Huddling in the Cold In Alaska the season starts--and finishes--early, so the fans hurry up and cheer

October 30, 2000

On the Kenai Peninsula, which juts into the Gulf of Alaska 80
miles south of Anchorage, there's little time for football. By
Thanksgiving, daylight has dwindled to five hours. The handful of
high school football teams playing in this thickly wooded region
take to the field in late July and close out the regular season
by the end of September, when subzero windchills start to wreak
havoc on freshly shaven faces.

In these parts, where moose and salmon abound and snow conceals
gridirons eight months of the year, pigskin is secondary.
Sport--hunting, trapping, fishing--is king. Sports, with the
exception of basketball, is an afterthought. "Most of the kids
who play football do it as an activity, to keep in shape," says
Sepa Nicholas, a senior linebacker and offensive guard for Kenai
Central. Nevertheless, with little more than the Alaska Lanes
Family Bowling Center and a Blockbuster video store to provide
other entertainment in Kenai, the Kardinals typically draw around
1,000 fans to Ed Hollier Field, where home games are played in
the watery daylight of Saturday afternoons.

One month removed from his 11th season as coach of the Kardinals,
Jim Beeson still strives to raise football awareness among
Central's 450 students. With Pop Warner only recently introduced
to the peninsula, many new high school players are flummoxed by
anything resembling a formation. That's one reason that Beeson,
like most of the state's 23 high school football coaches, runs
little more than a simple ground-oriented attack. Still, the
former Central Washington tight end spends many late nights
watching game tapes in the tiny classroom where he also teaches
math and accounting. By day, he is not above recruiting a
well-fed-looking freshman in the middle of the hallway between

Although Beeson thinks his kids' wilderness know-how makes them
among the toughest in the five-school Northern Light Conference,
size is one thing the team--which went 3-5 this season and lost to
eventual state champion Nikiski in the first round of the
playoffs--could use. Only one player, two-way lineman Eric
Purugganan, tips 200 pounds on the scale. The biggest of the
team's three quarterbacks, Wally Ward, weighs 140 after a
spaghetti dinner.

Once in a while a Sepa Nicholas comes along. Though only 5'8" and
165 pounds, Nicholas made 101 tackles, including eight sacks, and
was an all-conference selection this year. "I'm one of the only
guys on the team who want to play in college," says Nicholas, who
played Pop Warner in urban Anchorage before moving with his
family to Kenai in the seventh grade. Nicholas is pretty sure
that he is also the only one of his buddies not to drive a truck
(his Geo Storm looks like a toy someone left in the Kenai Central
parking lot) or work in the summertime in commercial fishing, the
profession of most of the boys' fathers who aren't full-time
employees of one of the town's five oil and natural-gas
producers. "I'm kind of a square peg," says Nicholas, who is
delighted to learn that a certain St. Louis Ram once shared his
off-season grocery-bagging gig. "I've just started writing
letters to some college coaches."

More typical of Kenai is Tyrell Renner. After two years under
Beeson, Renner didn't show up for preseason practice in July. A
couple of weeks went by, and no one had to tell the coach where
his former starting lineman was. "These are good kids, and they
play with their hearts," says Beeson. "But you can't argue with a
freezer full of moose steaks."

--Kelley King

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY RICH FRISHMAN Fired up Ignited by Friday night's homecoming pep rally, the Kenai Central varsity shut out Skyview 12-0, but the jayvee team (left) was unable to provide a twin victory. TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY RICH FRISHMAN Kenai coaches and players take a fishing break on the river (below), but Tyrell Renner gave up the sport for bigger game. TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY RICH FRISHMAN Beeson's kids are the audience at practice (right), but a win at homecoming is a community fest.

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