hen Dugger Union kicks off its first game as a charter school Saturday afternoon, the Bulldogs will do it with a Bull Dog football.
A Columbus North Bull Dog football.
Besides that, 18 Dugger Union players will be equipped with flat black helmets donated to the program by North coach Tim Bless. About a dozen will be wearing shoulder pads that Bless gave to Danny Tieken, the head coach, educational leader and head of day-to-day operations at Dugger Union.
“Danny is a friend and a colleague,” Bless said. “We had the opportunity to help, and we jumped at it.”
The story goes back to December when Northeast School Corporation of Sullivan County just south of Terre Haute voted to close Union High School and Union Elementary in Dugger (population 900).
Townspeople in Dugger were not happy. They organized and met, and this week opened Dugger Union Community Schools with roughly the same number of students that Union had last year.
But picking up where Union left off hasn’t been easy for Dugger Union. Northeast School Corporation took all of the textbooks and sports equipment after Union closed in June, leaving the new charter school to fend for itself.
Tieken, a former Union football coach who spent six years as head coach at Brown County, sent out a request to coaches he knew, looking for help. Most of them responded, including Bless.
“Steve Hall, our (athletics director), one of the guys who got me on board here, said they’d like to go flat black helmets,” Tieken said. “All the previous helmets they had here had been taken by Northeast School Corporation. We didn’t have a baseline to start with. He said, if we’re going to get helmets, why don’t we get flat black. Tim was so kind to get us started there.”
North has gone almost exclusively to Riddell helmets, so Bless donated 18 Schutt helmets that still had useful life in them.
“What a wonderful gift,” Tieken said. “His thoughts were, they were never going to use them again. His helmet inventory was very fertile, and he was more than kind enough to get us started.”
Bless’ brothers, Avon coach Mark Bless and Bloomington North coach Scott Bless, were also among the coaches who donated equipment to Dugger Union. Tieken spent eight years as Scott Bless’ offensive coordinator at Bloomington North.
“Tim was unbelievable,” Tieken said. “All the Bless boys — there’s a story with Scott, Mark and Tim — each one of them helped out. Center Grove helped out. Owen Valley, Paoli — there were literally probably 10 or 12 schools that contributed something to the cause.”
Tieken said when football practice opened this summer, his team was wearing Bloomington North pants, Center Grove practice jerseys, Columbus North helmets and shoulder pads from a variety of schools.
“We are the good version of the Bad News Bears,” Tieken said. “But it wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for all those people and their generosity. There aren’t words to describe all they did.
“We feel like when we get started playing, we’re taking the field for every school in the state that’s supported us,” he said. “If there was any way we could ever repay that debt we would. We went from having a couple of footballs to being almost a fully outfitted team.”
Dugger Union has more than a couple of footballs now, and there is one that it will cherish the most. When Tieken visited Columbus North to pick up the helmets and shoulder pads, Tim Bless gave him an unexpected gift.
“He goes ‘You guys are Bulldogs,’” Tieken said. “He said ‘When you have your first game of the season, you need to have a Bull Dog football, from one Bull Dog to another.’
“Even though that’s a 6A school, and we’re here with maybe 125 kids in the high school, he took the time to symbolically hand over the football with that Bull Dog on it,” he said. “I think he was tipping the cap to us for what we were trying to do. By handing that ball off to us, we felt a tremendous amount of respect.”
Bless said he orders about 15 game footballs a year with that Bull Dog logo for quarterbacks to throw when it isn’t raining or snowing.
“We can live with one less,” Bless said. “It was emotional because he got choked up. Obviously, it was a touching situation.”
Tieken said his Dugger Union team will use that football Saturday against Noblesville Home School. Then, he’ll put it on a shelf or in a trophy case.
“I hope it will bring a smile to people’s faces,” Tieken said. “When people say we couldn’t play football, that’s a symbol of ‘Yes, we can.”