The victory did little to silence football's critics in Barrow. Although the program's long-term future is still uncertain, the attention brought by last season has helped rally the most unlikely of Whalers supporters. This summer, writer Wayne Drehs accompanied the team to Florida, where the Whalers hung out with the Jacksonville Jaguars, toured an alligator farm and mingled happily with the kind of girls they just don't encounter in the Arctic Florida cheerleaders. Along the way, the Whalers finally met their self-appointed guardian angel, a woman who is hell-bent on making sure football survives at the top of the world.
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. The sky is cloudless. The temperature is an ideal 77 degrees. Fresh strawberries, chilled grapes and cold soda sit on a table next to the temperature-controlled country club pool, where a group of high schoolers trade stories about home.
For the three flirtatious prep cheerleaders, with their tight tank tops, short shorts and stunning good looks, home is here, a cozy neighborhood just outside of Jacksonville, a place with outdoor cafes, outlet mall shopping and perfectly manicured lawns.
"We have alligators," one of them says. "Ever seen an alligator?"
The four high school football players, who can't take their eyes off the eye candy, laugh. They are from Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost town in the United States, some 330 miles north of the Arctic Circle, a home of frozen roads, seal meat and 67 days a year without sunlight.
"Alligators?" running back Anthony Edwards says. "We've got polar bears. And a polar bear would maul an alligator."
The talk continues like this for hours, the kids going back and forth, the Florida girls asking about snow, the Alaska boys curious about lightning. Later, there's dinner. Pictures. A trip to the driving range. And a birthday cake for one of the Alaskan kids.
"I haven't had many birthdays quite like this one," Dave Evikana says.
Back then the team was a cute curiosity, a bunch of kids who had never played football before. An October E-ticket chronicled the adventure, bringing book deals, movie offers and more attention than the Whalers ever dreamed.
"This whole thing is absolutely wild," says coach Mark Voss, who sold his life story to an independent movie producer. "I mean, who would have thought that anybody would care about what we do up at the top of the world? I have to pinch myself just about every day when I think about all that's happened."
The school board has already approved football for the upcoming school year, at a cost of $120,000. Because the team will play in the Greatland Conference, the district will be required to pay for their opponents' air travel only as far as Anchorage. Last year, the Whalers paid for teams to fly all the way to Barrow. There also are plans to start eight-man teams in several North Slope villages and flag football at Barrow's middle school. And this year's Whalers team features a female player, freshman receiver Ganina Pili.
But football's detractors are as loud as ever, too. They have seized on the fact that they don't believe the program has helped Barrow's troubled male youths as much as Blankenship promised it would. One of the program's early success stories, Kilifi Fotukava, was recently expelled. Another one of last year's players, Jim Evikana, Dave's older brother, dropped out of school two weeks after the season ended.
There are also concerns about the cost of football and, despite Pili's involvement this season, the fact that the program doesn't help all students especially girls.
In April, a group of anonymous teachers wrote each of Alaska's 60 state legislators, citing football as one of the many reasons they feel Blankenship is incompetent. And even though his son Daniel plays on the team, Bob Thomas, a 30-year Barrow resident and the city's recreation director, is circulating anti-football petitions throughout the Slope, in hopes of pressuring the school board to eliminate the expenditure.
"I just think if half the energy and half the money that was being spent on football was being spent elsewhere," Bob Thomas said, "we could help a heck of a lot more kids."
"I understand where my dad's coming from with how much this is costing," Daniel says. "But he doesn't understand where I'm coming from. He doesn't see how much I'm learning, how this has helped motivate me and so many other kids. He doesn't want to hear that. But I think eventually he'll come around."
Back in Florida, the four Whalers sitting poolside with the high school cheerleaders could care less about the fight to keep their program alive. All they know is that putting on a set of shoulder pads and tackling the kids in the other-colored jerseys has given them this trip. Scoring touchdowns and grabbing interceptions has brought them to these girls and, before their trip is over, to the Jacksonville Jaguars, the governor of Tennessee and Disney World.
They're here, in a way, because of all that negativity. Cathy Parker has never been to Alaska, doesn't know anything about Alaska and, before the Whalers arrived in Jacksonville, had never met anyone from Alaska. But after watching a "SportsCenter" feature outlining the Whalers' story, she was as moved by Blankenship's quest to use football to save the town's youth as she was angered by teachers and administrators who didn't approve. So she slammed the brakes on her own life and dedicated a year to helping others.
It was Parker's idea to invite the Barrow team to Florida for a week of practice alongside the football team at Bartram Trail, the high school where her husband, Carl, is the offensive coordinator and her oldest son, Kyle, is the starting quarterback. Plans weren't finalized until the week before the team arrived, when an anonymous Barrow businessman stepped off an Alaska Airlines jet with a check for $40,000 to fund the airline tickets. Every other expense from lodging and food to soap and shampoo Parker helped supply through donations.
"The more I heard about all the negativity up there, the more motivated I became to help," she says. "I really believe football is their last hope. It's the only answer. Sure, you could spend the money on academics. But what good would that be if the kids that need the most help aren't even in school to get it?"
"I know it sounds weird, I know people snicker sometimes when I say this, but I just had this vision, this vision of a field," Parker says. "I figured if we could get a field put in, it would make it that much harder to eliminate football.
"From that moment on, I knew exactly what I wanted to do and exactly how I wanted to do it."
But in Barrow, there's a reason milk costs $8 a gallon. Nothing is shipped or delivered to the landlocked island at the tip-top of Alaska with ease. The only way in or out of town is by barge, plane or, in the winter, an ice road.Admittedly unaware of all she was getting herself into, Parker created Project Alaska Turf, with the goal of raising the $500,000 she estimated it would cost to bring a football field to the Arctic. In between carpooling her four kids to football, baseball and softball, she began working the phones, knocking on doors and pressing flesh like a politician, harassing church groups, Rotary clubs and other Florida business leaders in an effort to raise the half million dollars. She organized golf outings, car washes, pancake breakfasts. A local Applebee's even donated a portion of one night's profits to the cause.
To those who know Parker, it wasn't a surprise. A deeply religious woman who speaks with a Southern drawl and has the down-home hospitality to match, she's also passionate, driven and rarely accepts no for an answer. So even when her children, her husband and her friends told her she was crazy, even when they laughed and insisted her idea was absurd, she ignored them.
Instead, she went even further, bringing the team down to Florida. She persuaded 22 families to open their homes to the Alaskans during their visit. She persuaded restaurants and grocery stores to donate meals. And, between football practices with Barrow and Bartram Trail, she organized bus trips to a minor league baseball game, a crocodile farm and the Fountain of Youth in St. Augustine.
She even bugged the Jacksonville Jaguars so much that the team invited the Whalers to watch practice, eat lunch with the team and hold their own scrimmage at the Jaguars' facility, all in brand-new black Reebok cleats the Jaguars donated. After the team's visit, Jaguars owner Wayne Weaver wrote a $5,000 personal check to Project Alaska.
But nothing has come easy. Seemingly every day has brought another phone call, another disaster, another road block in the way of seeing her vision come true.
For starters, there was the day in June when someone called ProGrass, the Pennsylvania company supplying the field, trying to cancel the project.
"[The caller] just told me it wasn't going to work out," ProGrass rep Steve Coleman said. "He said the superintendent wasn't on board, several people in the community were opposed to the field. So I called Cathy to ask if she had heard anything about this and she's like, 'What?'"
Parker said she believes was an act of sabotage: "So I told [Steve] right then and there: 'You don't listen to anyone unless it's me calling. You just don't. You can't. There's too much at stake.'"
Later that month, there was another frantic phone call, this one also from Coleman, informing Parker that if a contract wasn't signed by the end of the day, the 300,000 pounds of rubberized mulch needed to cushion the field wouldn't make it to a Seattle barge in time for its delivery to Barrow.
So the savvy business woman, who negotiates corporate contracts for a Jacksonville bank during her day job, sought help from Anthony Edwardsen, president of the most powerful native company in Barrow, Ukpeagvik Inupiat Corporation.
Parker explained who she was, what she needed and why she felt it was so important for him to help. Because a thicker turf would be needed to survive Barrow's harsh winter elements, the cost of the project had climbed to $800,000. Although she had received enough donations to pay for the cost of transportation and installation, Parker didn't have the funds to cover the $240,000 price tag for the materials themselves.
Edwardsen didn't have that kind of extra money either, but he signed the contract anyway, accepting full financial responsibility if Parker isn't able to raise the remaining expenses on her own.
"When I heard they were in danger of missing the barge, that was it," said Edwardsen, who added that the company hopes to someday put a dome around the field. "We want to help the kids in our community. We want to give them something else to keep them occupied besides getting involved in drugs and alcohol. This field can help do that.
"Cathy is such an awesome lady. She has done so much for us. But it was time for someone from Barrow to step up."
But the challenges don't stop there. When Parker went to bed Monday night, she was worrying that all her hard work might have been a waste. The project was in danger of being scrapped.
The equipment and materials for the field had traveled from Georgia, Pennsylvania and Seattle, by truck, by train and by barge. But Monday night, they sat in Fairbanks, in the back of four tractor trailers, unable to go any farther.
Brig. Gen. Joseph Balskus of the Florida Air National Guard had promised that the Alaska Air National Guard would be able to airlift the 60,000 pounds of equipment and material to Barrow. But on Monday, word came down that it wasn't going to happen.
According to Kalei Brooks, a spokesperson for the Alaska Office of Military Affairs, there were, "legal issues," like the fact that it was a non-military mission to transport non-military materials. Parker understood, but the timing was troubling. The ProGrass installation crew was scheduled to arrive in Barrow on Wednesday night, with work scheduled to begin on the field Friday morning. And the barge carrying the 300,000 pounds of mulch was already off the Alaskan coast, scheduled to arrive in Barrow on Aug. 5.
It was yet another reminder of all the things football had to overcome just to exist last year. The Boise State-like blue turf had traveled more than 4,000 miles to the middle of Alaska, and yet it was stuck some 600 miles short of its final destination.
The transportation and logistics companies that had helped get the materials this far now began searching for someone in the private sector who could finish the job, in less than 48 hours, for free.
Parker, meanwhile, gathered with a group of friends in search of another answer.
"We just prayed," she said. "We knew this was potentially the end. And there was nothing else we could do. So we prayed."
During a Tuesday morning teleconference, her prayers were answered. Representatives from several transportation and logistics companies informed Parker that private companies were lining up to help."We won't drop the ball from our side and let this go until we see this through and that field is up there," said Phil Case of UPS, one of several companies that are working together to finish the job. "We're going to get that football field up to Barrow."
Tuesday night, Carlile Transportation was driving the first of four loads to Prudhoe Bay, where Northern Air Cargo was waiting to pick up the shipment for a Thursday morning flight to Barrow. And three transportation companies, Grimes, Totem and Bowhead, were putting plans in place so that the final three loads will reach Barrow by next week.
For now, installation is still scheduled to begin Friday, with the goal of having the field ready for the Whalers' season opener Aug. 17.
"This has been the most amazing thing that I've ever been a part of," Parker said. "These men who I have never met have totally given themselves to make this a reality. It's nothing short of a miracle."
For the players, the coaches and even a dreamer like Blankenship, adjectives don't exist to explain how they feel. Though they've all seen pictures of what the field will look like, it's still impossible to picture a practice where they won't have to worry about running into a gym wall. It's impossible to think of running for a touchdown during a game without dodging rocks on the gravel-covered playing field.
"Even in my wildest, craziest, most outlandish dreams, I never dreamt of anything like this," says Colton Blankenship, the superintendent's son and a sophomore offensive lineman. "I'm still in shock. I truly can't believe any of this is actually happening. And how do you say thank you to someone like this? It's impossible."
"The first thing I'm going to do when I get home," Thomas says, "is jump head first into the snow. I miss the snow."
On this day, the Whalers are inside the tarp-covered fences that surround the Jaguars' practice facility, watching quarterbacks Byron Leftwich and David Garrard pick apart the defense during a passing drill.
While some of the Whalers watch the action in awe, others are too distracted by their surroundings. Anthony Edwards shakes his head after he's told the footing on a nearby artificial field is similar to that of the Whalers' new field.
Quarterback Cody Romine picks up a football and, on another field, starts throwing to his receivers.
Daniel Thomas can't stop staring at the massive, 76,000-seat stadium behind him, a place where the Super Bowl was played just two years ago. "Dude," he says to teammate Albert Gerke. "We could fit, like, 20 Barrows in that building. That thing is huge."
Not far from Gerke, Dave Evikana watches practice so intently you'd think he was an opposing scout. Evikana, who is staying with the Parkers during his visit, stepped off the plane a shy, introverted, soft-spoken type who barely said a word to anyone he didn't know. "I had to tell [Cathy], 'It's nothing personal,'" Trent Blankenship says. "'That's just the way he is.' I'm not sure if I've heard Dave say five words in the last two years."
But that was before he came to Jacksonville. Now Evikana laughs, smiles and tells stories. Later today, he'll eagerly wait for autographs from the Jaguars, just like his teammates. He's become inseparable from Colin, Parker's second son. She told him that if he stays out of trouble, stays on the football team and keeps his grades up this year, she'll consider flying him to Jacksonville to visit again next summer. He promises he'll do just that.
"That boy just melts my heart," Parker says. "If nothing else comes of all this, nothing more than that boy goes to college and chooses a different path than the one he was headed down, I don't care what anybody says, this whole thing will be worth it."
But first the Whalers need to focus on the reason they're here, to improve as a football team. Though the team's best player is Edwards, the running back, and its greatest strength is its beefy offensive line, which averages well over 250 pounds, the coaches have installed a new spread offense built around four- and five-receiver sets.
It's a work in progress. Earlier in the week, when Whalers offensive coordinator Jeremy Arnhart ran a 15-play script, Romine completed just three of his 12 passing attempts. And two of those were screen passes to Edwards. Walking off the field later that night, the quarterback mumbled to no one in particular, "Man, we suck."
On this day, two receivers run the wrong routes. Two passes are dropped. And Romine overthrows three other balls. But 5-of-12 is still an improvement. "Obviously we've got some work to do," Arnhart says. "But I think we're getting there."
If they don't, it won't be for a lack of effort. In March, Voss and his three assistants flew to Long Beach, Calif., for a coaching clinic taught by offensive guru Tony Franklin. And after visiting Jacksonville and practicing with Bartram Trail, the Whalers go to football camps in Tennessee and Nebraska in an extended passenger van commandeered by Blankenship.
During a stop in practice, Colton Blankenship begins hyperventilating and vomiting uncontrollably after refusing to slow down despite severe fatigue.
"I was scared," assistant coach Brian Houston later admits. "That kid just doesn't know when to stop. I think he feels the pressure of all this."
At another practice, offensive lineman Denver Enoch severely sprains his ankle. Charles Edwardson partially tears his ACL. Later, Colton battles a stomach virus, and first-year linebacker Tim Barr struggles with a sinus infection. "As a team, we're just trying to learn how hard you have to work to win at this game," Barr says. "Putting out that sort of effort naturally wears you down. Especially in this weather. But we're coming together as a team."
The coaches push the players and the players push themselves because they know what's at stake. 1-5 isn't going to cut it anymore. The fumbles and penalties that everyone thought were cute and excusable last year will cause gray hairs this season. And they just might lead to the end of the program. "We need to win," Trent Blankenship says. "If the program becomes a joke, kids don't want to be a part of that. And there are plenty of people lining up waiting for this to turn into a joke."
As their week in Florida draws to an end, the Whalers walk off the Jaguars' practice field with their heads down. For as great as this trip has been, they haven't met their own expectations on the field. They're growing tired of the cameras, tired of the attention. While Barrow has just one radio station, in Jacksonville they've seemingly met with every newspaper and every television station in the state. And now they just finished another flat, uninspired practice. This time on an NFL field.
One by one, the players walk past Voss on their way to the visiting locker room at Jacksonville Municipal Stadium. One by one, he tells them to pick their damn heads up.
"Where's your smile?" Voss barks to Mike Ruckle.
"Stop and look where we are," he says to Mike Gonzalez. "Soak this up."
But Voss knows what's going on here. Practicing with the Jaguars? Eating lunch with NFL players? Sitting poolside with a trio of cheerleaders? Maybe, just maybe, it's all a little too much.
"We're still trying to wrap our minds around all this," Voss says. "And how can we? How can a kid possibly process all this? How can you tell a kid there's no pressure to win, just go out there and have fun, when someone just gave you a half a million dollars for a football field?
"Hell, I can't process it myself."
But not everyone leaves the practice field discouraged. There might be a giant bull's-eye on Barrow's back now; the Whalers might be a team with national notoriety that's struggling to learn not only the basics of football but also the basics of a new offense. But ask Colton Blankenship what his goals are for this season and with a straight face he won't hesitate to tell you: "A state championship."
"That's what I'm calling," Colton says. "We're going to win the state championship."
Colton's dad can't help but smile when he hears about his son's optimism. Sitting outside a Jacksonville Starbucks on a cool summer night, Trent Blankenship seems open, honest and reflective. He knows he rubs people the wrong way. He knows some want to get back at him by eliminating football. But he claims he doesn't care. If they want to fire him, he says, fine.
For now, he'll focus on success stories like Dave Evikana. Or Addison Cox. Cox's father died a few days before the trip to Florida, almost a year to the day that his mother passed away. Yet he went on the trip anyway, his relatives thinking it would be good for him to get away and focus on something besides the tragedy. And Tuesday morning, when the Barrow coaches looked at the front page of The St. Augustine Record, there was their smiling wide receiver, on the sand at Ponte Vedra Beach, leaping for a football surrounded by three bikini-clad Bartram Trail girls.
"Life was good for Addison that day," Blankenship says. "Sometimes, for some of these kids, it's as simple as that."
Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information about Project Alaska Turf, visit projectalaskaturf.com.