By DIANE GASPER-O'BRIEN
EDSON -- As a 140-pound high school running back in the 1950s, Melvin Musil relied on his speed and shiftiness to avoid getting planted by bigger, stronger players on the hard-dirt surface of his hometown football field.
Now in his 70s, Musil is the one doing the planting on the 80-yard field at the former Edson Consolidated High School.
The days of the Edson High Rockets and their success in six-man football are long gone. The high school closed in the early 1970s.
But Musil still can revisit those memories of the good ol' days every time he steps onto the field -- or actually, into his garden.
Musil, who will turn 76 later this month, keeps busy in retirement tending to his massive garden on the field just east of his family home in the small Sherman County town of approximately 20 residents.
An area football star "back in the day," Musil remembers having to dig sticker patches out of the field before the first day of practice.
He chuckles at the thought, admitting he would rather be digging potatoes.
Musil and his older brother, Marlin, who also played football for Edson, had acquired the football field along with the vacated schoolhouse and bus barn approximately 30 years ago at an auction.
"I think we were the only ones who bid on it," said Musil, who thought it would come in handy since the school property sat adjacent to his family home.
For years, the brothers used the bus barn for storage for farm machinery, and, like a lot of abandoned schools, Edson sat empty. But the Musil brothers kept the football field presentable, mowing the weeds.
Marlin Musil died in the early 2000s, and younger brother Melvin, a former farmer, started getting the itch to work the land again in 2011.
"I couldn't sit around and do nothing," Musil said. "I had to have something to do, so I broke out the football field."
That spring, Musil's wife, Dorothy, and their children and grandchildren all converged on the field to help plant.
Ever since, they plant 35 to 40 rows of 500-plus pounds of seed potatoes in February and March. Three months after the plants peek through the ground, Musil begins digging them up for sacking up and selling at farmers markets.
"My whole crew helps," Musil said. "I couldn't do it without them."
Musil's wife and oldest daughter, Tina Hansen from Colby -- along with her husband, Bruce -- help separate the potatoes by size and place 5 pounds in each mesh bag.
"You don't want to wash these potatoes," Dorothy Musil said as she brushed the dirt away from them, "or they spoil faster."
The closest farmers market is in Goodland, just 9 miles to the west where the Musil couple sets up shop every Saturday through mid-October. But the Musil potatoes go far and wide; they also have a booth several weekends in Hays during the summer and fall months.
"My son got me started on that," said Musil, whose youngest son, Shaun, lives in Hays. "(Shaun) orders so many sacks of potatoes, and I take them down there, and then I come back home."
"Shaun usually wants to meet in Quinter," Tina Hansen said. "So it's an adventure."
Mom and Dad Musil show up at the Hays site one Saturday a year to help their son and his family peddle their produce.
"I really enjoy helping Mom and Dad from afar," Shaun Musil said. "And they sell a lot of potatoes at the Hays market."
While the biggest share of the harvest is potatoes, the Musil garden also yields tomatoes and green beans.
"And onions, lots of onions," said Tina Hansen, whose husband is Musil's top assistant when it comes to digging potatoes.
Otherwise, Musil mostly works alone, going to his garden in the early morning and evening hours to avoid the heat of the day.
And he cares deeply about his hobby.
"I do buy commercial fertilizer, but I don't spray for weeds," he said, noting he doesn't want to contaminate his plants and vegetables.
Instead, he cultivates the weeds back into the ground, using a push rototiller.
Musil doesn't have an irrigation well; instead, he uses his own domestic well to water his garden.
"Except this year," he said while digging up a row of potatoes recently. "We got 6 inches of rain in June, and I haven't had to pump my domestic well."
Musil stood up, hands on his sharpshooter spade, straightened his back and smiled.
"I wish that would happen every year," he said.
When it comes to harvesting the potatoes, Musil prefers using spades and potato forks over his power potato digger.
"That way, you don't damage the potatoes," he said.
True to his farming background, Musil will rest the plot of ground where his potatoes grew near the east end zone this year to replenish the composition of the soil.
But he has plenty of area to choose from, and he's already working on preparing the ground for next year's crop.
"I'm pre-watering everything," he said. "Even as much rain as we've gotten this year, it's pretty dry out there right now."
Tina Hansen, longtime postmaster at nearby Brewster who retired last month, said she has heard lots of tales about her dad and his football legacy.
Now, Musil's children and grandchildren will be hearing stories about his garden for years to come, probably long after he has rolled up his hoses and hung up his spades.
Although, the gardener says, that won't be any time soon.
"Don't know how long I'll do this," Musil said. "But I'm going to go as far as I can go anyway."