The past month has been a bit surreal for Brookfield (Mo.) High School athletic director Mike McBroom.
No matter where he went in the state of Missouri, every opponent told McBroom they were pulling for him. Students volunteered to spend their Saturday night inside the school - and three nights later, parents joined there for an overnighter of their own.
And, of course, the topper: Brookfield's football players going Gangnam Style alongside their biggest rivals and putting it out there for the world to see.
What the bell is going on in Linn County?
Well, that's exactly it. The Bell Game - the annual meeting between small towns Brookfield and Marceline in north-central Missouri - was throwing everything it could at being named the best high school football rivalry in America.
USA TODAY High School Sports wrapped up its month-long competition to determine the nation's top high school football rivalry on Wednesday morning. The Bell Game, which features two towns with a combined population of 6,500 and nearly ended eight years ago because of a scheduling snafu, managed to garner 1,761,259 votes in just one week of the national round.
"The excitement, you can feel it walking in the halls," McBroom said. "Anyone you talk to, the first question is, 'Hey, you been voting?' We've always rallied for the Bell Game, both communities have, and it takes both of us working together because we're the little dog in the hunt."
Little? Not in their efforts.
The schools reached beyond the town borders and rallied votes from alums across the world. Two local radio stations ran ads all day every day, a Kansas City television station reported on it and The Linn County Leader, which publishes three times a week, published articles in each edition.
But perhaps the biggest boost came from Brookfield's lock-in, which began at 9 p.m. Saturday and ended at 6 a.m. Sunday. Lured by the notion of winning a national title and loads of donated food from McDonald's and Pizza Hut, more than 60 students (roughly one-fifth of the high school enrollment) spent the night inside of the school, voting.
Not to be outdone, the students' parents did the same thing Tuesday night with the finish line in sight.
Meanwhile, in Marceline, students spent last Sunday at the school voting. Marceline also allowed cell phones at certain times during the school day to boost the rivalry numbers.
Marceline athletic director Kent O'Laughlin said it's safe to say computers in Linn County were working overtime.
"People were spending half their night on the computer," O'Laughlin said. "When they were sitting at home watching TV at night, they were sitting there voting. We heard from local businesses saying they were voting all day."
The most memorable effort, though, came from the schools combining to produce a video that, let's just say, you need to see for yourself.
"We needed all the help we can get because we're small here," McBroom said. "Everywhere I have been the last three weeks, there are schools all around us that we play and as far as two hours away, and they said 'Hey Mike, we're voting for you.'"
The best rivalry competition began on Nov. 19 with 153 rivalries - three from each state plus Washington D.C. After two weeks of state competition, the 51 winners advanced to a weeklong round of regional voting.
Four finalists emerged from regionals - Brookfield vs. Marceline in the Midwest, Vermont's St. Johnsbury Academy vs. Lyndon Institute in the North, Alabama's T.R. Miller vs. W.S. Neal in the South and Arizona's Douglas vs. Bisbee in the West.
Arizona made a late run to finish in second place with 948,831 votes. Vermont was third with 656,130 votes and Alabama fourth at 223,661. Vermont had been pushing Missouri for first, until the Brookfield lock-in helped the Show-Me State rivalry pull away.
"We're in one of the most disadvantaged parts of the state and to be able to have the schools work together, rally together, for this has been fantastic for the communities," St. Johnsbury (Vt.) marketing director John Suitor, who started a voting campaign that incorporated clever social media ads, said prior to the national round.
The next step for Brookfield and Marceline will be dividing the $10,000 grand prize and likely holding a joint celebration between the towns that have thrived on competing against each other for more than a century.
"That's the thing about it, our communities work together on a lot of things," McBroom said. "Our kids are kind of friends. But when it gets Bell Game time, you strap your hat on."
USA TODAY High School Sports