tribute for one of their own at halftime.

To see how much Sunshine meant to his teammates and coaches — and to his town — was incredible. I'll never forget talking to Jake's mom, Debi, on the sidelines as we both watched the second half of the scrimmage. It was a game where the final score literally didn't count, but nobody could take their eyes away from it.

It's moments like that where sports reach their full potential, and it's why this was my favorite story of 2018. -- Kyle Houghtaling


DARBY — The outcome of the scheduled Western C 8-man football game between Charlo and Darby Friday night was always going to be overshadowed by the team's tribute to one of its fallen comrades.

But Charlo was forced to forfeit, allowing for a Darby vs. Darby scrimmage to set the stage for a fitting and emotional sendoff to "Sunshine."

Two days after Darby graduate and former Tiger center Jake "Sunshine" Sanders passed away from Non-Hodgkin’s T-cell Lymphoma, the Darby team — and community — came together at halftime and lit bright green and yellow sky lanterns, in part, to say goodbye. 

"It was an unusual senior night, but it was so special to me," said Dylan Parks, a Darby upperclassman who played with Sanders for two seasons before Sanders graduated. "For Jake to go, and then us lighting off lanterns for him just meant everything to me.

"I wish he could be here. I miss him."

The stadium lights were shut down allowing the glowing paper balloons to light up Darby's home field.

For Sunshine.

"This is what Jake wanted to come home for," Sunshine's mom, Debi Sanders, said after the halftime ceremony."... This community is his family."

***

The football game itself allowed for a perfect reprieve. The scrimmage atmosphere was able to provide some smiles and celebration that had otherwise been emotionally muted.

There were highlight plays and end zone dances. Parks literally jumped over a teammate on one play, eliciting laughter and cheers from the stands. The Tigers tried to connect on every trick play in the book, including a hook-and-ladder that was executed to perfection and gave one Tiger squad a long touchdown.

For 40 minutes, the Darby high school football team got to be kids again.

"Just to do it and have everyone calm and relaxed, it's fun," Darby quarterback Nelson Smith said.

It felt like a backyard football game.

All the while, the Tigers sported a "61" emblem on their helmet. The team retired the matching jersey — Sunshine's jersey — at halftime.

"It was surreal. I can't still believe he's gone," said Darby coach Jeff Snavely. "It's a bummer Charlo couldn't come and see this — they knew what (Jake) meant to us.

"But Darby won."

As far as football goes, Darby's forfeit victory against Charlo (6-1 overall, second place in Western C 8-man) gives the Tigers a new lease on the playoffs. If the Vikings are forced to forfeit the remainder of their season due to ineligible players and the Tigers beat St. Ignatius next Friday, Darby would become the de facto No. 4 seed in the West. 

"I have to thank Sunshine, because it's a miracle that we might have an open spot to go," Parks said.

Truly, though, Friday was a win for the small town in southwestern Montana, one that showed signs of support on windows and business signs entering town.

All for Sunshine.

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