Alaska team has friends in warm places

Updated: February 20, 2007, 9:56 PM ET
By Wayne Drehs | ESPN.com

Late last summer, when he started the nation's first Arctic high school football team in an effort to keep students in school and out of drugs, Trent Blankenship acknowledged he was a dreamer. But the superintendent for the North Slope Borough School District never dreamed this.

Five months after Blankenship's Barrow Whalers completed their inaugural season as the northernmost high school football team in America, a Florida woman has become committed to doing everything she can -- even potentially getting the U.S. military involved -- to keep Whalers football alive for years.

"It's unbelievable," Blankenship said. "I don't even know what to say."

Cathy Parker of St. Johns County, Fla., a mother with three sons who play high school football and an 11-year-old daughter, was watching "SportsCenter" last fall when she saw the Whalers' story, first chronicled in a two-part E-ticket series for ESPN.com last October.

The story made her cry.

E-Ticket
Nik KleinbergThe Whalers' home field is a glorified gravel pit, a plot of land used to operate heavy machinery in the winter and to dry gravel in the summer.
"I don't know why it touched me like it did, but I just remember thinking, 'Oh my gosh,'" Parker said. "It was so moving. You could see the parents, you could see the kids and … I know how hard my boys work at football. They don't have a lot of free time, they don't get in any trouble. You could just see that football was going to make a difference for this town."

What struck Parker were the field conditions in Alaska. While her sons played on beautiful artificial turf in north Florida, the kids from Barrow played their first season on gravel and rocks. So she began harassing her husband Carl, the offensive coordinator at Jacksonville's Bartram Trail High School and the assistant director of parks and recreation in St. John's County, to do something. Carl Parker had a previous relationship with ProGrass, an artificial turf company in Pittsburgh, so he asked if it wanted to help.

"It was a no-brainer," said Steve Coleman, the South Regional Director for ProGrass. "When I saw what they were playing on, it's mind-boggling. It's a lot of money to be doing something like this, but if it makes an impact and these kids learn what teamwork is, it will be worth every single penny."

Though Coleman said ProGrass is committed to doing everything it can to minimize costs, a project like this would typically run more than $550,000. That's why Parker has set a goal of raising $500,000 through corporate donations. Parker hopes that if she can raise $250,000, the Jacksonville Jaguars would match those funds through the team's community fundraising program.

"We meet all the criteria except that Barrow isn't in the state of Florida," Parker said. "But I'm hoping they will make an exception. These kids deserve it."

The only artificial fields in Alaska are in Anchorage and Juneau. Two other turf projects in Anchorage are expected to be completed this summer.

But there is a potential logistical nightmare for a turf project in Barrow. The tiny town at the northernmost tip of Alaska is accessible only by boat or plane.

There are obvious looming questions:

• How would an artificial field hold up in a climate where temperatures frequently drop below minus-50 degrees in the winter?

• How would the field stay level in an area where houses are built on stilts to counter the effects of permafrost?

• How do you deliver 300,000 pounds of artificial turf and rubber to one of the most remote towns in the world when your only method of transportation is a boat or plane?

ProGrass's Coleman insists the first two issues won't be a problem. As for the transportation issue, Parker has been working with several people, including Brig. Gen. Joseph G. Balskus, commander of the Florida Air National Guard, to help deliver the materials to the Arctic.

Parker hoped Florida's Air National Guard could fly the field to Barrow, but Barrow's airport is too small for the C-17 or C-5 cargo aircraft. The next idea is to deliver the field to Seattle, where the Navy might be able to pick it up and deliver it to Barrow. More than likely, a third-party logistics company, rather than the military, would be called upon to handle the job. Two companies are working on proposals to get the materials to Barrow in time for installation in July, when Barrow's temperatures are warmest. The installation would take about three weeks.

"We're just trying to spin the dial here to see what we can do to help the effort," Gen. Balskus said. "There's a lot of enthusiasm around this project. These are real humanitarian-type things. It might end up that we can't do it and the Navy doesn't have the ability but they might know someone who does."

The turf is only a piece of Parker's plan. The Parkers, who used ESPN.com's original two-part E-ticket on football in Barrow to help solicit donations, have invited the Whalers to Florida for Bartram's spring practice this year. They've scheduled a scrimmage against another first-year team from a small school in Orlando, and a trip to Alltel Stadium, home of the Jacksonville Jaguars. There would be a handful of speeches planned for Blankenship, in which he would be looking to raise even more money.

Anything raised beyond what is needed to pay for the turf will go toward Barrow's other football expenses, like the estimated $20,000 per game to fly each opponent to Barrow.

"Trent talks to me about how he goes into these meetings and has to fight for money for football," Parker said. "I don't want that to be an issue anymore. If they can come down here and meet some of the coaches and players and parents in the area, we can help raise the money that they need to get a new field and help these kids."

And just like that, the story of the Barrow Whalers continues to grow. Head coach Mark Voss is working with producers on a potential movie. A handful of families from the North Slope's smaller villages plan to move to Barrow this summer so their sons can play football. Kids can't stop asking Voss and Blankenship when practice starts again. And last semester, Blankenship said the attendance rate and the cumulative grade-point average for boys at Barrow High were both at an all-time high.

If Cathy Parker has her way, it's only the beginning.

"These kids need something like this, something to pour their lives into and give them hope," she said. "I believe this program is going to change the lives of that town for generations to come."

Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn3.com. To learn more or to contribute to the Project Alaska fund, visit www.projectalaskaturf.com.