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In Alaska, football players must be tough

PROVO -- Mike Akers and Bill Jolin, teammates from Robert Service High School, are attending the annual BYU football camp this week. All the way from Alaska.

They left their igloos, drove their sled dogs to the airport, parked them at the long-term kennel and flew 2,100 miles to Salt Lake City. Then they drove to Provo, where they braced themselves for the inevitable questions. The moment the other campers find out they're from Alaska, they know what's coming."Stupid trash, like do we live in igloos and have sled dogs," says Akers. "We told some guys we wrestle polar bears. And they believed us."

Maybe we've all read too much Jack London. Akers says they have real cars and actual houses in Alaska. We'll take his word for it.

Akers and his six teammates have heard all this before. They're on a tour of football camps in the Lower 48 -- or "outside," as Alaskans say. "Outside" is anything beyond the borders of Alaska, as in, "We didn't play outside last year." But they're playing outside this summer. Some of the Alaskans also visited camps in Idaho State and Boise State, where they heard more of the same questions, so ignorance is not confined to Utah.

"We hear it everywhere," said Jolin.

Whew! It's good to know that everybody else is stupid, too.

To answer the other frequent questions: Alaska isn't part of Canada, so it's not as if they're visiting America, and, yes, they do have paved roads.

During this week's camp, the players from Service High were teamed with several players from Kahuku High. Only in football camp could you have kids from Alaska and Hawaii playing side by side. Some of the Alaskan and Hawaiian players asked to play on the same team, because Service High will go outside to play Kahuku on the Islands in August. Talk about a road trip.

They came to BYU this week to polish their games and get a look from college coaches -- at a cost of about $800, counting airfare and camp tuition. The BYU camp attracts about 1,000 boys over a two-week period. Boys from Alaska, Hawaii, Oklahoma, Texas, Georgia, Massachusetts, all of the Western states and beyond.

"It always amazes me," says BYU coach Chris Pella. "Some years we've had kids from Europe."

But this week it's the seven boys from Anchorage who get the most sky miles. So far, they've been less than impressed with football in the Lower 48. During a break in the camp, Akers had something he wanted to say about football in these parts, but he hesitated. He gave Jolin a sideways glance, started to say something again, then looked away.

"Well," he began again with prodding, "it doesn't seem like the teams play hard. They aren't as tough. At the last camp we went to, two teams left the field because they said we hit too hard."

"When they get beat on, they just leave the field," said Jolin.

Maybe it's the soft life here in the Lower 48. The Alaskan players have to be a little tougher. They're accustomed to hard hits. They get hit at least twice on every play -- the first by an opposing player, the second by the ground, which is frozen to the hardness of concrete.

In Alaska they have to start the season early and finish early to beat the serious snowfall. They begin in mid-August and finish in mid-October, and by the end they're playing in single-digit temperatures. To play a football game, sometimes they have to use a snowplow -- on the field. In Alaska, they call this time of year autumn. In the Lower 48 they have another name for this time of year: Basketball season.

You want tough? One year they nearly canceled the state championship game because snow and ice turned the playing field into a hockey rink. But the mayor of Anchorage ordered that the field be sprayed with de-icer -- the same stuff they spray on airplanes.

"Some of the players were a little burned by the fourth quarter, but the game was played," says Service coach John Hostetter, whose team is the two-time defending state champion.

The Alaskan contingent is only too glad to come south to show their stuff. "At one camp, our team was the best defensive team," says Jolin. "We want to prove we're good; we're not just Eskimos."

There are only 22 football-playing schools in the entire state, which includes the 21 schools that are on the road system, plus Juneau, which can't be reached except by boat or airplane. Juneau never has a road game; it's strictly land or sea games.

"Flying is a way of life in Alaska," says Hostetter. "They go outside a lot." Besides Hawaii, the Service team also will play in Seattle.

"It's a 10-hour flight to Salt Lake," said Akers. "The time change and the layovers kick your butter. But you get that wherever you go."

And it beats taking the sled dogs.