As marijuana continues to drive the economy in Humboldt County, Calif., the culture of high school football is changing too.
High school football has its own distinct aromas—dewy field, sweaty shoulder pads, burgers sizzling on the booster club grill—but those smells are not usually intertwined with the one that flows beneath the Friday night lights of Humboldt County, Calif. It’s not the smell of burning cannabis, which has risen from beneath the bleachers of every American high school stadium at one time or another, but of growing cannabis, and it wafts across these stadiums from the hidden outdoor crops that Humboldt County is known for. As with most schools in the area, the crowd at South Fork High’s homecoming game last fall was as indifferent to this minty scent as spectators in Texas might be to the smell of manure, or south Floridians to sugarcane.
South Fork parents fill the stands. They are white, they have one or two toddlers in tow, probably not much cushion in the bank. The vibe in the bleachers is one of gritty American agriculture, but there are skinny jeans and dreadlocks mixed in with the cargo pants and buzz cuts. South Fork’s eight-piece student jazz band is pumping out an inspired rendition of “I Shot the Sheriff” on the edge of the sun-parched gridiron, the entire scene framed by the area’s distinctive towering redwoods, which provide a sense of seclusion from the outside world. For three hours or so, anyway.
Just as pervasive as the smell at the field is the sense, countywide, that a page in local history is being turned. When South Fork played Arcata High last September, the buzz in the crowd had less to do with football than with the vote taking place at that moment in the state legislature, where senators were passing a group of bills designed to make non-medical marijuana a legitimate agricultural -product—as regulated and taxable as the Golden State’s other crops. South Fork upset Arcata that night—the rural farm kids beating the college town that Humboldt State University calls home—while spectators on both sides of the stadium debated what was happening in Sacramento.
Would legitimacy make marijuana prices plummet, further gutting Humboldt’s stumbling economy? Would the big tobacco companies move in and start mass-growing the plant?
Or would local growers and their football-playing sons band together, ramp up production, and seize the market with, as one local farmer put it, “a premium product—like Napa wine—that only we know how to grow.”
Humboldt’s international reputation for producing the most copious and most potent marijuana harvests in the world is, for many locals, not a welcome thing. Certainly the football programs wish this brand recognition didn’t exist—from the 10 public high school teams sprinkled throughout the sparsely populated county to the Div. II Humboldt State Lumberjacks—for when these teams play road games outside Humboldt, their hosts half expect them to disembark from the bus looking like the Wailers.
Fall is not only football season in Humboldt County, it’s also harvest season. There are only 205 students at South Fork High, a remote campus of paint-chipped buildings that abuts the south fork of the Eel River. There were only 17 players dressed for the Cubs’ homecoming game. Both numbers were a lot larger back when the area’s timber and fishing industries were still vibrant. When those businesses started dying about 50 years ago, a handful of foresters and fishermen who were unwilling to give up Humboldt’s physical beauty and seclusion adopted a new vocation, and today, according to Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, Humboldt grows an estimated 9 to 13 billion dollars worth of cannabis annually.
“Apple pie means something different here,” says Mark Harris, a Humboldt County attorney. “It’s the name of a strain of cannabis. There’s also Cherry Pie, Lemon Pie ….”
Andy Olsen, South Fork’s bearded, 35-year-old coach, doesn’t provide details about the lives of his players or their parents, and he declines to comment on the prevailing estimate, shared by other locals, that more than half of South Fork’s players live in homes where illicit marijuana cultivation is the major source of income. Instead, Olsen, who is also South Fork’s athletic director, folds his ample arms and says: “It’s important to me that our kids not look like a bunch of stoners or criminals or bad kids, because they’re not. The topic you’re talking about is a way of life here. I don’t agree with it, personally. It’s not for me. Never has been. But it’s what drives our economy and frankly, we can’t do without it.”
It’s not just South Fork. “When some schools play at our stadium,” says Matt Tomlin, who is both a sheriff’s deputy and the football coach at St. Bernard’s Academy, a private school in Eureka, “you smell it in the locker room afterward. Opposing coaches will come up and tell me, ‘Trust me, my kids don’t have marijuana in their bags. They weren’t smoking in your locker room. Their clothes smell like this 24–7 because of what their parents do.’”
Another coach had a starting player approach him recently to tell him he couldn’t make it to practice that afternoon. “I used to ask, ‘You got detention? Homework?’” the coach said. “But nowadays, they’re just honest about it. [The player said], ‘I need to help my dad.’” That is, he needs to scissor ripe cannabis buds from their stalks and prepare them for drying. “The next morning he tells me, ‘We didn’t finish.’ So he misses another practice . . .
“I’m just grateful he trusts me. You used to hear, ‘I’ve got a cough.’ But over the past, I’d say eight, years, you start hearing the real reason.”
Trust between player and coach is especially important here because what these athletes and their families do to make ends meet is both a state and a federal crime. That fact also helps explain why local farmers aren’t eager to talk to visiting journalists. But if you hang around Humboldt long enough, its people will help you push back the fronds and glimpse a uniquely American Venn diagram that has FOOTBALL in one circle, WEED in the other, and a football-shaped sliver where two of our country’s favorite intoxicants overlap.
Humboldt culture can be both simple—grow plant, sell plant—and dangerously complicated. “Kids here can’t talk about what their parents do,” says one local farmer. “The stress that happens to a young person when he becomes acclimated to panicking at the sound of helicopters, it isn’t healthy at that age. . . . Football helps parents give their kids a normal life. To have that rhythm of football practice and games? With the chaos and ups and downs in their lives? It’s invaluable.”
“What you’re seeing here are the last days of the Wild West,” says Luke Bruner, a 31-year-old farmer and the outspoken co-founder of California Cannabis Voice Humboldt. “The laws are changing. You’ll never have another generation of kids who have this experience of living like outlaws. This is the last of it.”
Just as football struggles to justify its concussion rates, Humboldt weed farmers are finding it harder to avoid the negative aspects of their activity. The local headlines offer a strong argument that marijuana is indeed a “gateway drug,” for Humboldt is home to a disproportionate number of methamphetamine, cocaine and heroin operations. And the adage that “no one ever dies because of weed” ignores those shot and killed in the Humboldt woods over the years after deals gone wrong. The youth death rate in southern Humboldt, where the growing is most dense, is nearly twice the national average, according to Emily Brady’s book Humboldt: Life on America’s Marijuana Frontier. According to one juvenile Brady interviewed, “not being able to talk openly about what’s going on in your home, or that sense of having a deep fear of law enforcement, can either lead to situations that are very dangerous or prevent you from reaching out for help.”
Humboldt County Sheriff Mike Downey talked about the risks one afternoon last fall in his spartan office in Eureka, the county seat. “We had 16 homicides in 2014 [a county 30-year high that was nearly equaled by the 15 killings in 2015]. Marijuana is a violent industry because it’s so lucrative. People will do whatever they can to protect their crop.”
“This is not the same town I grew up in,” says Olsen, the South Fork head coach who graduated from SFHS in ’99. “For a 14-year-old kid to have to deal with this stuff—the things he needs to be aware of? If legalization were to happen and it meant things got cleaned up around here, then I’m all for it. That statement might put me in some hot water”—among parents who aren’t as bothered by the status quo—“but I really believe that.”
Not every aspect of this greening of Humboldt is threatening, though. Occasionally, coaches or booster clubs get anonymous donations of $500, sometimes $1,000. (In cash, of course.) “There are probably no other public schools in the world that have ever offered clipping trays—trays for clipping marijuana on—as part of their auction for the PTA fair,” says Kym Kemp, a journalist who maintains a website focused on Humboldt news and issues. “It’s been part of our culture here for fifty years.”
“Some of my classmates are at Stanford now,” says Cole Moody, an all-league linebacker at South Fork who was named California’s Scholar-Athlete of the Year in 2014, “but some of them stayed home to grow [cannabis] with their families. And no one judges them. They grew up in it. That’s how their parents make money to support their family.”
“A lot of times, football is the only thing that normalizes these kids’ lives,” Olsen says, and a dozen other locals echo him.
“I used sports to get out,” says Tomlin, the sheriff’s deputy and St. Bernard’s coach. “I played football at Nebraska, but I had friends on my team in high school who went straight into the industry.”
“Football provides something solid for a lot of these kids in the fall. When it’s gone, sometimes . . .” He stops, shrugs.
On October 9, the South Fork players drove more than two hours to take on their rivals at Hoopa Valley—whose students live on the scenic Hoopa reservation, where cannabis cultivation is banned but still flourishes in the endless woods. Shortly before kickoff, Governor Jerry Brown signed the newly-named Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act (MMRSA), the conglomeration of bills that Humboldt growers had been sweating for months. South Fork fell to the Warriors that night, but for cannabis-farming parents on both sides of the stadium, a larger battle may have been won.
Or lost. No one knows yet.
Where do Humboldt and the greater football world intersect? Humboldt is where former NFL receiver Sam Hurd once dreamt of establishing his own ganja farm, and in fact made inroads on that project until a 2013 drug trafficking conviction sent him to prison. Humboldt is where, according to one local farmer, a Raiders player recently expressed interest in going into the business, and according to another, a member of the Colts did likewise. Humboldt is where a package was placed in the mail at the start of the 2011 NFL season—addressed to then-Bengals receiver Jerome Simpson—which contained 2.5 pounds of the 707’s finest.
An assumptive association hangs over players at Humboldt State, which offers what might be the most distinctive college football gameday experience in the country. Redwood Bowl, HSU’s 6,000-seat stadium, is surrounded by 1,000-year-old trees that stand so close to the field that an errant spiral can chip bark off of the endangered giants. At halftime, HSU students (17% of whom, according to one study, grew up working in the marijuana industry) march into the forest and return to their seats smelling like an army of Wiz Khalifas. Players on the field can’t help but inhale the smoke that follows the students over from the woods. Rob Smith, HSU’s 59-year-old coach, “can’t stand it.” But what can he do? It’s Humboldt.
Lumberjack Football lists each of its 210 financial boosters on the back cover of its media guide, its game programs, and on an eight-foot wall in the athletic department’s lobby—presumably for anyone wondering whether ganja money might have helped underwrite the Lumberjacks’ snazzy uniforms or $850,000 budget. Associate Athletic Director Tom Trepiak has worked hard to keep those involved in the weed business out of the Lumberjacks’ business. The owner of a nearby hydroponics store, for one, was told No thanks after inquiring about boostership. But it’s impossible to steer fully clear of the plant in this county. One five-figure donor has a website designed like a Grateful Dead album and sells fertilizers with names like Beastie Bloomz, Bush Doctor and Cha Ching.
“I don’t know a single marijuana farmer,” says Smith, the old-school head coach, his hands raised in innocence, But, Smith adds, he may know a farmer who hasn’t told him he’s a farmer.
The student section at Redwood Bowl doesn’t count down the 25-second play clock, nor the final seconds of a victory. Their count begins with about four-and-a-half minutes left in the game—4:25, 4:24, 4:23—and ends when they yell, "Four-twenty!" at a volume that nearly matches the revving chainsaws fired up by Forestry students after Lumberjack touchdowns. The ’Jacks, just two years removed from an 0-11 season, forced those chainsaws to run out of gas twice last fall, thanks to an offense that harvested 41.4 points per game. In November, the ’Jacks, then 9-1, hosted a D-II playoff game for the first time since 1960, the year the county changed from a lumber- and fish-producing shire to a refuge for Bay Area hippies carrying illicit seeds from the Hindu Kush.
“That’s how it all got started here,” says Sheriff Downey. “The hippies came and they just wanted to grow enough marijuana to pay their property taxes. Maybe put up a fence. They weren’t trying to make a killing. Some of those families are still here and they don’t like these big commercial grows that divert streams and mess up the environment.” Downey says that sometimes these old-schoolers will tell the police about out-of-towners and “their big mega grows, which a lot of times are driven by outside influences—I’m talking about organized crime. So you have all these different factions here, and they don’t necessarily work together.”
If there is a unifying force during these challenging times in Humboldt—challenging politically and in terms of the withering drought and the rise in violent crime—it’s been the ’Jacks, who were led last fall by Ja’Quan Gardner, an otherwise unrecruited, 5' 7" running back who rushed for a D-II-best 2,266 yards behind an O-line that a lot of D-I coaches would trade theirs in for. At the historic playoff game on Nov. 21, cops stood shoulder-to-shoulder with outlaw farmers and watched the Lumberjacks dispatch Augustana University, 45–31.
Lucas Miller, a freshman special teams gunner for the Lumberjacks, is a 24-year-old Marine who served two tours in Afghanistan lugging an IED detector. The 5' 11", 195-pounder grew up in nearby McKinleyville, where his dad, Ross, runs Miller Farms Nursery, a sprawling, fourth-generation business that sells everything a green thumb might need. (Ross, an HSU quarterback in the 1980s, donated some of the chainsaws that roar at ’Jacks games.) Yes, marijuana farmers shop at the Millers’ store from time to time. (“It’s the ones you wouldn’t expect,” says Lucas. “Normal, casual-looking people, not mountain men who have been up in the hills for months on end.”) And yes, the Millers rent a neighboring storefront to a shop that sells everything a marijuana grower might need. But Ross Miller is less concerned with how these relationships might look than with a resident’s right to operate a reputable, tax-paying business, one of the many freedoms he believes his son defended.
With that in mind, and with apologies to South Fork High’s jazz troupe, a more appropriate theme song for this mountainous expanse might be “America, F--- Yeah,” which the Humboldt State marching band plays with panache, while wearing, it appears, whatever they woke up in that morning. After all, what’s more American than a war vet coming home to play college football in his hometown, wearing his dad’s old jersey number, and helping out at the family store in summer? What’s more American than Friday night lights shining down on parents and players who exude the aroma of a long week’s work? What’s more American than a family farm trying to make it through hard times?