In his more discouraged moments. Chuck Otterman considers the modern marvel that is Hopi High School—a sprawling, rust-colored structure baking in the sun 75 miles northeast of Wins-low, Ariz.—and imagines it no longer exists.
"The desert is going to reclaim all this stuff," he said recently, staring bleakly at the four tennis courts that are rarely used, the football stadium that can't be used and the $2-million terraced rock garden that threatens to slide to the desert floor. "There's been no upkeep. The dollars went for construction, not for maintenance."
Otterman, a 33-year-old father of six who came to the Hopi Indian Reservation two years ago to teach social studies at the new junior-senior high school, has only to look down to prove his point. Dust swirls around his shoes. The brown earth is crosshatched with deep cracks and shallow gullies. From goalpost to goalpost, not one blade of green grass shows its crown. The sod has dried up, died and blown away, leaving a spectacular view from the concrete bleachers of desert valley and surrounding mesas...but no football.
"We had a big, nice scoreboard, too," says Otterman, who grew up in Roanoke, Va., and had never coached football before coming to Hopi High, "but the wind came up last summer and destroyed it."
In his more exuberant moments—say, the night a few weeks earlier when a fourth-quarter quarterback sack' sealed Hopi High's 18-12 road victory over Alchesey High School's Apache team—the longhaired, wiry Otterman leaps, scissors his legs and screams like some demented conductor, to the amusement (and amazement) of his players. Or he turns his back to the field and gestures frantically to the Hopi fans to stand up and shout their support.
"I have to cheerlead as well as coach," he explains. "The Hopis don't know what you do at football games."
He means many of the Hopi players as well as the fans. Otterman recalls an early-season practice when he tried to explain blocking assignments on a sweep and got blank looks from half the team. Says Otterman, "Sometimes I go berserk because I tell them to do something and nothing happens. I mean, I knew this stuff when I was in second grade! The kids have to come to me and say, 'Coach, you think we know all this stuff, but we don't.' "
In their first year of football, the inexperienced Hopi Bruins went 3-7 in Arizona's Class 2A North Conference, which includes schools with enrollments between 300 and 600. (Hopi High has 308 students, some of whom live at the edges of the reservation, 45 miles away.) Last year, because of two fine pass catchers who have since left the school, the Bruins improved to 6-4. This year, despite having to play all of their games on the road because their own field is unfit to play on, the Hopis finished 4-4. For a desert people with no football tradition, the results should be gratifying, a source of tribal pride.
But skeptics ask: Why football? Much of the game's essence—particularly the emphasis on hitting, emotionalism and total commitment to victory—contradicts 850 years of Hopi culture and religion. The mesas themselves, flat-topped hills upon which the Hopis have lived since about 1125 A.D., testify to the tribe's historically peaceful nature. The mesas' cliff walls once provided refuge from marauding tribes and Spanish conquistadors and still give privacy for certain traditional dances (actually religious ceremonies) performed in underground chambers, called kivas. The Hopis are noted for their ceremonies, their art—kachina dolls, pottery and jewelry—and their spirituality. They are not noted for their linebackers.
"They aren't used to our win-at-all-costs, beat-the-other-man mentality." says Otterman. "Their understanding of life, of what it means to be a good Hopi, goes against what it takes to be a good football player."