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Wildfire running back runs with passion amid heavy heart

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Mott-Regent-New England running back Nathan Kaufman (3) rushed for nearly 300 yards in the Wildfire's win over South Border last week. The breakout game was only a day after his grandmother passed away. (Jake Wright / The Dickinson Press)

Nathan Kaufman’s grandmother passed away on Thursday, and less than 24 hours later he would dominate the football field under the Friday night lights.

Victories in football are a nuanced affair. The emotions they produce balance precariously on a razor's edge, where one path leads to elation and celebration and the other to despair. In victory, some celebrate more loudly than others and in defeat others may even cry.

Friday night witnessed Kaufman, a running back for Mott-Regent-New England, straddle the hash marks between elation and despair, in a breakout performance in the Wildfire’s 34-12 win over the South Border Mustangs.

Kaufman pointed up to the sky after scoring his first touchdown against South Border — he was pointing to his grandmother who he knew had the best seat in the house.

“My dad picked me up (on Thursday), and the first thing he said was that Grandma didn’t make it,” Kaufman said. “I was in shock. I didn’t know what was going on really.”

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While understandably grieving, Kaufman had a decision. Grieve as most do, in the company of friends and family, or, do exactly what his grandmother would have wanted him to do and take to the field with his other family.

Kaufman chose to honor his grandmother and be there for his coaches and teammates.

The heavy-hearted running back rumbled, stumbled and battered the defense for 273 yards and four touchdowns in an inspiring performance.

For Kaufman, the only explanation was that his grandmother was looking over him.

“Before we took the field, I took a marker and wrote the day she died, 09-17-20, on my wrist with a heart and the word Grandma,” Kaufman said. “I played my heart out knowing she had a better view upstairs and in God’s hands.”

After he scored his first touchdown, he said he experienced a feeling inside that he was going to have a big game.

On the sidelines Kaufman’s mind would often flash back to the day before and the emotions would tear at him. Then he’d refocus once more at the goal before him.

On Thursday night, the day of her death, Kaufman even went to help his head coach Nate Zachmann paint the field hoping to get his mind off of the situation.

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The two talked and envisioned a big game for the junior, while Zachmman reassured Kaufman that he and the whole football team were 100% behind him.

“Coach was one of the first people that I talked to about the situation. I love Coach, and I know he loves me,” Kaufman said. “I knew he would be there for me all the time and would have my back.”

After Kaufman helped paint the field and prepare for the game, Zachmann realized what he already knew.

The Wildfire football program meant the world to Kaufman and especially in times of adversity, while Zachmann was also well aware of what Kaufman meant to the program.

“Nathan loves sports — it shows — and our program is all about the people. Nathan is a great teammate and he would never want to let his teammates down,” Zachmann said. “He would never miss a workout, practice or game. He loves his teammates and his teammates love him. The night Nathan had though, he knows that he can’t have it without (his offensive line.)”

Kaufman’s entire family supported his decision to play in his grandmother’s honor and the star running back admitted that while he knew he had the talent in him, he still couldn’t believe how well he played.

For now Kaufman plans to carry his grandmother’s memory with him for the rest of the season and knows that with his own personal guardian angel watching over him, he expects nothing less than to continue to play well — because that is what she would want.

As the next challenge approaches, Kaufmann and his team will need all the help they can get as they put their momentum to the test when they take to the field against No. 1 ranked Kidder County.

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Kaufman will look to reignite the passion, energy and willpower that led him to success against South Border as the team launches their pursuit of an upset.

“It is very inspiring to have a performance like that when you lose a loved one … ,” Zachmann said. “That shows how mentally tough he is. We talk about being mentally tough all the time, and he has bought into that. To see an athlete perform like that is inspiring to his teammates too, and it sets the bar and standard of what we want to do here.”

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