It was not just that last weekend's football game in Barrow, Alaska, was played along the Arctic Ocean that made it so special. Or that the field was guarded by armed patrols with explosive charges to scare away the polar bears. It's not even that school buses were lined up as a crude wind break against the arctic gusts, or that they were shoveling the field during game play that made it a standout.
It was the Barrow Whalers, a team from a mostly native town of Barrow, Alaska, which never played football until three years ago, that took the spotlight.
In one of the northernmost communities on the planet, deep inside the Arctic Circle, life is hard in the small town of Barrow, where the school took up football as an experiment to fight a swelling dropout rate and drug and alcohol problem.
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For the first season, the team played on a gravel field and used flour for the yard lines that birds would promptly eat. But, the team has turned boys from a group of misfits into champions, losing only a single game this season.
The Whalers, playing in the first quarter final game above the Arctic Circle against the Houston Hawks Oct. 4, seemed immune to the bitter cold, scoring touchdown after touchdown until winning, 46-18. They won't be the state champs; their fairy tale met reality in the semi finals this weekend, when the Whalers lost to the Kodiak Bears in the fourth quarter, 19-13.
But the Whalers' transformation from a group of boys -- more familiar with how to spear a whale than how to catch a pigskin -- into Alaska's small school state semifinalists is the ultimate win for the underdog.
Life in the Arctic Circle
In Barrow, Alaska, where the permanently frozen ground means no trees or plants can grow and roads can't be paved, you're more likely to see a whale scratching its back along the shoreline than something as ordinary as a house fly. This time of year the sun never sets, and during winter there is no sunlight.
"The wind chill gets to 110 below zero. The buses get so cold the tires get square and we can't turn them," Barrow school superintendent Trent Blankenship told ABC's Neal Karlinsky in November 2007. "We have an aide who stands at the door and makes sure the kids gets on and don't get blown away."
Drug and alcohol abuse rates are off the charts. Most kids have only one parent and the high school dropout rate was a staggering 50 percent until the school began a strange new program last year -- football.
They have never had a football team in Barrow, but the boys learned to play with the help of their computer science teacher Mark Voss, who last coached a team 23 years ago in Arkansas.
He wasn't prepared for one of the challenges they would face.
"I was going out to our playing field last year," Voss said. "Someone called just before we got on the bus and said, 'Hey there's a polar bear sighted out there.' We had to be a little more aware and have a plan if we had to evacuate and hop back on the bus."
Finding a Field From a Warmer, Southern State
For their first season they played on gravel and used flour for the yard lines that birds would promptly eat.
But the field wasn't their only problem. The nearest opponent was located at least 500 miles away and there are no roads in and out of town, so every game either home or away involved putting an entire team on an airplane.
Still, the new sport engaged the kids like never before, and attendance and grades shot up.
"They needed something more, and it was outrageous for them to try it but they did," said Cathy Parker, a Florida woman who heard about the boys of Barrow from 4,000 miles away.
She decided to make it her mission to raise more than a half million dollars in less than a year to aid the team's travel budget and give them a better field.
"I'm basically just a woman who saw a story on ESPN about this town Barrow in Alaska that was struggling to reverse their high teen birth rate and high dropout rate and high drug use. And they implemented a football program," Parker said. "My family believes football can do a lot of things to encourage young people. And it was just one of those things that kept burning in my heart and I wanted to do something."
Down to the Wire on Opening Day
Parker raised the funds through her church and small donors, and for the new season a professional turf field was flown in and put together literally next to the Arctic Ocean, just in time for this past weekend's first game and their donor's first visit.
The entire town came out for the emotional game to give thanks and watch the Whalers play on bright blue turf painted in the school colors.
But the Whalers began to fall apart under the pressure.
At one point a commentator said you could almost "feel the air coming out of this stadium."
Then, as they were down by two touchdowns with two minutes to go, the unthinkable happened and the Whalers completed a touchdown, recovered a turnover, and with 42 seconds left on the clock this hard luck team of misfits turned into winners.
"Miracles, they keep happening!" Parker said.
After the big win, instead of dunking the coach in Gatorade, the team sprinted off the field and straight into the Arctic -- a group of kids who never knew beating the odds was an option until they got a chance to actually do it.
For more information contact: http://projectalaskaturf.com/
This report originally aired on August 24, 2007