Michigan school has sold $35,000 of gear

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. -- 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.

In January, 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.

This weekend the team, Jenkins and coach, principal and superintendent George Peterson III will fly 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.

An added bonus for Watersmeet: With 17 wins and five losses, the Nimrods had their best season in a decade, although it ended with a loss in the state playoffs Thursday night.

"Whatever happens, we're Nimrods and proud of it," Peterson said.