Alaska Native wins semi-pro football team franchise

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MIDDLETOWN, Conn. - Jeff Hurlburt is a busy guy.

The 27-year-old Alaska Native is married with four children. He's a full-time graduate student studying physical education at Central Connecticut State University. He also works full-time for the state as a mental health worker at Connecticut Valley Hospital: and now he's kicking off the first season of the newly created Middletown Spartans, a semi-pro football team in the New England Football League.

Hurlburt, a Dena'ina Athabascan whose family is from the village of Tyonek, Alaska, was recently awarded ownership of the NEFL expansion team by the league's board of directors.

The NEFL is the largest semi-pro football league in the country, with 38 teams in all six New England states and three different skill levels.

The award was the result of a competitive application process that involved showing financial support and recruiting a roster of around 60 players and a coaching staff - all dedicated volunteers with a competitive edge and love of the game.

But not only is Hurlburt the owner of the new team, he's also the general manager and a player.

''I always thought about doing this,'' Hurlburt told Indian Country Today.

Hurlburt, who was born and raised in Middletown, played football at Middletown High School and during his undergraduate years at Southern Connecticut State University, where he got a degree in business.

Recently, he has played football for another NEFL team - the Connecticut Thunder.

''It was good, but it was a 45-minute drive both ways for practice and games. I wanted to form a team with people from my own area, people I grew up with, people I went to school with,'' Hurlburt said.

A blitz of fliers at local colleges and gyms and a story in the Middletown Press helped recruit all the players he needs.

As excited as Hurlburt is about his new football venture, he is looking toward a future plan to move his family to Alaska and teach Native children.

''I think it'll be a really good experience for me working with Native children, many of whom are the same tribe, the same clan and being Alaska or Native American,'' Hurlburt said.

In 1997, Hurlburt's mother moved back to Tyonek. He has visited her several times and on one of the visits he decided to become a Native educator there.

''Our village is in the Alaska bush. The only way you can get there is by plane or boat. They still pretty much live a subsistence lifestyle. They still eat bear and moose and salmon. We plan on moving up there, I'm thinking in three years. This football team has been one of my dreams for many years, but I got into this physical education degree and my other dream is to work in the Anchorage school system as a Native teacher,'' Hurlburt said.

Like so many others living in two worlds, Hurlburt has an acute sense of ''home.''

''It's different, but of course Alaska feels like home to me. When I go to Alaska I meet people who are Athabascan, who are from Tyonek. I meet tribal members and it's like, this is my cousin, this is my uncle. The only time I see Indians in Connecticut is at the pow wows. I've been going to those my entire life. My mom would bring me to the pow wows from a very young age,'' Hurlburt said.

Hurlburt said he hopes he'll be a role model for young Alaskan Natives and American Indians.

''I'm taking a big risk [by taking on the football team]. But this was a dream of mine for years and I think my business degree gave me a bit of confidence so maybe it shows that anybody with hard work and discipline can achieve their goals. For the last couple of years my dream has been to move to Alaska and work with Alaskan and Native children. I've spent my entire life in Connecticut. I might go up there and get homesick, but it's something I need to do,'' Hurlburt said.

Right now Hurlburt is focusing on making a successful football team. ''Successful'' in this context doesn't mean ''money-making.''

''This is all about the love of the game. It's really organized and very competitive, but we're not playing for money; we're playing for fun, for pride, for where you live,'' Hurlburt said.

Nevertheless, it costs money to operate. No one, including Hurlburt, will be paid this season. Hurlburt estimated it will cost around $5,000 for the season's field rentals for practice, games and other expenses.

The players kick in $100 each to play on the team and will pay for their own equipment and health insurance.

There will be four home games and four games away, possibly a few scrimmages and, hopefully, the team will be in the playoffs and bring home the championship, Hurlburt said.

''I took out a $1,500 loan just to help with any expenses that come up. I'm just hoping for some local sponsorship and maybe some help from the Native American community,'' Hurlburt said.

The team is poised and ready to begin the season in July.

''My head coach and coaching staff are taking on a lot of the responsibility with my schedule being what it is. They know this is something I wanted to do for many years, and I picked a busy time to do it; but with the staff, the players who really want to play, and if some sponsors step up, this can really happen,'' Hurlburt said.

For more information about the team or to become a sponsor, e-mail Hurlburt at hurlburtjet@students.ccsu.edu or call (860) 347-3795 (home) or (860) 301-6915 (cell).