By Grayson Kamm
First Coast News
ST. JOHNS, FL -- Pigskin meets polar bears as high school football enters the Arctic. For the first time, football players in Barrow, Alaska took the field on a gridiron donated by folks from the First Coast.
A few months ago, we told you how Bartram Trail High School was raising money to buy turf for the football team at Barrow High School, America's only football program north of the Arctic Circle.
The team had been playing on a gridiron made of gravel.
ESPN ran a story on the Barrow High Whalers, followed by a pair of web articles, and that got the attention of folks in the Bartram Trail community. A handful of dedicated people in sunny Florida set out to bring a new turf field to the tundra.
In North America, you truly can't get any farther from the First Coast than Barrow, Alaska. The two places are separated by four thousand miles and fifty degrees Fahrenheit.
But Bartram Trail football mom Cathy Parker saw something in common: the power of football to turn troubled teens into young men.
"You didn't have to explain it to people. They got it, and they would want to help," Parker said in an interview with First Coast news, fresh from her trip to the tiny town of whaling boats and unpaved roads.
Through fundraising and persuading, Parker took the Barrow Whalers from gravel -- to glory. More than $500,000 in donations laid a blue turf field right on the tundra at the edge of the Arctic Ocean.
And, with more fanfare than the homecoming queen, their Florida fairy godmother came to witness the field's first kickoff.
"It was definitely a community event," Parker said. "The crowd was just so into it. They just loved it."
"It was so wonderful to watch it there -- just the innocence of the game."
The three thousand or so people who came to watch make up more than three-quarters of the town's population. "And many, many, many came up to me and, with tears in their eyes, said, 'Thank you so much,'" Parker said.
When the players weren't out on the turf, the rest of the town was tromping around on it. The city has no paved roads; everything from paths to playgrounds is covered with a layer of mud. So the experience of a squishy ProGrass artificial turf was something unique.
Parker saw one woman walking barefoot on the blue and yellow turf. "She said, 'This is brand new carpet, and I don't want to mess it up.' So that's the way they were so thankful," she said.
And, on this field that seems like a dream, you know the game would end like this:
"There was only, I think, twenty-something seconds left in the game. [The Whalers] throw it into the end zone. And a receiver who had dropped, every pass, you know, the whole game -- it's deflected off two hands of defenders, and then he catches it," Parker said with a smile.
The clock ticked to zero, and the hometown players sprinted onto the field. The Whalers won by two. And the spirit of that victory will carry far beyond the fresh new field.
The completion of the Barrow High football field was a nationwide effort. UPS shipped all the parts for free to the West Coast. From there, everything was flown or floated on ships to the small town.
Of the $800,000 cost of the field, Parker says her nonprofit Project Alaska Turf group is still short about $100,000. Click here if you'd like to make a donation to their cause or learn more about the project.
And check out the pictures of the big event, including how the team celebrated their big win with a polar plunge, courtesy of photographer Terry Brown, of Linger Longer Studio.
First Coast News