Early in 2004 the nation discovered Watersmeet, Michigan. Funny, because the hunting and fishing paradise nestled in the Ottawa National Forest along the western edge of the Upper Peninsula was likely more familiar to Wisconsin residents than the inhabitants of its own home state given its border location.
But when 81-year-old Watersmeet resident Dale Jenkins, clad in classic hunter’s orange, closed one of ESPN’s “Without Sports” commercials with fists clenched while proclaiming “Go Nimrods,” it became a basketball hotbed.
Moreover, people nationwide didn’t just want to root for Nimrods; they wanted to be Nimrods.
Clothing orders began pouring not only from around the country, but in some cases overseas. Fitting for a place that might as well have been the end of the earth prior to the ad spots. Sometimes a branding campaign just finds you.
Below is an Associated Press account of the mania that followed ESPN’s exposure of the tiny U.P. town., and following that is a look back by Watersmeet administrator and coach George Peterson:
In most places, calling someone a “nimrod” might earn you a cold stare or a fat lip. Not in Watersmeet, a rural township of 1,500 in the western Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where “Nimrods” is a badge of honor, the nickname of sports teams at the local school, which serves all grades and whose principal also doubles as coach and superintendent.
Now that the oddball moniker has inspired a series of commercials on ESPN, it has become a claim to fame.
The cable television network began airing three 30-second spots featuring the Watersmeet Township Nimrods boys' basketball team. They are part of ESPN's “Without Sports” advertising campaign, which celebrates the social and cultural importance of athletics.
Two of the ads show the Nimrods playing against another team as local residents voice pride in their team. In the third, 81-year-old Dale Jenkins, who played with the original Nimrods in the 1930s, sings the school fight song.
Each ends with the narrator asking, “Without sports, who would cheer for the Nimrods?”
The spots have struck a chord.
Watersmeet Township, a K-12 school with 228 students, including 77 high school students, has been deluged with requests for merchandise with the Nimrods logo, some coming from as far away as Germany. The school has sold more than $35,000 in T-shirts, sweatshirts, hats, coffee mugs and other items.
In the midst of the Nimrod explosion, Jenkins and coach, principal and superintendent George Peterson III flew to Los Angeles to appear Monday on NBC's “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.”
“It's unbelievable,” Peterson said.
The community has basked in the attention – poetic justice after the ribbing they have taken over the years, he said.
“It builds character for our kids,” Peterson said. “It's taught them a lesson that you need to find out about people before judging them.”
“Nimrods” apparently wasn't considered disparaging in 1904, when the school named itself after a biblical character described in Genesis as a mighty hunter and great king.
Hunting is a way of life in Watersmeet, located in the Ottawa National Forest about eight miles north of the Wisconsin line. The school logo depicts the head of a bearded hunter wearing a coonskin cap.
But why not change the name later, when it became a putdown? When scenes from the sitcom “Cheers” showed Carla the barmaid deriding patrons Norm and Cliff as “nimrods”?
Peterson surveyed the student body in the late 1980s. The response: Nimrods forever. “To them, the only insult was being asked” whether to abandon their beloved tradition, he said.
Excitement ran high when the ESPN crew visited in December. Jenkins, a retired mechanic, was filmed singing the fight song in his garage, surrounded by fishing gear.
“Both of my daughters were cheerleaders when they were in school, and they were always coming home and singing the song,” he said. “You can't forget it.”
The opening lines: “Watersmeet, the school that can't be beat, where the spirit's always high. Friends or foes, we have no cares or woes, for we are good sports, win or lose or tie.”
ESPN marketing manager Kevin Kirksey, who filmed the ad, said he was smitten with the community's wholesomeness and loyalty to its team.
“We're playing on the funny name, but the real story is how sports brings people together in small towns across America,” he said.
“Whatever happens, we're Nimrods and proud of it,” Peterson said.
Watersmeet Administrator/Coach George Peterson recalls . . .
“When ESPN arrived we didn't have a school store. Producer Brett Morgen asked me if we had a few shirts or hats laying around and I replied I had about a dozen hats and shirts in my office closet. He replied, ‘You may need a few more!’ After ESPN, “The Tonight Show,” and “CBS Sunday Morning” we asked for help from the community to get our merchandise out to all parts of the world. We pulled in a gross revenue of just over $500,000 in the first two years. We quickly were able to open a store in our beautiful school and had a full-time manager to run it for about a year.
"You couldn't imagine it; Nimrod gear being sent to Australia, England, Canada and all 50 states. We quickly teamed up with Bob Lanier Enterprises from Milwaukee, Wis., so people could order Nimrod merchandise online. We are still partners today.
“In recent years, the sales have fallen considerably. We still have the store which is now run by my office and the school business office. Around the holidays it can get busy. All the profits go into a scholarship fund for any Nimrod who continues their education beyond the K-12 setting. One day last summer I had a busy afternoon with people from Tennessee, Indiana, New York, Iowa, and Illinois stopping in. We do well during the summer and snowmobile season.”
TOP PHOTO: Dale Jenkins sang the Watersmeet fight song as part of a 2004 ESPN commercial that featured his hometown Nimrods.