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Barnesville football coach honors best friend with ALS every game

Barnesville football coach Bryan Strand wears a red hat for each football game in honor of his best friend, who was diagnosed with ALS in August of 2017. Photos by Holly Inniger

Myron Branning had just found out he had a debilitating disease. As he left the hospital on that day in August 2017, he called Barnesville football coach Bryan Strand. The two had met and played football together at Mayville State University, Branning the center and Strand the fullback. He would eventually stand in Strand's wedding.

Branning wanted his best friend to hear from his voice, a voice that is now nearly impossible to communicate, that he had ALS, a neurodegenerative disease that attacks cells that control the muscles.

"He's a big guy and to see him break down is hard," Strand said. "It's a tough thing to see. His brain and everything is there, but he just can't move his body."

Strand will wear a red hat, as he has all season, on the sideline when Barnesville takes on top-ranked Caledonia in the Minnesota Class 2A state championship game at 1 p.m. Friday at U.S. Bank Stadium.

To most, the red hat Strand wears seems out of place with the white and purple of Barnesville. A closer look and the Carlin Railroaders written on the hat seems even more out of place. These words don't mean much to anyone around here. The hat means everything to Strand.

That red hat is Branning's coaching hat at Carlin High School in Carlin, Nev.

"Red and purple go well together," Strand said.

Branning won two state championships as a football coach and three as a softball coach with Carlin. He coached boys basketball, wrestling, while also serving as an athletic director, vice principal and physical education teacher.

Before this football season, Strand drove the more than 1,300 miles to see Branning. It was less than a year since Branning made the phone call to tell Strand he was diagnosed with ALS. Strand drove 20 hours to see his best friend, at 45 years old, in a wheelchair and nearly non-verbal.

"It's progressing," Strand said. "It's such a crappy disease."

Strand's day has started the same way since Branning's diagnosis. He receives an inspirational text message each morning from Branning.

"Playing football with your feet is one thing, but playing football with your heart is another," Branning's text message read the day Barnesville upset No. 2 Minneapolis North in the semifinals.

During the visit this summer, Strand promised at every game this season to wear the hat Branning used to wear while coaching, so it would be like he was there with him.

Branning will watch the Trojans try to win their first state title against a Caledonia team that has won 53 straight games and three straight state titles. Strand made him an assistant coach on the website Hudl, so he could watch the Trojans.

Branning will see his red hat on the sideline and, win or lose, he will send a message to his best friend after the game.

"It just makes you think there's more to everything," Strand said. "The game is one thing, but there's stuff out there that's a hell of a lot more important. It's tough seeing a good friend go through something like this." 

Chris Murphy

Chris Murphy is a sports reporter for the Forum. He's covered high school and college sports in Chicago, North Dakota and Minnesota since 2009 and, for some reason, has been given awards for doing so.

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