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Northern Lights: One Woman, Two Teams, and the Football Field That Changed Their Lives

Northern Lights: One Woman, Two Teams, and the Football Field That Changed Their Lives

by Cathy Parker


Learn More | Meet Cathy Parker

Chapter 1

A HIGHER CALLING

Barrow, Alaska. You can’t go farther north and say you’re in the United States. It’s closer to the North Pole than to Seattle, Washington—by almost seven hundred miles.

Temperatures in Barrow rise above the freezing mark about 120 days per year. During the coldest months, they can dip into the minus-fifties, with wind chills of more than 70 below. The town of more than four thousand people sits on permafrost as deep as thirteen hundred feet, making it impossible to grow grass and trees. That permanently frozen ground prevents the building of roads to connect Barrow to the rest of Alaska, so you can only get there by air or by sea. Barges can make their way into Barrow only during the two summer months, when the ice packs move out into the Arctic Ocean.

Barrow is the last place on earth you would expect to . . . well, there are a lot of ways to finish that sentence. Until 2007, “see a bright blue and yellow football field” was one of them.

I first heard of Barrow on a Sunday morning in October 2006, when the town interrupted our family’s weekly pre-church routine. Our four children had changed into casual clothes for church and were watching ESPN. I was in the kitchen, making a batch of homemade blueberry muffins and chatting with my husband, Carl, as he sat at the kitchen table. Sunday mornings in our home were relaxed, by design. We wouldn’t leave for church until about ten thirty, and Sunday was our one day of the week when we didn’t have to rush in the mornings to get somewhere.

I was preparing to slide the muffins into the oven when our oldest, Kyle, called out to us: “Mom, Dad! You’ve got to come in here and see this!”

I shoved the muffins into the oven, and Carl and I hurried into the adjoining family room. Kyle quickly caught us up on a story about the Barrow Whalers, a high school football team north of the Arctic Circle, in far north Alaska, playing their first season.

Carl sat in our oversized chair. I took a spot on the ottoman in front of the chair and leaned back against his knees.

The reporter asked how many of the players had not played football before joining the team. It looked like almost all, if not all, raised their hands. The story drew us in because of the school’s 50 percent dropout rate. The Barrow youth had high rates of depression and suicide too. Drugs, alcohol, and the extreme climate contributed to the problem. High school and community leaders seemed desperate to find a solution, especially after two youth murdered a taxi driver in a robbery that netted $100 to buy drugs. They surveyed students to ask what would help them engage more in school. The students’ number-one answer was surprising: a football team.

Tears welled up in my eyes as I thought about the social problems these young men were facing. Yet what really caused my stomach to tighten was seeing the Barrow Whalers’ field. In the absence of grass, the field was an unsightly mix of packed dirt, mud, and gravel. The players displayed the cuts and bruises they had received from its rocky surface.

Our football-playing sons cringed.

Ruts in the field caused by melted permafrost led to sprained ankles. Without grass, lines could not be painted onto the field. Instead, the field was lined with flour, which provided a welcomed postgame meal for the resident birds.

Sitting in the comfort of our home in Jacksonville, Florida, with our subtropical climate and lush, green sports fields for our children to practice and play on, my heart broke considering the physical sacrifices those kids were making to play football. To play a game my family had been born playing.

I turned to see tears in Carl’s eyes too. He was a high school coach who had played in the National Football League. Carl could relate to the players as well as the coaches’ plight in starting a program in such adverse conditions.

ESPN reporter Wayne Drehs did a great job of presenting both sides of the controversy in Barrow over adding football. As much as my family loved sports, I could sympathize with the teachers there who cited other needs that could have used the funding and complained that football benefited only a certain part of the population. Yet, I also knew the unifying power of sports. Sure, Carl and I had witnessed what can be the damaging side of sports, but we’d also seen how sports can reach across a range of socioeconomic groups, bring the youth together into a team, and develop young men to become difference makers in society.

The story moved me emotionally. As it ended, I had no idea that it would move me to action.

Taking the time to watch the story forced Carl and me into rush mode to get ready for church. We swiftly changed clothes in our bedroom as we discussed the story.

“I understand the educators’ points about needing books, computers, and laptops,” I told him. “But what good are they if the kids are not going to school? What good are they if the kids are ending up in jail? Or committing suicide?”

“I know,” Carl said.

“You know,” I continued, “that football program is going to save the lives of those young men.”

“Yeah,” he said, “you’re right.”

A SPORTS FAMILY

ESPN and blueberry muffins.

The morning the Barrow story aired wouldn’t have been an official Sunday morning in the Parker household without our four children—ranging in age from twelve to seventeen—getting their ESPN fix while I made muffins from scratch.

The muffin recipe came from my momma. The ESPN-watching came from Carl.

My husband played six seasons of professional football, including two in the National Football League. Kyle, Collin, and Kendal grew up throwing, catching, hitting, and kicking balls. When our daughter, Cara, came along, we hoped she would lead us into the land of music and dance recitals. But the boys insisted on putting a football helmet on her head and a ball in her hands, and as soon as Cara was old enough to express her athletic aspirations, our hopes were dashed.

We were a sports family through and through. Mix in witnessing in our home each week the positive impact football could have on teenage boys, and we were ripe to be pulled into a moving sports story.

During Carl’s two seasons coaching high school football, we had been hosting players at our home on Thursday nights. We’d rotate groups of players by position, with anywhere from twelve to eighteen eating dinner with us each week during the season. It was a challenge satisfying the appetites of that many high school football players, so every week I prepared meatball subs on French bread with salads, followed by homemade banana pudding for dessert. One player ate so much that Cara often came home from softball practice to find no food left for her.

The players came to count on the Thursday dinners in our home, and we relished the opportunity for them to see Carl in a role outside of their coach. That included being a dad to his sons and daughter and a father figure to their teammates, some of whom didn’t have a dad at home.

As I had watched the ESPN story, I’d wondered: If football could make a noticeable impact in a comfortable, affluent area like ours, how many lives could it change in Barrow?

My conversation with Carl about the Barrow story ended before we left for church, but the needs of those players and the condition of that field didn’t leave my mind.

RECEIVING THE ASSIGNMENT

We attended a start-up church of about fifty people meeting in an elementary school. The six of us took up an entire row of seats. The pastor, Ron Morris, and his wife, Susan, often made up half of the worship team, with Pastor Ron playing drums. The Morrises had five children. Our two families accounted for almost a quarter of the attendees.

During worship that morning, my mind drifted back to the ESPN story. I kept thinking about what it would be like to see that pitiful field transformed into a green, artificial turf field, eliminating the cuts and bruises the players now suffered from the rocks. Ron was a good preacher, but I can’t recall one point from his message that morning. Or his topic. I’m usually a notetaker during sermons, but that morning I took no notes.

Whatever Ron said must have carried a tone of encouragement, though, because as he preached, I progressed from being moved by the story of the Barrow players to sensing that God was placing it on my heart to somehow help them.

Our sons played on a wonderful grass field at Bartram Trail High School. Jacksonville had hosted Super Bowl XXXIX in 2005, and the NFL chose Bartram Trail as the practice facility for the New England Patriots. The school already had one of the best high school fields in Florida, but NFL and turf guru George Toma—his nickname was “the god of sod” because of his magic with grass fields—built a new practice field for Bartram and upgraded the game field to professional standards. Our sons played and practiced on fields of the quality that professional and top-level college teams were accustomed to.

Also, Carl held two jobs at the time: offensive coordinator for Bartram Trail’s football team and assistant director of Parks & Recreation for St. Johns County. As part of his Parks & Rec job, Carl was overseeing the installation of artificial turf fields to replace the overused grass fields. Our community was growing so rapidly that the county couldn’t keep its fields properly maintained, and Carl had researched turf fields and compiled an eighty-page binder of information to present his case to the county for installing the fields. From talking with Carl and reading through his binder, I knew a bit about the cost and benefits of replacing grass fields.

If we need artificial turf fields here, I thought as Pastor Ron preached, how much more do they need one in Barrow? They can’t even grow grass. How much more do they need it than we do?

Right there, in the middle of the sermon, I realized there was something we could do for the team in Barrow—give them a turf field.

Immediately, my thoughts shifted to how we could make that happen—how we could pay for a field in Barrow. I had sales training and experience selling a variety of products. My sales knowledge kicked into gear.

Okay. We’ll present this to some sports company, like Under Armour or Nike, that can pay for it. It will be costly, but the story is so compelling that certainly there will be sports companies that will want to be part of providing a field for Barrow. I’ll have to put together visuals and a compelling case for support. But I can do that. I can get them to write a check. This will be fairly simple.

Then my thoughts turned to the Barrow coaches. Based on the ESPN story, I assumed they needed a lot of help with football X’s and O’s, because almost all their players had no experience playing football. I believed our school’s coaches could train Barrow’s coaches.

I’ve had many ideas during my life that I didn’t see through to completion or that didn’t work out for a variety of reasons. But this one was different. It was more like a vision than an idea, because I could see those same young men from my TV screen playing on a turf field. I could see their uniforms untorn, their skin uncut because of gravel in their field.

I wanted church to end immediately (sorry, Pastor Ron) so I could tell my family about what I believed God wanted me to do. But before we left after the service, because we met in a school, all the families had to pitch in on the teardown, stacking chairs and taking down the portable sound equipment.

By the time we finished and got to our Chevy Trailblazer, I was so eager to tell my family the news that before I closed my passenger-side door, I turned to my kids, who were climbing into the back two rows, and said, “I have an announcement to make. God showed me something. We’re going to raise some money, and we’re going to give that team in Alaska an artificial turf field like ours. We’re going to teach them how to play football.”

Everything I knew about Barrow, Alaska, had come from about ten minutes of an ESPN story. But I knew that God had given me an assignment.

My first steps were born not out of inspiration, but out of obedience.


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