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Book Report: Thunder on the Tundra

by Randy Snow

Originally posted on AmericanChronicle.com, Thursday, March 26, 2009

High school football is huge all over the United States. It has many loyal fans and supporters in communities from Maine to California. But high school football teams are few and far between (literally) in the state of Alaska. But that doesn't mean that it is any less important to the kids who are playing it.

In the 2008 book, Thunder on the Tundra, author Lew Freedman tells the story of the 2007 high school football season of the Barrow Whalers.

Barrow, Alaska, with a population of about 4,800, is the northernmost town in the United States and lies on the shores of the Arctic Ocean. It is about 300 miles above the Arctic Circle and 800 miles north of Anchorage. There are no roads connecting Barrow to the outside world. People and supplies get there either by plane or boat.

The town became known around the world in 1935 when a nearby plane crash took the lives of two famous people. They were aviator Wiley Post, who was the first man to fly solo around the world, and his passenger, humorist Will Rogers. Today, the Barrow airport is named in honor of the two men. The Walt Disney movie, Track of the Giant Snow Bear, was also filmed around Barrow in 1969.

Barrow did not even have a high school until 1984. Prior to that, students had to go away to other parts of Alaska (or even to other states, like Oregon) in order to attend high school. The Whalers team nickname comes from the fact that the local Eskimos still hunt whales for food to this day.

The separation during the school year was hard on both the students as well as their parents. Due to the remoteness of Barrow, the cost of building the high school there was a staggering $72 million. Fortunately, it was paid for by the state with money received from the oil companies that are drilling in Alaska.

Even with its remoteness to civilization, Barrow is no different from many other cities and towns in the U.S. The students suffer from the same modern day problems as teenagers everywhere else, i.e. drug and alcohol abuse and a high drop-out rate. The community needed something to keep kids off the streets and out of trouble.

Basketball is the main high school sport in Alaska and Barrow had a team as well as several other sports teams. But a few years ago, when students were asked what sport they would like to see added to the school's schedule, football was by far the hands-down winner.

Since none of the players who came out for the school's first team (in 2006) had ever played football before, coaches had to start with the very basics, including how to properly wear all the various pieces of the uniform!

The high school football season in Alaska runs from August through October, for obvious reasons. The closest high school football team to Barrow is 400 miles to the south in Fairbanks.

In the school's first ever football game on August 17, 2006, Barrow faced the Delta Junction Huskies and lost 34-0. The yard lines and sidelines on the Barrow home field were marked off using flour because there was no chalk on hand. The field was mostly rocks, since there is no grass and no trees to be found on the tundra. Security was in place, too. Not to control the fans, but to keep an eye out for polar bears. You see, the field was only 100 yards from the ocean and polar bears were known to come ashore and wander through the town from time to time.

Barrow only played a six-game schedule in 2006 instead of the usual eight. The inexperienced team did manage to win one game, a 28-22 victory over the visiting Sitka Wolves. The entire team, including their head coach, celebrated the win by jumping into the Arctic Ocean with their uniforms still on!

After the 2006 season as an independent football team, Barrow joined the Greatland Conference in 2007, an athletic conference that is comprised of small-school teams. There is also an athletic division in Alaska that is made up of large-school teams. Each of the divisions has its own playoffs and championship game.

The startup of the football team in Barrow was featured in a story on ESPN. That's how Cathy Parker of Jacksonville, Florida found out about it. She was deeply moved by the story of a community trying to provide its young men with a positive alternative to drugs and alcohol. She was shocked that their football field was a rocky, frozen piece of land and decided she had to do something about it. She decided she was going to take it upon herself to raise the $800,000 needed to buy the team an artificial playing field and ship it to Barrow! She also invited the team and it's coaches to come down to Florida for spring workouts with her sonsī high school football team, which they did. Not only that, but she managed to arrange for the Barrow players and coaches to have lunch with the NFL Jacksonville Jaguars while they were in town.

Through her dedication to a school she had never been to, and with her incredible powers of persuasion, Parker achieved her goal. The field arrived in Barrow in early August 2007. Instead of the traditional green playing surface, however, the Barrow field was blue in color with gold end zones to match the team's colors. The field looks similar to the blue college football field at Boise State. The Barrow field was installed just in time for the first game of the 2007 season on August 17.

Parker made the trip from Florida to Barrow and was on hand to see the first game ever played on Cathy Parker Field. Late in the game, the Whalers trailed the visiting Seward Seahawks 16-6, but a late rally, aided by a successful onside kick, resulted in a huge comeback for the Whalers, who came out on top 18-16.

About 2,000 people attended the game including former Miami Dolphins great Larry Csonka, who came up from his home in Anchorage to see the game. Fans were not charged admission to attend. The game even featured a male streaker on the field! After the win, the players once again celebrated their victory by jumping into the Arctic Ocean, in uniform.

Because of the travel costs involved, only 21 of the 35 players on the team were allowed to travel to away games. Many of the Barrow players had to play both on offense as well as defense. There was even a girl on the 2007 team.

It is common for Alaska high school sports teams who travel great distances to spend the night sleeping on the floor of the gymnasium at the school they are playing, rather than incur the added expense of a hotel. The Barrow players brought their own sleeping bags with them on the road. One extravagance that the Barrow players did indulge in, however, was eating at fast foot restaurants, since there are none in their home town. The simple pleasure of eating at a McDonald's, Subway or a Taco Bell made the trips worth it!

During their first ever road game, the players were treated to a visit to the Alaska State Fair and also attended a local high school football game while they were in the Anchorage area, two things that none of the Barrow players had ever experienced in person before.

The last game of the season was against the Sitka Wolves. Sitka is a town in the southeast part of the state and 1,400 miles away from Barrow. It took the team 36 hours to get there due to all the airline delays and layovers.

The 2007 schedule for the Whalers included games against towns with names like Delta Junction, Nikiski, Houston, Sitka, Seward, Valdez and even a game against a team from the high school on Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks. Barrow finished the season with a 4-3 record (one team backed out on their schedule) and just missed going to the playoffs.

There are no college football teams in Alaska. There are, however, two pro football teams in the newly formed Indoor Football League. They are the Alaska Wild (in Anchorage) and the Fairbanks Grizzlies. Both teams were formerly members of the Intense Football League based out of Texas.

In 2008, Barrow was ranked number one in the Greatland Conference and actually hosted a playoff game against the Houston Hawks, winning 46-18! But the following week they lost to the Kodiak Bears, 19-13 in a game that was played in Anchorage. It was a remarkable accomplishment for a school that was only in its third season of competing on the gridiron.

Current ESPN analyst and former NFL player Mark Schlereth is perhaps the most famous high school football player to come out of Alaska. He played at Service High School in Anchorage before going on to play college football at the University of Idaho. Schlereth won two Super Bowls with the Denver Broncos and another as a member of the Washington Redskins during his playing career. He was voted into the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame in 2007.

Thunder on the Tundra is not just a book about a football team, it is also about the importance of simply having a football team to play on, being able to compete on the field and what a team can mean to a community. Initially, there was much opposition to starting a football team, mainly due to the costs associated with travel. But once the locals got a taste of rooting for their local boys on the gridiron, the entire community embraced the team.

If you are looking for a book that will make you believe that anything is possible, then you should not miss this one!


City of Barrow Official Web Site

Project Alaska Turf Web Site

Alaska School Athletic Association

Alaska Sports Hall of Fame

IFL Alaska Wild Official Team Web Site

IFL Fairbanks Grizzlies Official Team Web Site

ESPN.com Video and Story on the 2006 Barrow Whalers


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