A football team on the edge of the world

The Barrow High School Whalers in Alaska are nearly 500 miles away from the nearest opponent.

  • After winning a game and thereby securing a position in the state championship, some of the Barrow Whalers made snow angels on the field.

    Ash Adams
  • In the third quarter of a game against Nikiski, a small flurry of snow dusts the field in Utqiagvik, Alaska.

    Ash Adams
  • The team warms up in the bus during halftime in the Whalers' game against the Houston Hawks.

    Ash Adams
  • After winning the game against the Houston Hawks, Coach Chris Battle, center, gathers the team together for a huddle and a prayer. He doesn't hold onto the victorious moment for long, but quickly moves into a speech about how the team needs to stay humble and look to winning next week's game.

    Ash Adams
  • Quarterback Anthony Fruean, a sophomore, cheers on his teammates at Cathy Parker Field, named after a woman from Florida who helped raise money to build the field. Before then, the players practiced on gravel.

    Ash Adams
  • The Barrow Whalers play the Houston Hawks at Cathy Parker Field, on the shores of the Chukchi Sea. Assistant coach Taylor Masterson says that he kept telling the team that winning this game was the hurdle to overcome to secure a place in the playoffs.

    Ash Adams
  • The bleachers next to Cathy Parker Field sit across the road from the Chukchi Sea, where whale bones adorn the beach. Utqiagvik, Alaska, home of the northernmost football field in the United States, is an Inupiat whaling town; over half of the town is Inupiat, though the Barrow Whalers is a multi-cultural team.

    Ash Adams
  • Some of the team celebrate winning a game by taking an arctic plunge into the Chukchi Sea.

    Ash Adams
  • The Barrow Whalers warm up during their playoffs game against Nikiski at Cathy Parker Field. If they win this game, they will go to the state championship the following weekend in Palmer, Alaska, and compete for their first state title.

    Ash Adams
  • Helmets and gloves are scattered on Machetanz Field during the state championship game in Palmer, Alaska.

    Ash Adams
  • Barrow Whalers hug and celebrate their victory against Homer and their first state title in the team's 11-year history on Machetanz Field in Palmer, Alaska.

    Ash Adams
  • The team holds up the trophy they earned. This marks the first time in the team's history that it has won a state championship.

    Ash Adams

 

In the northernmost inhabited city in the U.S., next to the chilly Chukchi Sea, a team of high school football players scrimmage on a blue turf field. Football has only been part of the community for 11 years, and in 2017 the boys took home an Alaska state title for the first time.

There’s likely not a harsher place to play football in America. When the team was created in 2006, most Barrow High School students had never played football in their lives. It wasn’t easy that first year. The players practiced on a dirt and gravel patch in Utqiaġvik, Alaska, often enduring bad scrapes and cuts. But they received a one-time contribution from the Alaska state Legislature to pay for uniforms, equipment and travel costs and fortunately, a woman in Florida saw the conditions of the field in an online video and raised money for a new field so they could play with more success.

Still, the Barrow High School Whalers are about 500 miles away from the nearest opponent. So, the Whalers or their competition have to travel by plane to play. It can cost up to $20,000 to get to a distant game. Barrow is a traditional whaling community and the school has more than 50 percent Native American students, with 90 percent minority enrollment. About a third of the boys at the 200-student high school are on the team.

The creation of the team was partially intended to help players escape challenges in the community ranging from drug use to domestic violence. Head coach Chris Battle says being involved in football helps keep the kids structured. “It is a safe haven for the kids if they have a bad home life,” he says. The coaches keep the players accountable for their grades and involved in school. “In a small village with no road system,” Battle says, “I get to be hands-on with my players and a role model for them and all the kids in the community.”

The ability to face adversity, and play through severe weather is part of what makes the boys successful on the field. As both players and spectators brave snow flurries and cold gusts, they embody one of their team’s slogans — “dreams into reality.”

Photographer Ash Adams followed the team on its journey to win a state title. See them make it happen in the gallery above. —Brooke Warren

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