The Rushford-Peterson High School basketball team won the opening game of its holiday tournament, but it was the ride home that brought the boys together and delivered a trophy to the small school.
On a rural road in southeastern Minnesota, after a Dec. 28 victory over Spring Grove, the coaches stopped the team bus about 10 p.m. to help a fan whose car skidded off the icy road and was stuck in the ditch. With that rescue complete, the team resumed the 28-mile trek home when coach Tom Vix suddenly saw a flash of light to his left.
Vix, 50, has lived in the area all his life and has hunted deer since he was 12. He knew exactly what was about to happen.
"Deer," he yelled to the driver. And then: Thud. Vix, the driver and the other coaches got off the bus to inspect the damage and check on the deer. "You never want to leave an animal to suffer," Vix said. The bus sustained little damage: the license plate was torn off and a steel bar underneath was bent. The deer was dead.
But it was no ordinary deer. The 280-pound, 10-point buck was a beautiful animal and likely the biggest buck any of the boys on the bus had ever seen, Vix said. With a 22-inch antler spread, the deer has an unofficial score of 180, he said. "A score of 170 would put it in a record book."
DNR conservation officer Lt. Dean Olson doesn't recall a deer this size being hit by a vehicle. But then again, "There aren't many deer this size anyway," he said.
"We're all deer hunters, and to see a deer of that quality, well, it's a bad way to go," Vix said Monday. "It's sad that some hunter didn't have that privilege. And that poor deer made it through bow season, two shotgun seasons, a muzzle-loader season and only had two days left. So that's kind of tough."
As the coaches examined the animal, the boys opened the bus windows and craned their necks to get a glimpse of the deer in the moonlight.
"It was just outstanding," said senior and team captain Brad Ebner. "Most of us won't see a deer that size in our lifetimes. We kept asking ourselves, why we couldn't have run into it this [hunting] season."
As Vix examined the situation, he knew he couldn't leave the trophy deer on the roadside where it could be a danger to other motorists. Vix also knows his boys well. Some of them likely would have gone back on the icy roads later that night to get back to the deer, he said. Vix wanted his team safe, so he called the DNR for the necessary permits, which were given on the condition that the antlers would go to the school and not to any one person, and then loaded the buck through the emergency door and onto the bus.
A dead deer on a school bus might be odd for a big-city basketball team but not for rural kids who hunt and for those who live on farms. "There was a lot of talk about a venison feed at the end of the year," Vix said. And the antlers would go to the school to be used in a natural resources class.
Out come the cameras
With the deer lying in the aisle, cell phone cameras flipped open. "His head was down so I jumped on his back, grabbed the antlers and held his head up so we could get a good photo," said high school junior Justin Boyum.
Boyum, who didn't get a deer this past season, was among some of the players who would have returned to the scene of the accident if the deer had been left on the road. "My cousin works for the DNR and I would have seen if I could have gotten a permit to take the deer."
"We were really pumped to have the deer on the bus. It was pretty exciting."
And it was a time for team bonding as stories about hunting experiences emerged, Vix said. "It brought the team together about something they had in common and will give them a memory to share," he said.
With deer on board, the team continued home, only to make yet another rescue: The car that they rescued from the ditch was back on the side of the road with a flat. In an effort to get the team home, the car's driver and passengers were welcomed onto the bus and the coach returned later that night to fix the flat.
And then at about 1 a.m., Vix readied the deer to process the meat. He eventually discovered the meat couldn't be salvaged because of the internal damage done to the buck. The team will still have its steak and venison grill-out later this year, but with venison coming from Vix's freezer.
An area taxidermist who learned about the prize buck volunteered to mount the head to be hung in the natural resources classroom. There the deer will be used to teach lessons on scoring a deer.
A week later, the town and team are still talking about the buck-bus collision. Photos of it are making the rounds on student cell phones and Facebook pages.
And on Monday, coach Vix is using the accident as a life lesson.
"Sometimes things happen and you have to react to them. And hopefully you can make lemonade out of lemons," Vix said. "If this deer can be in the classroom and educate kids and be a memory that's positive, that's good. We didn't want the deer to get hit, obviously. We wished it wouldn't have happened. Things happen and it's how you deal with it."
Mary Lynn Smith • 612-673-4788