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From the Sidelines: Juneau football program earns respect

Posted: Sunday, October 19, 2003

They came to Anchorage Football Stadium on Saturday with a chance to make history.

They're still not sure what conference they'll play in next year, if any. They were the original self-funded team in the state - in any sport - raising their own money because the local school district couldn't afford to add new activities to the budget when the team was formed 14 years ago.

But win or lose, the Juneau-Douglas High School football players had a chance to make history on Saturday when the Crimson Bears took on the East Anchorage Thunderbirds in Juneau's first trip to the state championship game.

The Crimson Bears lost 33-15, but they emerged from the game with a different kind of victory - a victory of respect.

With Juneau's appearance in the title game, football fans from other parts of the state - and even the nation due to a brief article in USA TODAY - found out what it takes to play football in Southeast Alaska.

"We had a story that needed to get out, and I think a lot of people learned a lot about what we go through just to put a team on the field," said Karen Lawfer, president of the Juneau Youth Football League, which funds the Crimson Bears.

The Crimson Bears' run through this year's state playoffs happened on the silver anniversary of the JYFL - which played its first season in 1979 and started the high school team in 1990 - making all the years of struggle worth the effort.

"These kids have worked so hard for so long. They've worked so hard to gain respect," Lawfer said. "But it's like those old stickers (helmet stickers with the initials RIENG), Respect Is Earned, Not Given."

The JYFL has come a long way since equipment was distributed from the back of a pick-up truck and only eight players showed up for the first day of practice for the high school team (and one player was led off the field in handcuffs, current head coach Reilly Richey said).

From Juneau's first game - a 32-20 upset victory over Colorado Class 3A power Paonia in what was called the Glacier Bowl on Aug. 31, 1990, when running back Clay Robidoux set a team record that still stands with 349 yards rushing - the Crimson Bears and the JYFL have grown up together.

An independent the first few years, the Crimson Bears joined the Cook Inlet Football Conference in 1996 so they could finally have a legitimate chance at making the state playoffs. Before joining the CIFC, Juneau had good teams - twice posting one-loss seasons - but Richey said the only way the Crimson Bears could make the playoffs was to go undefeated.

The Crimson Bears finally made the state playoffs in 1999, beating Lathrop 37-7 in the first round in Fairbanks, then losing 43-16 to eventual champion Service in the semifinals in Anchorage. Juneau won the CIFC title in 2001 and earned the right to host its first state playoff game, but fourth-seeded Dimond pulled off a 31-0 upset and went on to win the state title.

This year, Juneau entered the final week of the season with a chance to win the CIFC's top seed or miss the playoffs entirely. The Crimson Bears beat Chugiak 31-7 to close out the regular season, then they beat Dimond 44-14 in Juneau in the first round of the playoffs and they knocked off Lathrop 33-18 in last week's semifinals in Anchorage.

"I know all the coaches pretty well, and I think we've already earned their respect," Richey said earlier this week. "We've been competitive before, but it sure is nice to get to the final game."

The JYFL still funds the high school team, which has grown over the last three years to include a junior varsity squad and is one of the costliest prep football programs in the country. Based off the main road system and playing in a league where the closest team is nearly 600 air miles away (nearly 1,000 by state ferry and car), the JYFL budget rivals that of some small colleges.

"There are a lot of people who go to our games who have had a kid or two go through the program, so they know what it takes," Lawfer said. "But I think when we travel, they are clueless about what it takes to put on a game in Juneau. I don't think they know the magnitude of what we do."

This year's overall JYFL budget projects to $350,000 (for 12 teams in five age divisions), JYFL treasurer James Lockwood said, with $235,000 going to the two high school teams. The travel budget alone for the high school teams will hit $150,000 to $175,000 by the time the playoffs are done, with the two road playoff games costing about $30,000. The JYFL's other big expense this year (about $50,000 for 100 people) was sending three lower-division teams to Kodiak for games this weekend.

"That was why it was critical to have that first playoff game here (in Juneau)," Lockwood said. The Alaska School Activities Association allows the first-round playoff game hosts to keep part of the gate receipts after expenses are paid.

Not only do the Crimson Bears have to pay their own way when they travel - with a minimum of three road (or air) games to Anchorage a season - but they also have to pay to bring their opponents to Juneau. Lockwood said the JYFL spent $118,000 for travel during the regular season - $76,000 to send the Crimson Bears to Anchorage and $42,000 to bring teams to Juneau.

As part of their membership agreement with the Cook Inlet Football Conference, the Crimson Bears purchase 38 airline tickets (20 for varsity, 18 for JV), provide a team bus, housing and a meal for the visitors. But when Juneau travels, it gets no help, not even a place to roll out a few sleeping bags in an Anchorage high school.

Earlier this season, two days before Juneau's first road trip, Lawfer found out the Crimson Bears would not be allowed to stay at Elmendorf Air Force Base, as it had in past years, due to heightened post-9/11 security measures. When she called the Anchorage School District to see if the team might be able to spend a night on a gym floor - a common practice for visiting teams with other school districts in the state - Lawfer said she was told by an ASD official, "Our schools aren't hotels."

"When they say the homeless shelter is down the street and we can get showers there, I take that as an affront," said Lawfer, who added that she wasn't sure if the person she spoke with was trying to make a joke or not. "My team doesn't deserve that. We don't treat teams like that when we host them."

The Crimson Bears wound up having to pay an unexpected $3,000 for hotel rooms on that trip, but Lawfer was able to make arrangements for the team to stay at Anchorage Christian Schools (which has a football team that's never played Juneau) and Alaska Pacific University on the other road trips. During the playoffs, the team was hosted by The Alaska Club so it didn't have to pay for lodging.

Just to play football for the Crimson Bears takes a great deal of commitment. Each player has to pay about $250 in activity fees and registration costs, and then he has to sell $400 in raffle tickets and $600 in ads for the team's program book. Each player also has to perform at least 10 hours in the Chorebusters program, where players are hired out by the community for odd jobs.

That doesn't include the other expenses a player can accrue during the season, such as a good pair of cleats and meal money on road trips. Most of the Crimson Bears - 40 of 55 players - decided to pay another $650 to attend an optional football camp at Western Washington University, and all of the players paid $100 for the Southeast Alaska football camp.

"I always say to the kids when they have their uniforms they know they've paid their dues," Richey said. "We probably lose a couple of good football players because of everything that's involved, but you know the kids that are left are dedicated to the team."

While most casual Alaska football fans didn't know much about Juneau's struggle to provide a competitive program, there are some who understand. In an interview two years ago, Bartlett football coach John Jessen called the Juneau players "shareholders in the team," while his players just play ball.

"They're very heavily invested," Lawfer said of the players. "It's not something where the kids can just turn around and just pay for it. They have to get out in the community and get its support. And I think the community really does support this team. This is definitely the town team. There's just a huge pride in ownership; you can see that on a Friday night home game when it's really raining and there are 4,000 people in the stands watching."

Now that Juneau has finally played for a state championship, though, Lawfer thinks the program can come of age.

"I think it may blow by people what all we have to do to put together a team," she said before the game, "but I'm sure we'll earn some of the respect we deserve."

• Charles Bingham can be reached at cbingham@juneauempire.com.



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