Monday, September 15, 2008

Small Town Football: A Native Game?

PreGame Helmet
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
It was a question that only 643 miles of driving might be able to answer. Still, I wasn't so sure.

It goes something like this: By and large, schools with a majority of Native American students are typically in the hunt for state basketball titles in any given class during any given year, yet the same is not true under these circumstances when it comes to the game of football. What explains this?

I had hoped the answer would be revealed to me by simply watching an eight-man football game between two small town schools with a majority of Native American students—Hays-Lodgepole and Rocky Boy. If the answer was in the game itself, I was too blind to see it. So, during that eight-man game I posed the question to a few people I met up with.

Rocky Boy Pursuit
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
Depending on who you talk to, will depend on the answer you hear. And I've heard my share of different answers coming from Native and non-Native viewpoints—not just this past weekend either, but over the years. One person wondered if basketball was more like a game that was played in the Americas before the White Man came on the scene—thus explaining its popularity. Another person (an educational administrator) explained that organizing/coordinating 11 players was asking too much from a group of Native American students. He explained to me, “They want to win, but they don’t want to put in the time/practice. They have to be so much more talented than other teams to make up for their disorganization.” Many non-Native arm-chair quarterbacks seem to think that Native Americans aren't disciplined enough to attend regular practices and thus execute complicated football plays, which made me wonder how a team could pull off winning a state championship in basketball if they weren't disciplined about attending regular practices.

Allowing for my own arrogance in taking a stab at the question, I'd say Native American kids aren't hostile or militant enough when it comes to football, especially as I watched both Rocky Boy and Hays-Lodgepole warm up before the game—talk about a laid back pre-game. I was reminded of a backyard pickup game rather than a hotly contested rivalry, which admittedly was a bit refreshing. But hell, what are my formal credentials when it comes to the game of football, let alone Native Americans?

One of the assistant coaches at Rocky Boy responded to my query this past weekend, and I think he answered it best—or at least what made sense to me. It has to do with tradition. When it comes to the small town schools on the Indian Reservations, basketball is more established and accepted because it has been around much longer than football. Take Hays-Lodgepole for example, football didn't come on the scene until 1975 while basketball had been established decades earlier. Parents and grandparents played basketball, but not necessarily football. Basketball's long-term existence has resulted in a certain attitude/environment where almost everyone encourages the youth to play because the parents and grandparents played when they were young too.

Highwood Fans
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
Back in 1999, I saw a very competitive Lame Deer team defeat perennial powerhouse Highwood in the six-man quarterfinals—on Highwood’s home field. The following week, they lost their semi-final match to West Yellowstone largely attributed to a key player injury. I've been haunted by that team since—waiting for another Reservation school to match or best the 1999 Morning Stars. I feel certain it is bound to happen in the not-too-distant future—and more frequently—as more of today's young Native American students discover and consider the option of football related to their own specific skills and athletic abilities.

If football truly has gained a toehold in the small schools of America's Reservations, I suspect the Native American players, coaches and teams will develop their own knack and style for the game much like they have in basketball. And with a bit of luck, perhaps we'll see more and more Native American teams vying for conference and state titles in football as well.

I look forward to the day.

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