'Surreal': As they prepare to move forth, Grant and Simon Romfo look back at their time on the borderlands
North Dakota Highway 20 stakes itself straight through the heart of the state. The 170 mile stretch of pavement extends itself from Jamestown all the way to the port of entry in Sarles.
It snakes itself inside the corners that make up some of the state's largest cities, exploring the vast emptiness and small towns of the state. Outside of Jamestown and Devils Lake, most cities 20 crosses through are no bigger than five blocks. In less than a minute, you are entering and leaving cities like Munich, Starkweather, and Webster.
Right before 20 makes one of its final turns straight up into Manitoba, the road intersects with ND highway five, forcing drivers to come to a halt. If you were to proceed forward, you'd wind up on an unpaved stretch of road on the outskirts of Calvin.
According to a 2019 census estimate, the population of Calvin is 18, so it's hard to believe that there is anything other than more vast, empty landscape on the outskirts of Calvin. And you'd be right...but you'd also be wrong. Just outside of Calvin is where one of North Dakota's dynamic high school duos has called home for 18 years: Grant Romfo and Simon Romfo.
Making up the Langdon Area part of the Langdon/Edmore/Munich co-op, Grant and Simon have put the small town of Langdon, which is about 100 times bigger than Calvin, on the map Class A football powerhouse in their four years in the program. The brothers have been a centerpiece in L/E/M's success since 2018, powering the Cardinals to three straight NDHSAA Class A football state titles and a 37-0 record in that run.
"We hate losing here," Simon said. "Everyone hates losing, even when we scrimmage in practice everyone gets mad when we lose, which is a good thing to have. Everyone hates it more than we like to win."
Its losses have driven L/E/M to blow up the win column. After losing to Hillsboro/Central Valley in the 2017 Class A state championship game, L/E/M didn't lose again. In the Romfo's senior season, they blew through every team they faced and would see Grant and Simon at the center of the Cardinals' success.
The brothers have cemented their names in Cardinal and Class A lore, seeing Simon pass for over 7,700 yards and over 100 career touchdowns. While Simon controlled the air, Grant controlled the ground, rushing for 53 career touchdowns and receiving for 33 career touchdowns. A combination of speed, strength, and mind made Grant and Simon nearly unstoppable.
But their love and talent for the game weren't forced upon by anyone or driven into their heads through non-stop training, it was found in the simplest of places.
"We always played at recess," Simon said. "There was always a football game going on that we had played in. We also started T-ball at 4 or 5 years old. We were always playing in the yard and we just grew from there."
From a young age, Grant and Simon developed a love for sports, football, baseball, and basketball to be specific, and their talent began to shine early on. As early on as little league, Grant and Simon were playing above their age level. Grant said while they were nervously moving up, they got into a groove and grew from there.
A lot of people in the area saw the potential Grant and Simon were showing on the gridiron, hardwood, and diamond, including L/E/M football and baseball head coach Josh Krivarchka. He had just begun coaching them in baseball and was their P.E. teacher, seeing that they had athletic ability, but had no idea how far it would go.
“I had an idea of their athletic ability, but you never expect them to turn into the athletes and the young men they have turned into today," Krivarchka said. "They’ve definitely reached a high potential.”
At the time, L/E/M wasn't really a powerhouse in anything. They were turning a major corner in football, making it as far as the Class A semifinals in 2016 before losing to Ellendale/Edgeley/Kulm. In basketball, the Cardinals just eked into the Region 4 tournament, eventually getting blown out in the first round by eventual state runner-up Four Winds/Minnewaukan. And on the diamond, the Cardinals were still in a back and forth battle with Park River, with the Aggies holding the edge in the rivalry.
The Cardinals hadn't appeared in the Dakota Bowl since 2009, as the Langdon/Edmore co-op that eventually lost to Velva. Prior to that, the program lost to Velva in the 2000 Dakota Bowl. They had two appearances at the Dakota Bowl and had been outscored 56-6. The Cardinals were becoming a threat but didn't have the deepest history to back them.
"We weren’t really good in anything," Grant said. "We really wanted to win, so when we got up here we tried to push ourselves. There was an older group before us that really tried to change the culture and they helped us learn how to become leaders. When they left, we took over the reins. I feel like we did a good job of leading this program in the right direction."
Suddenly, things began to click. L/E/M was back in the Dakota Bowl for the first time in eight years and after a loss in the FargoDome, the Cardinals had their first state championship in football, plus two more. L/E/M's sudden stranglehold of Class A saw them become the first team since Velva's four-pete from 2003 to 2006 to win three-plus state titles in a row.
It was a new reality on the borderlands as the Cardinals were not just champions, but kings and a team that others had circled and bolded on their schedule. While the program was reaching new heights, so were Grant and Simon. A new future was starting to rise on the horizon after their first state title, one that they couldn't even dream of.
"After sophomore year we started realizing that Division I was an opportunity for us," Grant said. "We started going to some camps and coaches start talking to you. You realize that “hey, I might be able to play at this level”. It’s just exciting."
As they got older and their senior season came around, the buzz began around North Dakota. Where were those twins from Langdon going to go and were they going to stay together? Grant and Simon weren't ever dead set on staying together. They really just wanted to go somewhere that felt like the best fit.
"It wasn’t too much of a factor because we wanted to be our own individuals when it came to recruiting," Grant said. "I felt like NDSU was the best decision for me so I went with that."
As the camps and offers came around, it allowed the brothers to go beyond the package deal type of idea that came with being twins and showcase their independent talents.
"It was nice when they would recruit you as yourself and not a package deal," Simon said. "I don’t think we were ever set on going together. If It was the opportunity that best fit for us, I think we would’ve. I think whatever was the best fit was the one to go with and for me it was UND. That’s what they want to do."
Eventually, early February came around and in the thick of basketball season, the brothers announced that they would not just be playing for different teams, but would be rivals at the highest level of football in North Dakota. Feb. 1 Grant announced he would be heading to NDSU, which has not just dominated the North Dakota college football scene, but the Division I FCS landscape. In the heart of UND territory, one of the region's standouts pledged his commitment to the green and gold.
Two days later, Simon announced that he was going to be on the other side of Interstate 29, committing to UND. While NDSU has been the bigger brother when it comes to college football in North Dakota, UND burst onto the scene in its first year in the Missouri Valley Conference, winning a share of the MVC regular-season title and clinching a spot in the FCS National Championship tournament.
There's not a love lost between the Bison and the Fighting Hawks, and the rivalry heats up even more as two brothers, who highlight the true spirit of small-town North Dakota football will face each other on the competitive stage for the first time.
"That’s kind of the state game," Grant said. "The winner of that game gets the state. Just that and being competitive. Simon’s on the other team, it’ll make it a really competitive, fun game."
"When UND and NDSU play it’s always personal," Simon said. "So I think It will be a little more personal for us, which will make it exciting. It makes you want to win that much more. It’ll be a fun game to play in for sure."
Seeing the brothers go head to head is something that isn't seen too much. They've played on the same team for as long as they can remember, but there are a few situations in which they are opponents. In having Krivarchka being their gym teacher year after year, he made sure that Grant and Simon weren't on the same team.
"Usually in gym class is when we play on different teams and face each other," Grant said. "Krivarchka would never put us on the same team because we would probably dominate. Simon and I go against each term and get ultra-competitive."
It gets really heated according to both of them, so much to the point that their teammates around them fade away and it turns into a battle between the two.
"It’s fun to face each other in gym class," Simon said. "You get to go against someone who’s on the same kind of skill as you and it’s kind of fun. It turns into an almost one-on-one kind of thing. Sometimes other people get mad that you’re not passing the ball."
While the competitive aspect of their lives may not always be one on one, both boys have pushed each other to become better. Grant said that it's one of the benefits that the duo has had in being twins who are basically on the same wavelength.
"I kind of like it because I feel like we mold each other," Grant said. "Without Simon, I don’t think I would be the athlete I would be and I don’t think Simon would be the athlete he is without me. The competitiveness between us just molded us into better athletes."
"If it’s just playing 1 on 1 in the driveway or throwing the football around, you’re always trying to be better just throwing it or never dropping the ball," Simon said. "You’re trying to win in 1 on 1 or if it’s just lifting downstairs. You always want to push each other to do your best to be the best you can. That’s what we push each other to do."
The competitive sense between the two brothers has been infectious as it spread to their teammates, and as team leaders, both brothers have pushed those around them to be the best athletes they can, and it's shown. Outside of the successes of football, the two other squads the brothers have played on this season have made major strides.
The basketball team only lost four games the entire year, cementing themselves as a mainstay in the state's top five rankings and making it all the way to the Region 4 championship game. In baseball, L/E/M has yet to lose as of May 18, sitting at a perfect 17-0 with one game left in the regular season. They have already clinched the top seed in the Region IV tournament and are hosting.
"Everyone has just kind of just bought into not just the offense and defense we run, but the weight room in the summer and running on the street," Simon said. "We hate losing more than we like to win. When you get that mentality, you never want to lose a game. Once everyone buys into that and we get the plays down, we’ll be fine on the field. We want to get that mentality. Right and then go execute on the field."
Similar to how the football team began its run four seasons ago, the Cardinals are still thinking about a season-ending loss and using that as motivation. L/E/M lost to Park River in 2019, nearly missing a birth in the Class B state tournament. After a canceled season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, L/E/M is driving once again for gold.
"You always want to push to be the best you can be and our sophomore year when we lost to Park River, that left a bitter taste in our mouths," Grant said. "We all still remember that game and we don’t want to have that feeling again, so we’re all trying to push to be the best we can be."
The brothers are driven and want to elevate those around them. Krivarchka said that both of them offer two different leadership styles that make up a sound whole that works well. Grant is a little more vocal and tends to be a little more on his teammates, whether that's support or advice. Simon is quieter and leads more by example and execution.
“Those two are crucial and without them, we wouldn’t have won three straight state championships, but they will be the first to credit their teammates," Krivarchka said. "Obviously they understand that you need 11 guys working together and it helps when you have guys like Grant and Simon.”
It's a leadership combination that has driven the boys to do what they can to put L/E/M on the top of the North Dakota sports world on every surface they touch in the final season. When asked if they felt like if they were on a mission to win in the final season they answered yes. For two boys who grew up in rural North Dakota, the high school pinnacle means almost everything.
While they've fallen short of one dream in making it to the Class B state basketball tournament, a lot of what both boys wished to come true has nearly become a reality. The two twin brothers, who spent their weekends helping out their dad on the farm, dreaming of playing college ball, have not just taken North Dakota by storm, but have realized they are no longer dreaming.
"I’ve always dreamed about playing for the Bison since I was little and we’ve always dreamed of playing and winning, in the Dakota Bowl," Grant said. "We came out short in basketball because we always dreamed of playing in The B, and that was one of our big goals. We’ve always dreamed of playing in the state high school baseball tournament, so we’re still working on that one."
When asked if they could describe their athletic career with one word, both boys hesitated in thought. One word to describe all their hard work and dreams all coming together. Just one word. While Grant continued to find that one word, the quiet one of the two spoke.
"It’s been surreal," Simon said. "You never really think someone from a small town is going to play Division I. You always dream about it, but actually being able to do is exciting and I’m really looking forward to it. I’m glad I had the opportunity to go do it."
Then Grant followed. Not with a word, but at the core of what he had wished when he was younger, and finally seeing it come true.
"It’s everything you kind of ask for. You pray to go play at the DI level. You pray to go and win state championships. It's really special."