The final load of game pants was in the dryer, flopping around the window of the machine at the edge of football coach Nathan Ford's cramped office at Wasilla ( Alaska) High last Friday afternoon. The two walkie-talkies were plugged into the battery charger, unlike two weeks earlier when somebody forgot and the game came and the offensive coordinator wanted to call the plays from the press box and...what else? A student manager was in front of Ford's desk.
"I don't want to hear you yelling, 'Break their legs!' " Ford told the girl, referring to the imprecation she had uttered during the previous Saturday's game.
"I understand," she said.
"I'm in my game trance, concentrating," he said, "and I come out of it for a minute, and first I hear the band. That's good. Then I hear you yelling, 'Break their legs!' That's not good."
"It won't happen again," she said.
Less than 24 hours were left until the Wasilla Warriors would travel the 30 postcard miles to the AFS, the Anchorage Football Stadium, with its new FieldTurf synthetic grass, green and perfect and true. Fewer than 24 hours were left until the Warriors would be playing Robert Service High of Anchorage, two-time defending state champion, lopsided favorite for the first 1999 state high school title to be decided in the U.S. In Alaska the season would be done before the first pitch of the World Series would be thrown and...what else?
"We get here at 9:30 in the morning," Ford said, going over the routine for the first football championship game in Wasilla history. "We dress here, everything except shoulder pads and helmets. We get on the buses. We drive down there and play the game. Would I rather have it different? Would I rather not have us sit on a bus for an hour before playing a game like this? Would I rather not be playing against a team from a school twice as big as ours in the stadium where it plays its home games? Sure. But that's the way it is."
This was a game that would resemble none of the state championships that will be played in the next five, six, seven weeks in the unconnected rest of the country. Wasilla against Service? The oft-cited analogy was Hoosiers. The game in Anchorage would match a school with 952 students against a school with 2,313 students; a school whose big road trip had been six hours on a bus to play Homer High, out on the Kenai Peninsula, against a school whose big road trips had been to Kahuku, Hawaii, and Seattle. The other 49 states have divisions to their playoffs. In Alaska only 22 high schools play football. Only one comes out a champion.
"It's emotion against the machine," Service coach Byron Wilson said last Friday. "Their emotion against our machine. Not that emotion doesn't win sometimes. You get small schools that win. Eielson, up in Fairbanks, 350 students, won the whole thing a few years ago. Eielson is kind of a different case, being next to an Air Force base, so it gets sudden influxes of talent, but anyone can win. You get teams that build up to that one big year, then disappear. The Anchorage teams are always around. We don't rebuild; we reload."
The Alaska high school football season starts early—the first day of practice is Aug. 1—and ends early, in the third week of October, with the days getting short and the trees gone bare and the threat of snow in the air. Two years ago workers chopped and shoveled and spread deicer for two days to clear the AFS for the title game. Anchorage mayor Rick Mystrom, handling an ice pick, was part of the crew.