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Outside the Lines

Native Americans

Notah Begay, the only full-blooded Native American on the PGA Tour, draws upon a rich heritage.

A community debates whether to abandon the Native American nickname of its high school teams.

Former NHL coach Ted Nolan wants an all-native national hockey squad separate from Canada's team.


Chat wrap: PGA golfer Notah Begay

Chat wrap: Native American rights activist Suzan Shown Harjo


 Outside the Lines
Notah Begay says that basketball, not golf, is the sport of choice on many reservations.
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 Notah Begay
Notah Begay explains why sports are more important on the reservation than in other communities.
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 Outside the Lines
Begay explains why he stopped putting red clay on his cheeks before matches.
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 Notah Begay
Begay explains what happened the first time he used the clay in a match, at age 14.
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 Notah Begay
Begay says that when on the course he tries to be "one with the game."
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 Notah Begay
Begay says his Native American heritage makes him a better golfer.
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 Notah Begay
Begay says he is driven to be a role model for Native American youth.
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This three-day online series is a companion to the ESPN Outside the Lines television special on Native Americans and sports that originally appeared Nov. 16.

Tuesday, June 3
Notah Begay's long walk
Tom Farrey

Editor's note: The following is a printer-friendly version of ESPN.com's profile of Notah Begay, with all six parts placed on one page.

The question, the basic reason Notah Begay was sitting before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in a wood-paneled room in the nation's capital, was simple but oddly personal, as if he were some federal program to be studied: How did this happen?

Notah Begay
PGA Tour Rookie of the Year candidate Notah Begay has come far since playing with Tiger Woods at Stanford.

How -- did -- Notah Begay -- happen?

Senators do not ask this question of Derek Jeter or Brett Favre or even Tiger Woods, far more luminous sports celebrities, because none of their lives are, as the invite last May to 485 Russell Senate Office Building would suggest, as important to the nation's affairs as that of Begay, child of the reservation, creation of the public links, graduate of Stanford University, registered member of the Navajo Nation and son of Mother Earth.

Indeed, what cosmic set of circumstances could have conspired to not only lift Begay above the despair, alcoholism and lack of education that have claimed other Native American youth, but place him in an orbit -- the privileged PGA Tour, where he is up for top rookie honors -- that is so far removed from the consciousness of the reservation that Begay may as well be an alien to his own people?

Begay settled into a hard-backed chair and without reading from notes, in the same intuitive way he plays the game, began to share his story.

"At age 6," Begay told the committee, "I fell in love with golf. I would save up money to buy practice balls. But soon my urge to practice exceeded my piggy bank ... "

From their elevated, horseshoe-shaped bench, the senators nodded in appreciation. But in that chamber 1,650 miles from his home, there was only so much they could understand of whose victory this was -- who really deserved credit for this concoction called Notah Begay III. They may as well have been the Japanese a half-century ago in Iwo Jima, listening in on the communications of the U.S. Marines, unable to break a code based on the Navajo language and conveyed by his grandfather, the original Notah Begay.

Najavo resolve

They were called the Code Talkers, a group of about 375 Navajo Indians recruited to help win World War II. Four months removed from Pearl Harbor, after decades of trying to suppress the peoples' language, the U.S. government decided that the Navajo tongue was its secret weapon in preserving freedom and the American Way. The men were stationed around the Pacific and Europe to relay sensitive information. For military terms that did not exist in their language, they formed analogies -- so "owl" signified observation plane and "chicken hawk" meant dive bomber.

Notah Begay was one of the first to sign up, despite a lifetime of insults. As a boy, the government had lifted him from his birthplace outside Gallup, N.M., and sent him to Arizona for schooling. Bureaucrats anglicized his name, ordered him not to speak his native language, and cut off the traditional Najavo knot in his hair. He ran away and hid. They found him, and this time forced him into the Albuquerque Indian School. He quit again, defiant, in ninth grade.

Then he served his country.

"That's what my father was -- a true American," says the son, Notah Begay II. "He loved his culture, his family and his country."

So forgive the son if he looks at his own son and declares: "His sports achievement is 100 percent me." That pride, those genes, that fearlessness than allowed Begay to shoot a 59 on the Nike Tour last year and win two PGA events this year, they all flow from a Navajo legacy that defined the grandfather and was passed on to the son, who made himself into enough of an athlete that he won a basketball scholarship in 1961 to St. Joseph's College, a now-defunct Div. II school in Albuquerque.

"I know he's half Pueblo," says Notah II, who has since been divorced from the mother of his son, "but the strong method of what he needs to do with his life is Navajo. We are a very strong people, a people who were feared. Our ancestors attacked a lot of the Pueblo sites."

To make his sons tough, he wrapped boxing gloves around their hands and told them have at each other. Notah went without headgear to level the matches with Clint, two years younger.

When Notah III started school, the father told him to sit on a mound outside his house until he returned from a three-mile run. The boy cried, wanting to come with the father. The father said OK -- but I'm not stopping for you. The father says now, "I'll be darned if that little guy didn't keep up with me the whole way. That showed me the heart of a champion right there."

By the end of high school, Notah III had led his high school basketball team to back-to-back state championships in New Mexico and was the No. 2 junior golfer in the nation. His would be the lone Native American face when the Albuquerque Journal gathered its local athletes of the year for a portrait.

No, Notah may not have grown up among the Navajo, but the blood of a grandfather who died before they ever met is unmistakably there, says the father, now 58. The father remembers waking in the dark at 4 o'clock each morning as a teenager, to feed his father's race horses -- some of the finest thoroughbreds in the state. The original Notah had this ludicrous dream for a Native American on a dusty reservation, that someday he would see one of his horses race in the Kentucky Derby.

Notah Begay will have to settle for getting an heir into The Masters.

"Notah's on a different track than my father," says Notah II, "but he's still a pioneer."

Pueblo grace

A pioneer for the Pueblo, that is.

Is Notah Begay III not the victory of his mother's tribes, the San Felipe and Isleta? After all, it was in these Pueblo cultures that he spent much of his childhood, on 3,000-person reservations where he learned to pray toward the sun in the San Felipe tradition and respect the world he was given -- a form of spirituality that helps him become "one with the moment," a term he has used to describe times when his golf game is really on.

In that state, the ball is not an object trying to negotiate a hostile set of circumstances, and the club is not a weapon against danger. They are connected to their natural surroundings and work together -- along with the energies of other humans.

"Probably the easiest way to understand it is that it's a small world," Begay says. "We are continually reminded of that when we run into somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody who is close to you. We're all tied to each other, and we're all dependent on the earth and its resources -- the sunlight, the water -- for survival."

Says his mother, Laura Ansera, "We always tell him that he's not out there alone, that the spirits are with him."

The message is encoded in the boy's bones. At age 14, after watching some Pueblo runners, he started placing red clay under his eyes before golf tournaments, as a sign of respect for the challenge ahead. He remembers that it "scared the daylights" out of one early competitor, who thought it was war paint and squandered a four-stroke lead when they were paired up in the final round of a juniors tournament.

Begay kept dabbing his cheeks with the clay right through his college years at Stanford, telling the ignorant that it was for the sun. He stopped only when he turned pro in 1995, tired of worrying that he was perpetuating a hostile Indian stereotype. "Last time I checked, I hadn't killed anybody on a golf course," he says now with a wistful grin.

Billy Mills, the Lakota Indian and future Olympic champion runner, once quit a race after someone in the crowd yelled, "Go get 'em, chief!" That is not the style of Begay, who has learned to carry his heritage with grace in the face of slights. If a spectator looks at him funny because of copper skin, Begay is apt to smile and move on.

The Navajos were nomads who often lived far from each other -- even today, their homes are spread across their large reservations like dropped marbles. But the Pueblos know about negotiating tight spaces, as a people who for centuries have lived wall-to-wall in small communities along the Rio Grande river valley where they farmed.

The San Felipe reservation was compact enough that its residents could play an ancient game called Shinney that used the entire village. The joy on Notah's face two decades ago is what his mother most remembers as Notah, using a carved wooden stick not unlike a golf club, pushed a leather-bound ball of seeds the size of a hockey puck around the village with older men and other boys.

The game would only end when one side pushed the ball beyond the village boundary on the other team's side, or if the hand-sewn sack of seeds would burst.

"They would then go plant the seeds for the next season," Ansera says.

In other words, don't tell the Pueblos you can't control what a ball does.

Public privileges

But let's be honest now. Ethnic pride, the love of a mother and father, a commitment to the spiritual, even good genes -- those factors don't add up to a PGA golfer who made more than $1 million in his first year with victories at the Reno-Tahoe Open in August and the Michelob Championship in September. They don't explain Begay's velvet touch on the greens, nor the array of things he can do with a wedge.

That is where Don Zamora comes in.

"I raised him," he says, point-blank.

There's more than a shard of truth in that statement. Zamora for many years was director at Ladera Golf Course in Albuquerque, where Begay spent much of his youth plotting his improbable rise to the PGA Tour. The love affair began on the 14th hole of the municipal course, adjacent to the green to be exact, where Begay would sit outside his father's new house and watch some very good and mostly very bad approach shots.

The boy wanted in. "He used to come through a hole in the fence," Zamora says. "Little Note would just appear, like a puppy. Finally, his dad came around one day and said, 'My kid has a fetish for the game' and wanted to know if we could do anything about it."

The fathers of some of today's PGA Tour players probably never had to make such a request. For many who grew up on private courses, dad's membership covered greens fees, quarters were always lying around for range balls, and entry to the game was through a large wooden door at the front of the clubhouse, not some tear in the fence.

Yet, that is the fallacy of private courses and rich kids: That they necessarily team up to make a better golfer. The tour is full of players like Fred Couples and Carlos Franco, the other top contender for Rookie of the Year honors, who grew up without wealth and on courses in which the fairways aren't as pristine, the local instruction not as distinguished, as what might be found at a country club.

Begay merely had fewer advantages than most muni kids. His parents are comfortable now -- his father is a computer specialist with Indian Health Services, his mother a program manager for Native American culture who works with juvenile delinquents. But Begay grew up in the kind of lower-middle class family in which hand-me-down clothes were a given and Fridays were spent hoping that today's paycheck went through in time to cover the bank note mom put in the mail on Wednesday.

"I would never say I was poor, because I know people who were a lot worse off than I was," Begay says. "We just didn't have the luxury to do some things."

So, in exchange for golf balls and practice time, Begay woke up at 5 a.m. to move carts, wash range balls and generally serve as Zamora's all-purpose gopher until sunset. When he got good enough to play in national juniors tournaments, he did whatever was required to get there, even if a bus ticket was all his family could afford. He flew to North Carolina alone when he was 14.

Zamora, his de facto travel agent, often had a phone to his ear during those years, calling on a network of former golfing associates to open their homes to Begay when tournaments came to their towns. His pitch: Help a good kid.

"When he was 12, I was more concerned about how he treated people than whether he was going to be a star," Zamora says. "All I wanted was for the people he stayed with to say, 'What a nice kid.' " Which they did, and soon, Begay had his own Holiday Inn chain with a nightly rate of $0.

A couple years ago, Zamora went to his rolodex again for Begay, who had lost control of his driver after trying to change the fundamentals of his swing. Zamora's friend Bryan Gathwright, a local pro in San Antonio, helped straighten Begay out by encouraging him to reconcile with his original swing. Begay surged, finishing 10th on the Nike Tour last year, qualifying him for the PGA Tour.

Now President Clinton wants to play with Begay. After his first tour victory, Begay was asked if he could play a round with the commander-in-chief.

Schedule's too tight, Begay told Clinton's people.

So chalk one up for municipal courses everywhere. Notah Begay is their victory. Zamora used to think kids from country clubs had all the advantages. But Begay, whose homemade swing may as well be a badge of honor, has proven otherwise.

"You just have to have friends willing to help you," Zamora says.

Tiger's tail

Stanford University changed its sports nickname from the Indians to the Cardinal in the early 1970s. Respect isn't the same as awareness. Zamora recalls that when Begay arrived on campus in 1990, he dialed home to say, "I don't think they know what an Indian is here."

But they do know ambition at the 14,000-student California school. Often white-hot, change-the-world ambition, the kind that is humbling and lifting all at the same time. A stroll around campus revealed as much. There was Tiger Woods. There was Janet Evans. There was that 8-year-old prodigy. There was the next high-tech pioneer.

In this rich intellectual stew, Mark Freeland and Notah Begay became best friends.

"Part of it was because we were so different," said Freeland, who describes himself as a normal white guy from a conservative, upper-middle class community outside St. Louis. "We grew up in different environments and we were able to learn from each other."

Teammates on the golf team, Begay encouraged Freeland to check any Type A urges at the first tee and play more from the heart. One of those kids who learned the game on a difficult, private course, Freeland brought to Stanford the notion that a score of 2 to 3 strokes under par wins. Begay, who if he got a 67 at Ladera had nothing special of a day, reminded him that the lowest score wins.

Begay, in turn, began incorporating a basic component of Freeland's more elite grooming: course management. He started thinking twice before pulling out a driver on that 325-yard hole, noticing that Freeland was programmed to get to the green more safely with a five-iron and sand wedge.

Begay was making his own distinct stew. As sophomores, he and teammate Casey Martin decided that they would putt better if they became switch-putters, based on the popular idea that a left-to-right putt is easier for a left-hander and a right-to-left putt is easier for a right-hander. Martin felt weird and gave up on it, but not Begay, who believed it would make him better in the long run.

Martin remained skeptical as recently as this summer, when he insisted his friend still does it just to be different. He explained to a reporter, "Stanford breeds a definite openness to ideas."

Begay and Martin led the Cardinal to the NCAA championship in 1994. In the second round of that tournament Begay shot a 62, a tournament record that remains today. So he got his glory at Stanford. He also got a degree, in economics. And some self-awareness, immersing himself in the affairs of the Native American cultural center on campus.

And he got a hero of a different complexion. "One of the biggest images that sticks in my head was when we first got to school and we were at our first road trip and he and I roomed together," Begay says of Martin, who has a medical condition that has gradually shriveled his leg. "We were winding down after a long day, and he was going to hop in the shower and he took his stocking off." Hearing about Martin's leg was one thing; seeing it another.

So come get your ribbon, Stanford, for reminding a student of how little he has to overcome.

And how much farther he has to go.

Begay and Martin, not Woods, built Stanford into a golf powerhouse. The team joke is that Woods made them worse when he arrived in 1995, because the Cardinal failed to repeat as champion that year. It wasn't the only fun they had at Woods' expense -- they made the celebrated freshman carry their bags, and tried to find out what fraternity parties Woods was attending that weekend just to watch his bad dancing.

Yet, "whenever anyone writes an article about Notah, he's called Tiger's teammate," Freeland says.

The question now is: Will it always be that way?

America's son

"There are all these mental walls on the PGA Tour," Freeland says. "A single-round score of 58 is one barrier. Another is, no one shoots 30 under (for a tournament). These numbers scare a lot of people if they're playing well and get close to them. Notah doesn't have that. He doesn't play by the same rules. Right after he shot his 59, he was telling me he's sure he could have had a 57.

"Tiger's the best in the world right now -- he's doing unbelievable things. But long term I see them being eye-to-eye."

This, of course, is faith over reason. Woods dominates the golf world, and is only getting better. But those who know Begay say these kinds of things about him because of his ability to draw power from the many rich worlds he has entered in his first 27 years. He embodies what the political idealists talk about when they argue that America's greatest strength is its diversity, taking a little from this, a little from that and rolling it up into something greater.

Sometimes his worlds collide. At a Nike Tour stop in South Dakota last year, a group of American Indians new to golf followed Begay around the course, piercing the early-rounds quiet -- and golf etiquette -- with a series of traditional, high-pitched tribal cheers. Freeland, his caddie that day, recalls that Begay's pride was tempered by his concern for the disruption to his playing partners. Begay failed to make the cut.

Usually, his worlds collude. His gift since childhood has been to extract the best from each new influence or experience, to make him better.

"It was amazing," Zamora says of Begay's years in junior golf. "Every time he would go out of state, he would never win the first year. Then he would go back the next year and blow their socks off. It's like with bar fights and some people -- the first time a fight broke out he wouldn't throw a punch, but the next time he'd whoop the whole bar."

One hundred and thirty five years ago, in what came to be called the Long Walk, the U.S. government rounded up 8,000 Navajos from Arizona and made them walk 300 miles to a New Mexico reservation that was more like a prison camp. The great-great-grandson of one of those women now covers that distance in less than a year of playing PGA tournaments, but those walks are amid manicured fairways and man-made lakes, and at the end of the day someone wants his autograph.

Zamora recently got to thinking about the surreal world of professional sports, how disconnected it is from where Begay came from, and called him to tell him that he loved him, that no matter what happens from here, he considers him a success.

But Begay is not ready to declare victory, of any real kind. His first name in the Navajo language means "almost there." And truth be told, Begay sees his budding career as something that must grow into something far larger than himself. Since he was a teenager, he has had this crazy idea that he will embolden a nation of Native American kids through a game that few of them play, and that golf will be a vehicle for others to understand the issues of his people.

So he goes to Washington to talk on Native American youth issues. He gets Nike and the U.S. Golf Association to donate equipment and balls to clinics for interested kids. He starts his own fund-raising drive for scholarships and emergency money for American Indians. And if anyone wants to call Christopher Columbus a hero, Begay will calmly explain that, no, he is not, at least to him.

"I'm not an activist," he says. "I'm not going to go out and raise hell and tell people that they're wrong and they need to change their beliefs. I'm an advocate -- an advocate of positive American Indian issues. I just want to break down stereotypes and educate people.

"When I look back 50 years and I'm taking my last breaths, I won't be thinking about golf scores and trophies. I'll be looking at the generation behind me and whether I was an inspiration to them to improve their lives. That's what I want my legacy to be."

The senators should know that Notah Begay's long walk has just begun.

Tom Farrey (tom.farrey@espn.com) is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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