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Axemen bring the sound and fury: Bemidji plays first-ever IFL game

Noah Hanks, Riley Farris, Connor Fettig, Aiden Saari and Elias Treuer cheer on the defense Friday night at the first-ever Bemidji Axemen game at the Sanford Center. (Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer)1 / 5
Bemidji Axeman quarterback Josh Aakre bootlegs around the end for a touchdown just before halftime on Friday night in the Axemen's first-ever game, an exhibition game against the Cedar Rapids Titans at the Sanford Center. (Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer)2 / 5
Axeman defensive back Mark Sterling is introduced as he enters the indoor football field through a football helmet lined by motorcycles and a gaunlet of kids from the Boys and Girls Club of Bemidji. (Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer)3 / 5
The Bemidji Axeman game began with an honor song with about 25 dancers representing each area American Indian reservation. (Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer)4 / 5
Diane Illies, Solway, was presented with a team jersey as the winner of the IFL naming contest for the Bemidji Axeman. (Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer)5 / 5

BEMIDJI -- The inaugural Bemidji Axemen game Friday may have given the opening ceremonies for the Winter Olympics in Sochi a run for their money.

If that seems a bit over the top, then it matches the essence of that night in the Sanford Center.

Although events began with a traditional American Indian drum ceremony, singing and dancing, things got more flamboyant after those dancers left the field.

The Bemidji Axes dancers made a dramatic entrance, roaring in as passengers on motorcycles. They wore flannel plaid shirts, which they shed during the course of their routine, writhing to pop music with inflatable axes as props.

The Axemen themselves ran onto the field through a giant helmet (borrowed from the Bemidji High School football team) smoke from a fog machine and deafening music. Players who hail from Minnesota, especially in and around Bemidji, received a particularly warm reception from the fans.

Having been warned by announcers that throwing objects onto the field would result in ejection from the game, the almost-capacity crowd was loud and rowdy but respectful. Fans instantly quieted down and stood up unprompted when the American flag was brought in by the color guard for the Pledge of Allegiance.

Bemidji Mayor Rita Albrecht, IFL dignitaries, and notable Bemidji businesspeople performed the opening coin toss. Watching from the stands, City Council member Michael Meehlhause said he was excited for what was to come.

“I think it’ll be a big hit,” he predicted.

After the game began, things went right back to raucous. The Axemen had promised a show, and they more than delivered, scoring a touchdown that had the crowd on its feet in the first minute.

Children rattled cowbells and tooted plastic horns as they cheered alongside the adult fans.

With almost no barriers between fans and the action, players interacted with the Bemidjites throughout the game, slapping their hands and exchanging smiles.

But there was a downside to that, too. One missed bullet pass sent a geyser of beer belonging to one unlucky fan shooting into the air, spraying him and his seatmates. Footballs went into the stands multiple times, but fans tossed them back like good sports. (They can keep them.)

The players were a bit less chivalrous to one another. Scuffles and taunts were thrown between the teams, with Bemidji and Cedar Rapids literally getting into each other’s faces. Every play was an emotional drama.

During the time-outs, events kept the energetic vibes going, with T-shirt cannons and interactive fan games on the field.

The entire electrified spectacle, rough edges and all,  impressed those in attendance.

“It’s a good atmosphere in here,” said Kellie Monson of Bemidji. “Really loud.”

BSU sports teams worked concessions, receiving a portion of the proceeds in exchange for missing out on the action taking place in the arena. Christine Szurek and her fellow women’s soccer players were reluctant to say whether they’d try to attend future games, although they did admit to being at least a little curious about the noise filtering in from the first professional sports game in recent memory.