It would be difficult for Hollywood to create a script better than the story of the Juneau Youth Football League and the success of the Juneau-Douglas High School Crimson Bears.
Beginning in the late 1970s with equipment passed out from the bed of a pickup truck, playing on rocky glacial silt, paying to fly teams to town, the death of a beloved coach, the nearly three decades of hard work and dedication climaxed Saturday with Juneau's first ever football state championship. Juneau beat Palmer 49-29, finishing the season 10-1, with the only loss against a team from Washington.
The Crimson Bears began the season in adverse conditions; with the death of head coach Reilly Richey in the off-season and switching from the Cook Inlet Football Conference to the Railbelt Conference. Against all odds, the team rallied around each other and proved to be the dominant Alaska team the entire season.
"It's something that coach Richey dreamed about, I know he dreamed about it," JYFL board member Karen Lawfer said. "I think he knew this was the year but I think his body just couldn't hold out."
Lawfer said the team was on a mission all season to win for Richey.
"We're bringing home a state championship for coach and we did it, they did it," she said.
"It's a real big day. It's awesome," said Dave Behrends, a JYFL board member who has two sons on the team. "I think it's a big victory for the community, a big victory for the team and a big victory for coach Reilly."
Lynn Bartlett, a former JYFL president, said the state championship and the success of the JYFL wouldn't have been possible without the dedication of the community.
"Each one of these kids that played today went out and raised $2,000, and it's $2,000 that the people in this community paid," she said Saturday.
Lawfer said the success of the team is not a surprise because of the dedication they possess on and off the field. Each player is required to do a minimum of seven hours of Chorebusters community service, pay a $300 registration fee, raise at least $750 in program advertisements, and sell more than $400 in raffle tickets.
JYFL President Ted Lehrbach said he is very proud of the work the coaches, players, parents and volunteers have done all year long.
"I think the community should be very proud of this group of young men," he said.
Taking state came down to four things.
"Probably if you wanted to sum it up - character, courage, commitment and honor," Lehrbach said. "This team had the character to develop the courage, and in order to make a commitment you have to have those qualities. ... They have honored this community on and off the field."
Although this is the first football state championship since JDHS first fielded a team in 1990, the Crimson Bears have a rich history of sports glory. Basketball has been particularly successful for JDHS, which has earned nine state titles, including two that were won by Juneau High School. The 2000s have been a highly productive period for producing championship teams from Juneau, with 16 team state titles since the beginning of the new millennium. Volleyball, soccer, track and softball have all made their marks in the state since then.
Lawfer said the football state championship would never have been possible if two guys didn't decide to start a makeshift league from the back of a pick-up in 1978.
"It's 27 years of blood, sweat and tears to get where we are now," she said.
The league has come a long way since they had to pick up rocks off the field before games, said Lawfer.
"Oh man, the things that the kids used to have to do to play football was just amazing - playing on glacier silt," she said.
Lehrbach said JYFL now has an annual budget of slightly more than $300,000, most of it going toward travel expenses. The league pays for 38 people from the opposing team to travel to Juneau when both varsity and junior varsity games are played, and pay for 20 tickets when only a varsity team comes to play. JDHS switched conferences this year in order to keep the fledgling junior varsity program alive, he said.
The state championship adds further fuel to the speculation about what will become of the JYFL and JDHS football team once the new Mendenhall Valley High School is completed.
Lehrbach said the JYFL board has been too busy running the season to discuss the future of football in Juneau this year. He said the board will begin to discuss the future of JYFL and said the community should begin thinking about it too.
"Attempting to sponsor two high school teams, two JV teams, plus run the lower leagues, in my mind I don't see it happening that way," said Lehrbach. "I think it's important that we focus on maintaining the program as it is."
Lawfer said the best option would be for the high schools to combine players for one Juneau team so that the JYFL doesn't fall apart because of the lofty financial requirements it would take to support two teams. Lehrbach said the only way to support two teams would be for the district to fund two teams, which he doesn't think it would be able to do.
Bartlett said JYFL and Crimson Bear football is more than just putting together a winning football team.
"You want to teach them to set a goal and achieve it," she said. "You want to teach them self-responsibility and responsibility to others and how to be a part of a team because this stuff gets you through life. It gives you a foundation in life."
Bartlett said Juneau football has come a long way since 1978.
"It's gone from a club team to taking state," she said. "To me, it's not just a high school honor or a JYFL honor. It's something the community has earned right alongside the boys."
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