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Know the West

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.


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