BARROW, Alaska The proud father, in his Barrow Whalers sweatshirt and Barrow Whalers ski cap, kneels on the gravel sideline, keeping a close watch on his son, a freshman lineman on the Barrow Whalers football team.
The ball is snapped. Running play. Right through his son's tractor-sized hole. Seven yards. First down.
"Atta boy," the dad yells, his voice beaming. "You show 'em, you show 'em who's boss. Push 'em down field."
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Four plays later, when the drive stalls, father shuffles over to meet son as he walks off the field.
"That guy's a wuss," the kid barks out, gasping for air.
"Well, all right then," the father sheepishly replies. "You keep playing hard. You keep showing him."
It's a scene that's repeated on hundreds of football fields in hundreds of towns all across this country. But this one is altogether different. The field is in the Arctic, on a converted gravel pit at the tip-top of Alaska. The father is Trent Blankenship, superintendent of schools for the North Slope Borough, an 88,000-square-mile piece of land that covers our 49th state like a ski cap, stretching from the Canadian border to the Bering Strait. And the son is Colton Blankenship, a mild-mannered, keep-to-himself freshman who, until now, had yet to find his place in this town.
Dad is the reason that any of this is here. The field, the two teams, the school buses to keep everyone warm. Late this spring, after a visit from former Miami Dolphins running back Larry Csonka, he was the one who issued the survey asking high school kids in Barrow, the borough seat of the North Slope, what extracurricular activities they wished the school would add.
In a village where more than half the population is native Inupiat Eskimo, football came back No. 1.
"I wasn't really surprised," Blankenship says. "I knew that's what they wanted."
Two games into the season, the team is hardly a picture of success. The Whalers have yet to score, yet to win and have been outscored 67-0. The team has twice as many penalties as it does first downs. One home game remains, but already, after two embarrassing losses, the jeers that football doesn't belong here are deafening.
It was late last spring when the Alaska state legislature rubber-stamped bill HB-13, reapportioning the way the state distributes money to smaller schools. The move gave the North Slope an extra $1.2 million, more than enough cash, Blankenship said, to cover the estimated $200,000 it would cost to start the nation's first Arctic high school football team.
But in signing off on the idea, Blankenship drove a line right down the center of this quaint whaling community.
On one end of the argument: Blankenship and several community leaders, including borough mayor Edward Itta, who see disenchanted teenagers, an escalating dropout rate and chronic substance abuse problems, and see football, and the lessons that come with it, as savior.
On the other end: parents, teachers and community leaders, who look at shrinking budgets and teacher shortages, and scratch their heads at the thought of there being excess money for, of all things, a football team.
"At a time with all these cutbacks, with so much that needs to be done to help these kids," says Michael Jeffery, a U.S. district judge, "to start a football team just seems kind of, well, stupid. It doesn't make much sense."
The displeasure has stretched all the way to Alaska's State Legislature, where State Rep. Carl Gatto, who proposed bill HB-13, can't help but shake his head when he hears how the excess funds are being spent in Barrow.
"Here there are so many schools barely scraping by and what are they doing up there? Playing football," Gatto says. "It's like your terrible children wasting all your hard-earned money while the rest of your kids are scraping through medical school. I can't believe it."
The two lopsided season-opening losses have provided even more ammunition for the naysayers. The arguments have even led to brutal attacks on Blankenship, with several in Barrow suggesting his decision to start the team is nothing more than a father's quest to help his son adjust to life in one of the world's harshest environments.
Blankenship came to Barrow a little more than a year and a half ago, after leaving his elected position as the Wyoming state superintendent of public instruction before his term's expiration. In a town of 4,600 people, where everyone knows everyone else, residents are unwilling to attach their names to accusations that Blankenship has ulterior motives. But the whispers are strong.
"He hasn't had an easy time up here," one teacher says of Colton Blankenship. "And who can blame him? It's not an easy place for a teenager from the Lower 48 to suddenly call home. But starting on the football team might certainly make that easier. You have to wonder."
Trent Blankenship scoffs at such suggestions, but insists his Kevlar-thick skin can handle whatever rocks his detractors want to throw at him. "It's sad that people bring my son into this," he says. "He has nothing to do with it. It's unfair. But I've been criticized my whole life as an administrator. Anytime you take money away from teachers and put it in the hands of the kids, you're going to have people upset with you. I tell them, 'Go to a game. Go to a practice. Look at those kids coming together as a team.' And if they still don't get it, they never will."
In Wyoming, Blankenship, a Republican with a friendly smile, soft handshake and politician's charm clashed with Gov. David Freudenthal, a Democrat. An audit of Blankenship's Special Programs Division found 154 credit-card transactions that exceeded the $2,500 spending limit, that were signed by someone other than the person to whom the card was issued or that required the state auditor's office to raise the spending limit. Blankenship accused the audit of being "politically motivated," saying its findings were "venial sins, not mortal sins." Now in Barrow, he faces the challenge of turning around one of the most underperforming school districts in the state.
With his wife, Shana, by his side as district director of curriculum, the superintendent's rebuilding plans include massive staff changes, a multimillion-dollar program to put a laptop in every high schooler's hands, an overhaul of the curriculum and, of course, a football team.
For all those who stand against Blankenship's rebuilding plans, there are plenty of others who wouldn't have it any other way.
"We've let the adults make the decisions in this town for a long time now," says Roy Nageak, a 20-year whaling captain who spent his entire life in Barrow, serving on the school board for 15 years. "And tell me how did that work out?
"It's not about what the adults want, but what the students want. And right now, the survey speaks for itself they want football."
A small town that's anything but simple Ten miles down the road from Barrow, at 71 degrees 23 minutes north, is the northernmost piece of land in the United States, Point Barrow. A flurry-filled fog fills the air, a cool breeze blows off the Arctic and assorted rocks, twigs and pebbles wash up on the beach.
Eight months out of the year, it's a world covered in snow and ice. Today, it's a mix of sand, gravel and mud. Here, life revolves around the simple rules of the food chain. Just a few hundred yards from shore, where the Beaufort Sea collides with the Chukchi Sea, food is churned up for fish, seals, walrus and whales. It's those animals that become food for arctic foxes and polar bears. And all of them become dinner for humans.
Back in town, things are hardly so straightforward. The discovery of oil in nearby Prudhoe Bay in the late '60s brought hundreds of millions of dollars to the region but with it came hundreds of millions of problems.
Barrow High's graduation rate is 52 percent. Of that group, school board member Debby Edwardson says less than half will pass the state's exit exam. There's rampant alcohol and drug use. When the borough went from dry to damp meaning alcohol couldn't be purchased in stores but could be shipped to residents two years ago, Judge Jeffery said, his caseload doubled.
"There's no question there's a substance abuse problem here," he says. "Anybody who tells you otherwise is part of the problem."
According to the Violence Policy Center, Alaska again ranked first in the nation in the rate of women murdered by men. In Barrow's North Slope Borough, there were six times more reports of domestic violence than anywhere else in the state. Two years ago, a coach left the school after being accused of providing alcohol to his players. No charges were filed. Shortly thereafter, a teacher in school-subsidized housing was accused of distributing meth to students. Though the charges were dropped by police, the teacher left the school and the community. In 2004, a high school student killed a cab driver while stealing $100. The student later was convicted on manslaughter and robbery charges.
"I've always said it's like the old Wild West," says Becky Crabtree, the administrator at Kiita, an alternative high school in Barrow. "A lot of people around here think they go by their own rules. It's just a very different place."
"Here in Barrow," says state trooper Bill Broderson, "they give kids a star for just showing up."
The parents blame the teachers and the teachers blame the parents, but the explanation likely lies somewhere in the middle. Sixty percent of Barrow's population is native Inupiat Eskimo and yet almost all of Barrow's teachers are white men and women from the Lower 48. Neither group can fully understand the cultures, traditions and challenges facing the other.
On top of that, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 paid natives for the land and continues to do so with dividend checks from the oil fields. That often keeps Inupiat teens from being motivated in school, teachers say.
But the tide of money is beginning to ebb. A decrease in production at the oil fields many believe the wells will dry up in the next decade has meant smaller dividend checks and government cutbacks. Fewer jobs and greater aggravation manifest in teenagers as drunken act-out crimes such as "ghost riding," where teenagers steal a snowmobile, tie a rubber band to hold the throttle open and push the machine over a gravel cliff to its thunderous and exhilarating death.
"When they're intoxicated, they're angry, bitter kids," says football assistant coach Brian Houston, who spent five years as a juvenile probation officer on the Slope. "But as soon as they would sober up, they would understand they went overboard. You can see them as good kids. They're just scared. And confused."
And for good reason. Inupiat teenagers who talk with their grandparents about the past hear about a world of sod houses and blocks of ice providing water. But then they turns the television on and see what life is like in the rest of the world. It creates the ultimate predicament for Inupiat teens do they follow the traditions of their grandparents and strive to someday be a whaling captain or other leader of the Inupiat culture, or do they chase the dreams of the HBO-, MTV- and ESPN-driven world that is pumped into their living room each night?
"A lot of these kids feel trapped," says Ronnie Stanford, the band director at Barrow High and Alaska's 2004-05 Teacher of the Year. "Very few of them see themselves doing what their parents do. But they're caught in an ancient world and a Western world at the same time. It's almost like purgatory. And they have to decide which world they want to live in."
Can a mere game change a world? The moment the bus came to a complete stop that day at Chemawa Indian School, Roy Nageak knew he wanted to be a football player.
"I saw those cheerleaders," Nageak says. "First time I had seen miniskirts. I was in heaven. So I asked, 'How do you get close to them?' Somebody said, 'Join the football team.' So that's what I did."
The year was 1966 and Nageak was just 15 years old. The Slope was six years from becoming incorporated. At the time, Barrow schools ended at the ninth grade, so Nageak's parents sent him to Chemawa in Salem, Ore., to continue his high school education.
There, Nageak ran cross country and played football. "Our goal was to see which guys we could make cry," he says. "It was good fun."
Physical domination aside, Nageak says it was the lessons he learned on the football field as well as in the classroom that still push him today. Nageak, who has lived most of his life in Barrow, is one of the most respected native leaders in the community, a 15-year member of the school board and captain of one of the village's 40-plus whaling teams that set sail twice a year to hunt bowheads.
Football, he believes, could be invaluable for Inupiat kids. Beyond learning about competition, teamwork and striving toward a common goal, beyond having something to keep kids busy and off the summer streets, Nageak believes there are direct parallels between whaling, the cornerstone of the Inupiat life, and the sport.
"Look at the quarterback, he makes a perfect throw, it's a touchdown," Nageak says. "If the harpooner makes a perfect throw, you get the whale. The running back is just like the gunner, there to help the quarterback out. And the linemen, doing all the dirty work and moving the team downfield? Those are the paddlers in the back of the boat they push the line forward, they move the boat forward. Those are the unsung heroes you can't do without.
"People don't realize the lessons that apply. I played football. I captain a whaling team. I know how much this can help our kids."
Several echo those sentiments. Mayor Itta sees football as a vehicle to help push his "healthy communities initiative," designed at getting back to Inupiat values such as community involvement. Houston, the former juvenile probation officer, sees the sport as a way to teach kids loyalty and accountability.
"They learn that when you tell them 9, they need to be there at 8:45," he says.
Anton Edwardson is a scrawny, quiet kid, more Bill Gates than Bill Romanowski. His mother Debby, a member of the school board, has struggled to find an after-school activity other than the school's award-winning band. Now he's in football. And Edwardson stood in shock one afternoon this fall when Anton walked through the door after practice and proclaimed, "Mom, it's all about discipline."
"My son's not an athlete," she says. "He's not a discipline guy. But this has been a really good thing for him. He walks in the door, has his jersey on and is so proud. It's already made a difference. He tells me how kids look at him differently since he's on the football team. It's made high school a good thing for him."
But can football really change someone? It is, after all, just a game. Eleven players, working their butts off to physically dominate the 11 players across from them, earning points if they move a piece of pigskin all the way down the field.
Take the case of Barrow sophomore Kilifi Fotukava. Fotukava now lives with his aunt and uncle in Barrow after his Anchorage-based mother sent him north after several failed attempts to keep him out of trouble. In Barrow, he has spent as much time in the detention room as the classroom. But for the better part of this season, football kept the hard-hitting linebacker clean.
When Fotukava failed to show up for an in-school detention and Mark Voss, the football coach, told him he couldn't practice, Fotukava's uncle brought him back to the field, forcing his nephew to run for two hours until practice ended.
"He had something to look forward to, something to motivate him," says Anna Matu, Fotukava's aunt. "Football is a motivation that he responds to."
Up until the final week of the season, that is, when, on one of the team's commercial flights during its three games in six days road trip, Fotukava allegedly struck another passenger. Twice. He insists he was just joking around in the aisles and merely "bumped" the passenger both times. Voss didn't see the incident but was told it was more serious than that. He snapped, sending Fotukava home and kicking him off the team.
"Before we left, I told our parents that I had never sent a kid home early on a road trip," Voss says. "Well, I can't say that anymore."
The incident prompted Fotukava's aunt to schedule an appointment for later this month to determine if something like attention deficit disorder is causing her nephew's behavior.
"He has all this talent but can never keep still," she says. "I know that deep down, he's a good kid. But we keep running into these problems. I worry about him. I worry about his future."
His emotions now cooled, Voss is pondering letting Fotukava back on the team next season. After all, kids such as Fotukava were the reason for the creation of this team in the first place.
"What a lot of people don't understand is that's probably the most success he's ever had in one endeavor," Voss says. "He made it six weeks. I wouldn't bet he's made six weeks in anything before. Those may turn out to be the most important six weeks of his life."
A fantastic finish With all its problems, with all the arguments, Barrow needs something to rally around, something to be proud of. When the 44 boys walk onto the field for their last home game of the season, in the first weekend of September, they try to provide just that. The novelty of the team is already gone, so on a postcard perfect 40-degree afternoon the majority of town is out hunting. Just a few hundred people surround the field. But they're in for a treat.
In the first quarter, the team that has yet to score a touchdown marches downfield, facing a third-and-goal from the 7. Voss calls a 34 blast. Running back Quin Carroll takes the handoff, shakes off a few defenders with his forearm and fights his way to the goal line. He's wrestled down at the 1, falls on the goal line and watches in horror as the ball pops out of his arms. An opponent recovers. The referees huddle for what seems like 10 minutes. Finally, they give a signal. Touchdown. Carroll had crossed the plane before losing the ball.
"I had this whole dance planned out, but I was too excited to even remember it," Carroll says. "People were screaming and yelling, honking their horns. I sprinted off the field to celebrate and the coaches had to remind me to run back on the field for the two-point conversion."
That first score prompts the Whalers to put on a show. Jeremiah Lambrecht scores two touchdowns and Jake Voss adds another, plus a pair of two-point conversions. Even though Sitka scores late, Barrow wins, 28-22.
The players rip off their helmets, sprint across the beach and jump headfirst into the most extraordinary place any team has ever celebrated a high school football victory.
The Arctic Ocean.
"We all just ran full speed with all our gear still on," Carroll says. "We were so excited, you couldn't feel a thing. It was an unbelievable feeling. A day I will never, ever forget."
What does it all mean? Where does football go from here? Like everything else surrounding the topic, it depends who you ask. The critics are still skeptical, utterly unmoved by that one victory and the ensuing Arctic plunge.
"Winning is a whole lot better than losing," says Lynn Lacey, one of the many teachers who opposes the huge expenditure for football. "But that doesn't change the way many of us feel. For all this money, football simply doesn't help enough kids especially kids of both sexes."
Blankenship, to no one's surprise, believes football will "absolutely" survive here. Though the Whalers finished this season 1-5, losing all three road games after their victory over Sitka, they scored a touchdown in each of those losses. Voss has begun planning an offseason training program. And while the underclassmen can't stop asking when practice will start up again, the seniors joke that they want their teachers to fail them so they can come back next season.
"Here are 44 kids who are on a team, who belong to each other, who belong to a school," Blankenship says. "They've made football part of their identity. It's going to be an indelible part of their character. How valuable is that? Can you put a price tag on that? I don't think so."
Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Video editing by Paul Desjarlais/Roadside Entertainment. Video shot by John Tipton. Sound by Morgan Worth. Video produced by Nik Kleinberg.