COKATO, Minn. — The lead was precarious, at best. After a 17-point first-half blitz, Dassel-Cokato was scratching and clawing and doing everything it could to hold on.
Annandale, its Class 3A semifinal opponent, had whittled the Chargers’ lead to a field goal, 17-14. The Cardinals were marching in the fourth quarter, a relentless drive that seemed destined to find the end zone and possibly snatch the lead, and the game, away.
There was tension, all right. But on the Dassel-Cokato sideline, there was no worry. This group had faced down a much bigger adversary and came out stronger. Win or lose, this was just a game.
In the fall of 2017, sophomore Jacob MacDonald went to a party and ate a cookie. Less than a week later, MacDonald — starting linebacker, well-liked classmate, friend to everyone, leader for many — was dead, the result of an allergic reaction to peanuts in the snack.
There are times, often, when classmate Josh DeBoer, now a senior, still expects to see his buddy walk through the door, ready for a good time and a little horse play. The Dassel-Cokato linebacker will shrug off the moment, but it lingers. More than two years since Jacob died unexpectedly, it doesn’t feel that long ago.
“It’s felt like a flash,” DeBoer said last week. “I feel like he’s just going to come back sometimes, but he doesn’t.”
In those two years, however, the response from the football team and the Dassel-Cokato community have forged bonds that define a program set to play on Saturday in its first championship football game in 47 years.
Losing a beloved teammate so suddenly has had life-altering effects on the Dassel-Cokato players. Everything has perspective now, which was evident as Annandale moved down the field two Saturdays ago.
“It helps you focus on the big things,” senior defensive back Noah Halonen said. “You realize the little stuff that hits you doesn’t matter as much as you think it does.”
Dassel-Cokato had reached the semifinals when many thought it unlikely, impossible. Heading into the postseason, the Chargers had lost three of their last five regular-season games. But coach Ryan Weinandt knew his guys. And Annandale hadn’t scored yet.
“You build strength by going through tough times,” Weinandt said. “These guys have been through the worst. I mean, really, what can be much worse than losing a teammate? They’d been through that, bonded and they’ve come out a team.”
Jacob MacDonald had a knack for making everyone feel like he was their best friend. He had grown up with a foot in both the neighboring Dassel-Cokato and Howard Lake-Waverly communities. He went to school in the Howard Lake-Waverly area through eighth grade, but had wrestled in Dassel-Cokato, making lasting connections. When ninth grade rolled around, he left Howard Lake and enrolled at Dassel-Cokato High School.
“He fit in instantly,” his mother, Bonni Halverson, recalled. “He played summer baseball before ninth grade and was already getting invited to summer parties.”
His father, Marcus Halverson, remembered the day he became convinced they’d made the right move for Jacob.
“You know how you’re worried about how your kid fits in? I remember asking him, as I was picking him up from school, ‘How are you doing with this?’ ” Marcus said. “He said ‘Dad, I absolutely love it.’ It was, like, Week 2. How quickly he met people and blended with people showed the kind of character he had.”
Jacob’s house became the de facto hub for an ever-growing group of friends.
“It wasn’t rare that we’d have 10 kids over for the weekend or multiple kids spend the night,” Bonni said.
“We’d get the whole neighborhood together and go out in the yard and play ‘Ghost in the Graveyard,’ ’’ DeBoer remembered with a chuckle. “He was always joking around. We were like brothers.”
Jacob once went with Halonen’s family on a vacation to Hawaii. “One day on the beach, he found a dead octopus and threw it on me,” Halonen recalled. “He was always kind of goofball. He was kind of like a brother.”
Jacob had two younger siblings, but he had a lot of brothers.
Two years after Jacob’s death, his presence is still obvious around the towns of Dassel and Cokato. His jersey number, 34, seems everywhere: Storefronts, yard signs, T-shirts, even in the fence behind the north end zone of the football field, spelled out in Dixie cups. His locker in the Dassel-Cokato locker room has remained untouched for two years, his football cleats and towel still inside.
But nothing is as vital to game-day functions as his jersey. It hangs prominently on the sideline of every game.
“We bring it everywhere with us,” DeBoer said. “It goes with us to the middle of the field because he’s our fifth captain. It’s a part of him we need to keep with us.”
Bonni and Marcus, who also coached Jacob in wrestling at Dassel-Cokato, started a nonprofit memorial run/walk in his honor. Last month the Jacob’s Way of Life 5K raised nearly $20,000, the proceeds going to families experiencing hardship.
“We felt like he was just such a giver,” Bonni said. “And families have come running to help us. We’ve helped four families already.”
With the help of friends, they also began the MacDon Strong Foundation to provide scholarships to three-sport athletes. “We’ve given out 11 $500 scholarships,” she said. The year before? Even more.
MacDon Strong has become a rallying cry for not only Jacob’s family, but the communities of Dassel, Cokato, Howard Lake and Waverly. Taken from his nickname in school, bestowed by an older student as a way to discern between an abundance of boys named Jacob, MacDonStrong appears on T-shirts and other keepsakes. It’s often chanted in the bleachers. Players yell “MacDon Strong!” every time they breakdown after practices and games.
Seeing it around town and watching friends and neighbors support his memory has gone a long way toward helping Jacob’s parents and two younger siblings, Brooklin and Tyson, cope. Their loss has brought an entire community together.
“The hardest part of losing a child is that so many people move on,” Bonni said, dabbing her eyes. “This community has done so much to help us move forward with our lives. That’s really important.”
Jacob once told the coaches his goal as a player was to lead this team to the state tournament. Now, with the Chargers set to play in the Class 3A Prep Bowl on Saturday against Pierz, Jacob’s senior class is living out his dream to the final game.
“I feel like the bonds have gotten even stronger as we’ve gotten farther along,” DeBoer said. “You talk about this and you can get the whole town together in just five minutes.”
The Annandale running back churned toward the end zone, pushing bodies along the way. Then, as if on cue, one of the Dassel-Cokato players submarined the pile and somehow got his hand on the ball.
It slipped free, bounced on the U.S. Bank Stadium turf, right into the arms of Chargers defender Collin Asplin.
The lead was still theirs. Three plays later, the Chargers’ Eli Gillman streaked 87 yards for a game-clinching touchdown.
An explosion of cheers, relief and tears followed. The Chargers’ dream season was still alive.
Whispers began to circulate. Was it fate? Was this meant to be?
Jacob’s influence was obvious, Weinandt said.
“These guys, they showed great character. Nobody pointing fingers, nobody yelling,’’ he said. “I think that stems from what they went through with Jacob. These bonds are tight.”
To others? Perhaps, with No. 34’s jersey present, there was a little more at play.
“One of our teammates’ dad after the game told us the reason we won,” Halonen said. “We had 12 guys on the field.”