The final load of game pants was in the dryer, flopping around
the window of the machine at the edge of football coach Nathan
Ford's cramped office at Wasilla (Alaska) High last Friday
afternoon. The two walkie-talkies were plugged into the battery
charger, unlike two weeks earlier when somebody forgot and the
game came and the offensive coordinator wanted to call the plays
from the press box and...what else? A student manager was in
front of Ford's desk.
"I don't want to hear you yelling, 'Break their legs!'" Ford told
the girl, referring to the imprecation she had uttered during the
previous Saturday's game.
"I understand," she said.
"I'm in my game trance, concentrating," he said, "and I come out
of it for a minute, and first I hear the band. That's good. Then
I hear you yelling, 'Break their legs!' That's not good."
"It won't happen again," she said.
Less than 24 hours were left until the Wasilla Warriors would
travel the 30 postcard miles to the AFS, the Anchorage Football
Stadium, with its new FieldTurf synthetic grass, green and
perfect and true. Fewer than 24 hours were left until the
Warriors would be playing Robert Service High of Anchorage,
two-time defending state champion, lopsided favorite for the
first 1999 state high school title to be decided in the U.S. In
Alaska the season would be done before the first pitch of the
World Series would be thrown and...what else?
"We get here at 9:30 in the morning," Ford said, going over the
routine for the first football championship game in Wasilla
history. "We dress here, everything except shoulder pads and
helmets. We get on the buses. We drive down there and play the
game. Would I rather have it different? Would I rather not have
us sit on a bus for an hour before playing a game like this?
Would I rather not be playing against a team from a school twice
as big as ours in the stadium where it plays its home games?
Sure. But that's the way it is. "
This was a game that would resemble none of the state
championships that will be played in the next five, six, seven
weeks in the unconnected rest of the country. Wasilla against
Service? The oft-cited analogy was Hoosiers. The game in
Anchorage would match a school with 952 students against a school
with 2,313 students; a school whose big road trip had been six
hours on a bus to play Homer High, out on the Kenai Peninsula,
against a school whose big road trips had been to Kahuku, Hawaii,
and Seattle. The other 49 states have divisions to their
playoffs. In Alaska only 22 high schools play football. Only one
comes out a champion.
"It's emotion against the machine," Service coach Byron Wilson
said last Friday. "Their emotion against our machine. Not that
emotion doesn't win sometimes. You get small schools that win.
Eielson, up in Fairbanks, 350 students, won the whole thing a few
years ago. Eielson is kind of a different case, being next to an
Air Force base, so it gets sudden influxes of talent, but anyone
can win. You get teams that build up to that one big year, then
disappear. The Anchorage teams are always around. We don't
rebuild; we reload."
The Alaska high school football season starts early--the first day
of practice is Aug. 1--and ends early, in the third week of
October, with the days getting short and the trees gone bare and
the threat of snow in the air. Two years ago workers chopped and
shoveled and spread deicer for two days to clear the AFS for the
title game. Anchorage mayor Rick Mystrom, handling an ice pick,
was part of the crew.
"A kid has to give up a lot to play football in Alaska," Ford
said. "August is also the start of moose hunting, the start of
most of the big hunting and fishing seasons. A kid can make a lot
of money hunting and fishing for salmon in that month before
school opens. If you play teams on the peninsula, you like to
play them early because they have a bunch of kids who don't show
up until late because they're working as commercial fishermen."
Away games in Alaska are small adventures. A trip to play one of
the four Fairbanks schools (one of them is North Pole High) is a
10-hour bus ride, north from Wasilla. Overnights are spent on gym
Around Wasilla, a suburb of Anchorage with a population of
4,028, the sight of a moose on the road isn't a surprise. The
sight of a bear during football practice is a surprise but not a
shock. "I was giving a phys-ed class about two years ago,
soccer, and I noticed that all the kids had stopped and were
staring," Ford said. "I looked to see what they were staring at,
and this big bear was just staring back at us. We all sort of
stood there, the kids, me, the bear, in a state of wonder."
There was almost the same state of wonder when Ford and his kids
contemplated the Service football operation. Wilson has built an
empire over the past seven years. He had 180 kids playing
football this year, 45 seniors. He had the only school in the
state playing straight-out, no-exception, two-platoon football.
He had 22 coaches, 17 of them volunteer assistants. He had his
son, Jeff, as his option quarterback, 25-2 as a starter over the
past three years. He had a running back, Dominique Maddox, on the
way to a 2,000-yard season.
The only blot on Service's 9-1 record was a season-opening 31-20
loss to cross-city rival Chugiak High. This was 10-0 Wasilla's
hope. The Warriors had upset Chugiak 20-15 in the semis at the
AFS a week earlier. Couldn't something like that happen again?
"My one worry is we can't stop 'em," said Ford, most of whose
starters would play both ways. "What happens if we get out there
and can't stop 'em?"
At 9:30 a.m. last Saturday, no snow, 30[degrees] and crisp, the
Warriors assembled at the school, put on their red-and-white
uniforms, complete with the candy-striped socks that looked like
something out of Dr. Seuss, and went over the game plan and
talked with each other and...what else? The buses never arrived.
Ford waited and fretted and fretted and waited. He finally told
the kids they would have to make the trip to Anchorage in their
own cars. In their uniforms. He hopped in a school van to start
the convoy, had a couple of assistants ride in a car at the end
and ordered that there be "no passing!" That was how the Warriors
arrived around noon for their great day, straight from their cars
to the field, 30 minutes to warm up before the kickoff. And that
was how they met the machine.
A minute and 40 seconds into the game, Service scored its first
touchdown, a 35-yard option burst by Wilson around left end. Five
minutes and 19 seconds into the game, the Cougars scored again,
Wilson on a quarterback sneak. It all went from there. Final:
Service 49, Wasilla 0. Maddox rushed for 283 yards and two
touchdowns on 22 carries.
"I don't know what happened with the buses," Ford said. "It
didn't cost us the game. We couldn't tackle Maddox. That cost us
the game. At least we got everyone here without any dents in the
fenders. I hope we can get 'em back the same way."
The victorious Cougars celebrated, singing their fight song back
to their fans in the standing room only crowd of more than 5,000.
The Wasilla kids sat in a quiet circle, awaiting the presentation
of the runner-up award. A Warriors assistant coach passed out
sugar cookies from a plastic bag as the sun started to fade in
the Anchorage afternoon and winter began to settle into the
landscape for the last time in this millennium. Life is not
always a movie.
surprise but not a shock.