Bethel Regional High School is starting a football program; it just needs funding, equipment, players, a coach, and approval from the state. The plan has two things going for it: teams to play against— in Anchorage— and administrators confident that the Warriors will kick off next fall.
Lower Kuskokwim School District Assistant Superintendent Carlton Kuhns loves football.
“There is nothing like the contact, hearing the pads popping. I think this community will be all over having a football team," Kuhns said.
Kuhns' office screams football. There’re football helmets in the corner, a football signed by the Oregon Ducks, a picture of Kuhns playing football, and a picture of his son playing football in a football-shaped frame. Kuhns says he’s been promoting starting the sport in Bethel for 13 years.
“Since I moved back to Bethel, so I’m just really pleased it has some momentum going,” he said.
That momentum started in August when Bethel Regional High School Assistant Principal and Athletic Director Dr. Doug Boyer got an idea.
“The big thing has always been, 'Where would be do this program at?'," said Boyer. "And as I was driving by Pinky’s Park, on their softball field, I saw five different groups of people using that field. And I thought about it, and I was like, we could have football there, because we would have road games. We could do football, and it could work. Because you never use 100 yards during a football practice. So I spoke with the superintendents, and I spoke with Mr. Pekar, the principal, and I said, 'I think we have a plan we can put into motion.'”
Here’s that plan: get final approval from the state to start a program and get placed in a conference; raise money; order equipment; hire a coach; and recruit players. So far, so good, Boyer says. And there will be help.
“The Seattle Seahawks have said that they will send their old tackling dummies, their old tackling, blocking sleds as long as we pay for them to be barged up in the summertime,” Boyer said.
The Seahawks Foundation will also provide half of the $41,000 needed to purchase shoulder pads, helmets, and uniforms for the school’s 50 players. The rest of the money will come from fundraising and from groups in town that Boyer has talked to about donating. He says they’re only buying the best.
“For example," Boyer said, "the helmets are top rated helmets through the West Virginia Hospital that puts star ratings on helmets for the NFL, and the helmets we’re looking to purchase are the top star rated helmets.”
Of course safety, especially the issue of concussions, is a big deal in football, and Boyer says one way to make the contact sport safer is to change how teams practice contact.
“The full out practice, like when I was in high school, tackling doesn’t happen anymore. It’s more kind of mock drills that teach technique that has lowered the concussion rates in these states [doing this practice] below the national average by quite a bit,” he said.
If all the pieces come together, the season will begin the last week of July with games every other week, most likely in the Anchorage area. The first few years, the team will play against junior varsity teams as it builds its skills. The BRHS middle school might start a flag football team to feed the high school program. Boyer says the reason for all this work is, yes, the health benefits from physical activity, but also to keep kids in school.
“The big thing activities do in a school is keep kids connected to the school," Boyer explained. "There is a huge number, when you look across the board, that football does decrease the amount of dropouts in a school.”
And that’s a big deal for BRHS. The current four-year graduation rate is 65-percent. The school district is pushing to raise that to 75-percent this year. Boyer says football might just help them get there.
“We have had a ton of students who’ve come to me this year and say, ‘I want to play football. I think this is great. I’m excited.’ The funny thing is we’ve even had some seniors saying, ‘Is there any way I can do a fifth year of high school to play?’ We’ve told them no, obviously, but a lot of students, males and females, have been really excited for the opportunity to try this new activity at BRHS.”