Juneau, Alaska (KINY) - I saw the four high school football players sitting at the far edge of the field where their latest win was the last in a transition from youth to manhood. It wasn’t built just for them. This 100 yard stretch of green turf surrounded by a worn track, woods and aging bleachers set down before a mountain as if gods would sit above them and watch. But they made it their own.
They left a year of youth every fall among the yard lines, they wore helmets that dwarfed their adolescence and grew through cleats faster than sprouts of skunk cabbage in an early summer rain.
Now the last warm breath of battle had floated away in the chilling air.
The scoreboard lights had erased the 50-30 acknowledgment of their win that day, solidifying their love of the gridiron sport.
The last boisterous echo of adoring fans, parents and pigskin pundits seems to have left in the glacier wind and a greater mournful silence now lurks behind.
These four, still uniformed from the day’s work, have remained long after their teammates have showered.
Their reminisces tug at untucked jerseys. Begging them to run one more play.
“I’d say just every moment we have had on this field,” Juneau Huskies two-way starter Wallace Adams said.
Tears formed in his eyes as his gaze seemed to look upon an apparition of a grade-school age running back tangled up in a heap among his peers in the JYFL Cub League, that first taste of tackle football as his Seahawks jersey sweated through the progression from being a five-year-old flag-wearing player to hearing the crunch of shoulder pads. Second and third graders tackling each other for the first time. He was always the most athletic. The one that would learn any position quickly, anything to stay out on the field longer.
“We have played here, me and Noah especially, since we were five. We played games here. My mom’s got pictures from every year… and I can’t believe it’s all over."
Wiping a few tears, allowing others to stream down his cheek, he continued.
“The way to go out on this field… like, blowing a team out and playing so good as brothers. All we did was compete against each other up until high school and… they brought us together and you see what happens when we all come together. We’ve got a good group of guys here and I just don’t want it to end.”
The four exchange words then their eyes follow something unseen across the turf.
Other lineups blur their sight. The Gators grind out yardage. Fifth graders.
“I was thinking about the first time I started playing JYFL,” Huskies linebacker Mathias Wiederspohn said.
The All-State vanquisher of oversized ball carriers had succumbed to the misty emotions welling up inside.
He was considered the best player in the JYFL and that reputation continued on as a four-year starter for his town’s high school team.
“And like, up until this point,” he starts and stops, emotions grasping him then letting him go. “Everything we have done and all the hard work we put in… now it has ended up like this. It’s really like… just like, it makes me so happy that I can be with everybody and do this.”
The four look into the far end zone. The final JYFL Junior year appears.
They are young six graders now. Wearing Bulldogs gear. The tiny awkward moments are fewer, replaced with skills and hard work that makes the laughter more sweet and bruises badges of honor.
“I remember scraping my knees up on that dirt field over there,” Huskies quarterback Noah Chambers said.
His voice breaks. He always had the best arm. Maybe they wobbled at first but gradually the spirals came.
“Practicing when the high school kids were on this field, looking up to them. And I remember running over to that hill over there and running up and down it when I was just a young kid, just waiting for this moment, to come out here and win for the last time and move on to the state finals.”
The four look from side line to side line.
The referees whistles are louder now. Their flags fall faster. The opponents are bigger. The turf rumbles under the movement of line hitting line. Somehow this core of contagious youthful exuberance are the Juneau Raiders and the Juneau 49ers.
This field now caresses their seventh and eighth grade movements. It embraces them. It ignites a passion that carries them off the field, across the skies, and into two victorious National Youth Football Championships at Las Vegas.
Yet no field is as sweet as back in Adair Kennedy.
All those years share the hash marks together as the four watch.
“Just thinking about all the different games we played,” Huskies all-purpose player James Buker said haltingly. He buries a sob. Through all the years he has been the one always ready to come in and play. Persistent. Dedicated. Maybe not chosen first but never forgotten in the clutch.
“It’s just really one big family when we are out here,” he said. “And it’s kind of hard to just leave all that behind.”
The eyes of all four are full. Their hearts are torn. They see a first shoe tied, losses and wins, teammates to the left and right, opponents in front of them.
I can’t see the players they are watching. I can’t hear the youthful exuberance of first tackles and touchdowns. I can’t feel the turf caressing those that fall upon it.
But in their eyes I find the seconds of every game, the anxiousness, anguish and anticipation that fuels dreams of young heroes.
I walk away. Trying not to interfere with the ghostly games that are unfolding from end zone to end zone.
I turn to look at the four young men one last time.
I see instead four tiny players jostling about as they fall on the turf, their uniforms are the colors of rainbows, their helmets too heavy for five-year-old heads, their laughter contagious as they tackle giants of football legend and lore, dreaming of winning state championships.