Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Playing football at the top of the world

I have a secret – I cry when I watch TV. Whether it’s a movie, a one-hour drama or a story on the news, I get easily choked up when I watch TV,and nothing – nothing – chokes me up more than sports. But let me clarify – it’s not the games themselves; it’s those sports features on ESPN or CBS sports, like the ESPN “Make a Wish” series or “Outside the Lines.”

Last week, after watching the most recent “Outside the Lines” on the Joplin High School Eagles, which of course made me cry, I felt the urge to look up and re-watch an episode from a few years back that I still think about occasionally: the story of the high school football team in Barrow, Alaska.

Now, if you aren’t familiar with Barrow, let me give you a little overview: Barrow, population around 4,500, is the northernmost town in the United States, 330 miles north of the Arctic Circle. The population is about 60 percent Inupiat Eskimo, who apparently don’t mind the cold, because temperatures remain below freezing from early October through late May and the high daily temperature is above freezing on average only about 110 days a year. In the winter, the residents of Barrow go 67 days a year without sunlight, and beginning around May 10, the sun doesn’t set in Barrow for about 12 weeks – talk about “polar” opposites (get it?). Oh, and the roads in Barrow? They are unpaved and go nowhere – there are no roads into or out of Barrow; you have to take a plane or boat to get there.

Yet, on Aug. 19, 2006, in the midst of seasonal snow flurries, the Barrow High School Whalers played the first official football game in the Arctic. They lost, as they did the following game; but in their third game they recorded their first win – and celebrated by jumping into the Arctic Ocean, just 100 yards from their dirt and gravel field. Do you even have to ask if I had tears in my eyes as these boys jumped into the freezing ocean in their “Whalers” uniforms?

The beginning of this team was chronicled by ESPN. There was a lot of controversy surrounding the formation of this team – many in the town felt it was a waste of money. Fielding the team cost nearly $200,000, mainly for travel; in order to get any opponents, the school agreed to fly all opposing teams into town – add in ground transportation, meals and a place to sleep, and that added up to about $20,000 for each home game. And you can imagine the cost of the Whalers’ three game, 3,682-mile, six-day road trip. Amongst shrinking budgets and teacher shortages, parents, teachers and community leaders don’t see spending their extra money on a team for kids who never played football before. 

But in this town, which had grown exponentially since oil was discovered in the 1960s, was seeing disenchanted teenagers, chronic substance abuse problems and an escalating dropout rate – in 2005, 50 percent of the students didn’t graduate, and all of those were Inupiat. Football, they believed, could keep kids out of trouble, teach principles like discipline and teamwork, bring the community together and help the town reconnect with its values-rich past.

As a large supporter of sports, these detractors get to me. I see their point, that perhaps the money could have been filtered elsewhere, but I think they aren’t seeing the bigger picture – sports make teenagers feel better about themselves and have been proven to be a positive influence. 

The controversy began, but the team remained. 

During the opening game of the 2007 season, the Whalers football played their first game of the season on their new, “Boise State blue” artificial turf – the brainchild of Florida mother, who had never been to Alaska. After watching the “OTL” feature, Cathy Parker was moved by the Barrow superintendent's desire to encourage young men through football and upset by the detractors. This wife of a former NFLer spent the next year of her life dedicated to helping the Whalers and she raised more than $800,000 to bring an artificial a football field to the Arctic. 

Bring on the waterworks!

In 2011, in their fifth season, the Whalers finished 6-1, second place in their conference, and made the playoffs – which they have in three-straight years. Once a “political” football team, the head coach says the team is now just what it is supposed to be – a team that helps build boys into men, gives them character and, simply, something to do. They lost in their playoff game this year but, in the scheme of things, does it really matter? All I know is that, when I started looking up this team now, I smiled – and might have teared up a little.

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