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Cathy Parker Field transformed community in the Land of the Midnight Sun

 Cathy_Parker_field 
 An aerial shot of Cathy Parker Field 

By John Gillis 

At a remote frigid site a mere three miles south of the northernmost point of land in the United States – Barrow, Alaska to be exact – 120 yards of Astroturf provided by a woman 4,000 miles away forever transformed the lives of the community's 4,257 citizens.

As often is the case with anything truly worthwhile, this change took time to fully manifest itself as it occurred in two phases.

In its second part, the aforementioned otherwise innocuous mass of imitation grass, plastic and polyester known as Cathy Parker Field positively impacted the denizens of this meteorologically unforgiving locale.

Located literally on the shores of the frigid Arctic Ocean a full 340 miles north of the Arctic Circle, the unique blue and gold-colored field is the home to the aptly named Barrow High School Whalers football team. It is built on the native land of the Inupiat Indian tribe.

With bitterly cold temperatures, strong ocean winds often 60 miles per hour and blinding white-out blowing snow conditions even during its early-season games in August, the game site is definitely not for the faint of heart. It’s so cold that grass doesn’t grow there, and the temperature exceeds the 32-degree mark an average of only 109 days a year.

In addition, Barrow is so extremely isolated within the state of Alaska that the Whalers’ nearest opponent has to travel 500 miles to play a game. To fly in opponents – the only means of reaching Barrow – can cost a staggering $20,000 a game. And, after the conclusion of a game – consistent with the high school’s nickname – it’s not unusual for fans to walk a mile to witness whaling captains bringing in their haul.

According to current North Slope Borough School District (NSBSD) Activities and Wellness Administrator Bob Meade, the sheer geographical size of the school district has its own inherent set of challenges.

“While we have 1,800-plus students in the school district, the district is the size of the entire state of Minnesota,” Meade noted. “As such, everything’s really spread out.

“In addition, being so close to the ocean, the field was almost flooded last year and we were afraid it was going to be washed away. However, the turf held up very well. The field doesn’t get covered during the winter months with any sort of tarp. From October to May, there’s snow on the ground, so that’s what covers it.”

For many years, the Barrow High School student body had a staggering 50-percent dropout rate. Among other social ills, many of the high school boys were involved with drinking and getting into trouble during the summer months.

Those troubling issues first were abated in 2006, when the NSBSD decided that it wanted to start a football program at Barrow High School.

To help fund that first season, then-NSBSD Superintendent Trent Blankenship requested and received a one-time cash contribution from the Alaska State Legislature. In addition to covering the travel costs, it also paid for uniforms, training equipment and helmets.

Following a clinic in June 2006, 40 players – about one-third of the boys enrolled at Barrow High School – made the football team. Local men who hadn’t coached the game in several years assumed the leadership roles of football coaches.

Barrow_football_team 
 The Barrow High School football team huddled
in pregame prayer led by Head Coach Brian Houston
(standing above No. 71).
 

Hundreds of fans showed up for the school’s first-ever football game on a frigid day in August 2006. In that inaugural contest and throughout the entire first season, the team members showed great resolve as they played in considerably less-than-ideal conditions on what was little more than a ramshackle gravel and dirt field that often rendered them with painful scrapes and cuts.

On the positive side, in addition to providing an athletic participation opportunity, football provided a wholesome activity that taught the players valuable life lessons such as teamwork and discipline, and in the process kept them in school and away from their former non-productive and often self-destructive activities. And although the team won only one of six games that season, the school administration noted a marked improvement in the students’ attitudes, along with higher grade-point averages among the male students in the school.

Reports of those positive outcomes in The Last Frontier captured the attention of the nation’s media in the Lower 48. Among the nationally prominent television networks to cover this story was ESPN. That fall, its “Outside the Lines” program made the long northerly trek to Barrow to shoot a documentary regarding Barrow High School’s first football game.

Some 4,000 miles to the southeast, a self-proclaimed football mom from sunny and warm Jacksonville, Florida named Cathy Parker just happened to be watching that telecast that particular day.

As Parker and her sons watched the telecast of that Emmy-winning television program from the comfort of their living room, she became very impressed by the determination and fortitude of both the players and the fans.

At the same time, Parker became disheartened seeing the coverage of the extreme hardships that the Whalers had to deal with – both on the rough gravel field and off it – and decided to try to do something about it. Although she had no previous connection to Barrow or the football program, she came up with the rather outlandish idea of building the Whalers a new football field that would be safer for them, that would better serve their needs, and that would be consistent with the great character and resolve that they clearly demonstrated.

“We were watching an ESPN ‘Outside the Lines’ program that featured Barrow High School and how it had implemented a football program,” Parker explained. “It was so amazing to us that people were up in arms about the kind of money that was being spent on the football program The field was really just a gravel area on which they painted lines.

“As I watched that program – I don’t know how to put it – God gave me the vision to try to help them. We decided that we would raise money to build a quality football field and teach them how to play football.”

With those thoughts in mind, Parker organized “Project Alaska Turf,” whose purpose it was to raise money to fund the new football field. She contacted Superintendent Blankenship and told him of her fundraising plan. Despite a few challenges along the way, Parker raised more than $500,000 for the project, mostly from making presentations at Rotary Clubs in Florida and Georgia.

Cathy_Parker 
 Cathy Parker surveys the football field named in her
honor.
 

Parker’s relentless fundraising efforts enabled “Project Alaska Turf” to get a blue and gold ProGrass field built in time for Barrow High School’s first football game of the season on August 17, 2007. That process entailed shipping and installing 160 tons of artificial turf.

In front of an enthusiastic and vociferous crowd of 3,000 that included numerous representatives from national media outlets, the Whalers christened the new field in fine style as they defeated Seward High School, 18-16, on a game-winning touchdown run with just 42 seconds to go. Appropriately so, Parker was one of the many individuals present for that historic game.

“The game had one of those Hollywood endings – we were there for it,” Parker said. “We brought a party of 13 people from Florida, including our high school principal and two members of the football team.

“Former Miami Dolphins fullback Larry Csonka also was present for the game. That was meaningful for him as he had an upbringing similar to many of the kids in Barrow. When Larry was in high school, he was constantly getting in trouble for fighting. The principal told him to either play football or he’d be expelled from school. Larry grew up on a farm where he was a ‘bucket boy’ and for that reason could relate to the kids in Barrow.

“At halftime of the game, they called me out on the field. The P.A. announcer said ‘This field will henceforth be known as Cathy Parker Field.’ I cried the whole time during that presentation.

“After the game ended, a local woman came out on the field to present me with a sign she made that read ‘Thank you.’ Since the field was brand-new, she took off her shoes because she didn’t want to get it dirty.”

 

John Gillis is the associate director of development of the NFHS. If you have any comments or articles ideas, please forward them to Gillis at jgillis@nfhs.org
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