"A kid has to give up a lot to play football in Alaska," Ford said. "August is also the start of moose hunting, the start of most of the big hunting and fishing seasons. A kid can make a lot of money hunting and fishing for salmon in that month before school opens. If you play teams on the peninsula, you like to play them early because they have a bunch of kids who don't show up until late because they're working as commercial fishermen."
Away games in Alaska are small adventures. A trip to play one of the four Fairbanks schools (one of them is North Pole High) is a 10-hour bus ride, north from Wasilla. Overnights are spent on gym floors.
Around Wasilla, a suburb of Anchorage with a population of 4,028, the sight of a moose on the road isn't a surprise. The sight of a bear during football practice is a surprise but not a shock. "I was giving a phys-ed class about two years ago, soccer, and I noticed that all the kids had stopped and were staring," Ford said. "I looked to see what they were staring at, and this big bear was just staring back at us. We all sort of stood there, the kids, me, the bear, in a state of wonder."
There was almost the same state of wonder when Ford and his kids contemplated the Service football operation. Wilson has built an empire over the past seven years. He had 180 kids playing football this year, 45 seniors. He had the only school in the state playing straight-out, no-exception, two-platoon football. He had 22 coaches, 17 of them volunteer assistants. He had his son, Jeff, as his option quarterback, 25-2 as a starter over the past three years. He had a running back, Dominique Maddox, on the way to a 2,000-yard season.
The only blot on Service's 9-1 record was a season-opening 31-20 loss to cross-city rival Chugiak High. This was 10-0 Wasilla's hope. The Warriors had upset Chugiak 20-15 in the semis at the AFS a week earlier. Couldn't something like that happen again? "My one worry is we can't stop 'em," said Ford, most of whose starters would play both ways. "What happens if we get out there and can't stop 'em?"
At 9:30 a.m. last Saturday, no snow, 30� and crisp, the Warriors assembled at the school, put on their red-and-white uniforms, complete with the candy-striped socks that looked like something out of Dr. Seuss, and went over the game plan and talked with each other and...what else? The buses never arrived.
Ford waited and fretted and fretted and waited. He finally told the kids they would have to make the trip to Anchorage in their own cars. In their uniforms. He hopped in a school van to start the convoy, had a couple of assistants ride in a car at the end and ordered that there be "no passing!" That was how the Warriors arrived around noon for their great day, straight from their cars to the field, 30 minutes to warm up before the kickoff. And that was how they met the machine.
A minute and 40 seconds into the game, Service scored its first touchdown, a 35-yard option burst by Wilson around left end. Five minutes and 19 seconds into the game, the Cougars scored again, Wilson on a quarterback sneak. It all went from there. Final: Service 49, Wasilla 0. Maddox rushed for 283 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries.
"I don't know what happened with the buses," Ford said. "It didn't cost us the game. We couldn't tackle Maddox. That cost us the game. At least we got everyone here without any dents in the fenders. I hope we can get 'em back the same way."
The victorious Cougars celebrated, singing their fight song back to their fans in the standing room only crowd of more than 5,000. The Wasilla kids sat in a quiet circle, awaiting the presentation of the runner-up award. A Warriors assistant coach passed out sugar cookies from a plastic bag as the sun started to fade in the Anchorage afternoon and winter began to settle into the landscape for the last time in this millennium. Life is not always a movie.