The regular football season was nearly over when fate intervened.
Fate of the worst kind — the death of a dearly loved family member.
When patriarch Larry Haxton died, the timing couldn’t have been worse.
Larry’s son, Monte Haxton, was part of a miraculous football story — the successful merger of rival teams Argonia and Attica which uses a nickname borrowed from the movie, “Remember The Titans.”
Larry’s son-in-law, Doug Oberle, was head football coach at No. 1-ranked Victoria, a perennial state football contender.
Three weeks after Larry Haxton died, everyone who knew him will be reunited in Newton at 11 a.m. Saturday when Victoria High School meets the Argonia-Attica Titans for the Eight-Man II state championship.
Life-long friends Monte Haxton from Argonia-Attica and Victoria’s Doug Oberle both graduated from Claflin High School and were roommates at Kansas State University. Oberle is married to Monte’s younger sister, Gina.
“Saturday will be the first time that the family is back together. I feel like dad had a part in this — it had to come out this way,” Haxton said. “My sister and I are really close. We are used to talking every day. Now, she’s not talking to me all week.”
Oberle said he understands how his wife, Gina, is caught in the middle with her split family loyalties.
“Monte and Gina are close —it’s definitely a big brother, little sister relationship,” he said.
Oberle was a tower of strength for the Haxton family when they needed it the most. Haxton was surprised when Oberle was joined by the Victoria High football team at Larry’s funeral.
“I love Doug as a friend and have the utmost respect for that man,” Haxton said. “Doug brought his entire football team to the service. All of the players knew my parents.”
Haxton visited briefly before the service with the Victoria players, who told him that Coach Oberle had talked about their miraculous run at Argonia-Attica, a co-op football program with two rival high schools 30 miles apart in different counties.
“I told them — we’re going to see you guys again in a month, and I wasn’t kidding,” said Haxton, who serves as an assistant football coach at Argonia-Attica. “They welcomed the challenge.”
The Argonia-Attica program features co-head coaches — Argonia’s Luke Greenwood, the offensive head coach; and Attica’s Lance Vandeveer, who coordinates the defense.
Haxton joined the Argonia-Attica football staff this season after coaching volleyball and tennis at Chaparral High School and Mulvane for 17 years. The business education teacher earned a reputation as Claflin’s best tennis player when he placed twice at the Class 3A state tennis tournament.
Argonia was close to shutting down its football program after ending the 2012 season with nine players. After exploring options to merge with Norwich and Caldwell, Argonia found a willing partner in Attica, which had 11 football players.
Attica, in Harper County, won the 1988 Eight-Man II state football title and finished as state runner-up in 1987. Argonia, in Sumner County, is a three-time Eight-Man semifinalist and lost to the eventual state football champion in 1981 and 2000.
After seeing the 12 players from Argonia and 10 players from Attica work together, Haxton saw some potential for success.
“We had some speed and thought we’d have a fun season,” Haxton said. “We had a real high-powered offensive team. We were hoping to compete in our District. At that point, it never crossed my mind that we would ever play Victoria.”
Oberle said he drew inspiration and strength from the extended Haxton family with the care that Larry received during his battle with cancer.
“It was difficult to see anyone endure what Larry went through,” Oberle said. “You admire the family because they hung together in tough times.”
As the regular football season wound down, Haxton thought about the possibility that the teams could play for the Eight-Man II state title.
“After dad passed away, I saw that if we won our playoff games, that we would play each other,” Haxton said. “I knew Victoria had a great football team. But a lot of people did not expect Argonia-Attica to win its last two playoff games. We never imagined we’d do something like this. We’ve surprised a lot of people.”
Oberle has coached one state football champion at Victoria and come close to winning another championship several other times.
“Both teams knew it’d be a tough challenge to reach the state final,” he said. “I didn’t seriously think about playing Argonia-Attica until we beat Sharon Springs in the semifinal.”
Monte shares fond memories of his father, an avid volleyball player who talked his son into playing in a men’s league in Ellinwood.
“I got into coaching volleyball because of my dad,” Haxton said. “My dad knocked a few teeth out with his spikes.”
Haxton said his first football game after his father’s death was his toughest challenge.
“I loved my dad and I miss him. First game back, it was extremely tough,” Haxton said. “You remember all those things he stood for. He always cared about his kids and family and never played favorites. He had a big heart and would help anybody.”
Monte Haxton’s father had watched his other sons — twin brothers Kyle Haxton and Kevin Haxton — coach on opposing basketball sidelines at Hoisington and Ellsworth High School.
“Dad was tickled to death when he saw those games,” Haxton said. “He’d just watch and would never yell anything during the game. He’d visit after the game and tell them how proud he was of his sons.”
Oberle appreciates the family dynamics that centered around Larry’s family members serving as coaches.
“Larry had a fondness and love for sports and I know that having us both coach in a state championship game would guarantee an interesting time for the family,” Oberle said. “Larry was very proud of his kids’ accomplishments.”
Haxton appreciated the precious final moments he shared with his father.
“His mind was sharp and I loved how my dad would share what he thought,” Haxton said. “He mellowed out.”
Haxton said his father liked to provide support.
“He’d be proud that Doug and I helped coach our teams to the state football final,” Haxton said. “I’m guessing that Larry will be right next to us Saturday.”