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Play by play, Navajo style

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – When The New York Times, USA Today, ESPN and Fox Sports Network were all calling him, “it was the coolest time,” recalls history-making football announcer Cuyler Frank, Diné, “but hectic.”

“I was even a Jeopardy question.”

In high school, Frank had been on his way to making his name in another sport – bull riding. But a car accident one night stole not only championship dreams, but his will to live.

Now his voice is heard across the Navajo nation, broadcasting New Mexico State University Aggies football games in Navajo. On Nov. 15, a Southeastern Conference game will be aired in Navajo for the first time when Frank sits in the booth of the Louisiana State University Tigers.

The groundbreaking sound of the collegiate play-by-play reaching the reservation in the Native language captivated the attention of the mass media in 2005. “It was Sept. 23, 2005” – Frank lists the date by heart – when New Mexico State became the first university to broadcast a game in Navajo.

The event also made national news because the announcer was a young man who had overcome the grip of a crippling despair at being placed in a wheelchair at age 18. His work made an even better story when the big networks mentioned that many Native languages were in danger of disappearing: here was someone from the tiny rural town of Blackhouse Valley going the whole nine yards to help preserve his.

But, really, calling the plays in Navajo was something he had done for his family and friends since he was a kid, cracking them up with a free flow of one-liners into a mock microphone. He never dreamed he would someday get paid for announcing sports.

Then, for two years after the accident, he couldn’t dream of anything.

“There was a time in my life when I thought, ‘Man, I’m not going to ever be better than this, and I’m reduced to a wheelchair,’” he said.

He had also been one of his high school’s best cross country runners. Told there was a slim chance of ever walking again, he used alcohol and drugs to escape.

Without the intervention and prayers of loved ones, Frank says he might not have gone on. Today, he encourages young people to “never give up” and never lose sight of their dreams.”

“The one message that I want to get out there,” said Frank, now a 32-year-old who wants to write a book about his experience, “is that the human spirit does find its own way to adapt, to recover.

“What my father made me realize, after I was holding a gun to my head, was that my life was so important to them. I wanted them to know that their prayers and thoughts of me becoming a better person were always going to be carried on,” he said. His father told him that education was a good option.

“What kept me going was that I was young, and there was so much left for me to do.”

Now it’s a high point when NMSU head football coach Hal Mumme says about Frank: “Cuyler Frank is a great, enthusiastic and energetic person. He has a unique sense of humor that always carries the day. We really appreciate his work and for bringing football into the Navajo Nation.”

As a student at NMSU, Frank was producing agricultural how-to videos in Navajo when then-Associate Athletic Director Sean Johnson took notice.

“He said, ‘What language is that?’” Frank recalls. “He said, ‘Wow, would you be interested in doing a game for the Aggies in Navajo?’”

Frank handled the details to get the broadcasts started.

“I look at it as a way of revitalizing and preserving our language. I think that it would encourage the youth and probably encourage other tribes to speak their language more and to get involved with something like sports.”

Growing up 30 miles south of Shiprock, Frank and his family hauled their own water, gathered firewood and spoke the Navajo language. His grandfather, Ben Frank, encouraged the speaking to continue.

“My grandfather said that if you know the language, your clan, where you’re from, that’s the foundation of who you are. And that’s how we identify ourselves, as Diné Hastiin, Navajo man,” Frank said.

Ironically, the dual reality that American Indians face is that English advances students to the jobs that are off the reservation. Frank entered Diné College on the Navajo Nation after intense physical therapy at Craig Hospital in Denver. He went on to earn a communications degree from NMSU. As the guidance and recruitment coordinator for NMSU’s American Indian Program, Frank now helps students “find the resources to succeed” using the programs on campus.

“Our Native youth are what is important. We need to get them up to speed, get them going to colleges, get them recognized, help them become professional citizens.”

It was former NMSU President Michael V. Martin – now the LSU chancellor – who invited Frank to broadcast the upcoming LSU game.

Martin added that institutions of higher learning “have to reach out and make universities much more accessible and in many ways much more welcoming to American Indian kids than they have, for many of them. … I think Cuyler’s now part of that solution, having been through it. He’s working in the American Indian Program office, he’s out recruiting, he’s counseling, he’s organizing students and he’s serving as a role model and mentor.”

The Aggie Sports Network – Navajo goes out over radio stations KNDN-AM 960 in Farmington and KGAK–AM 1330 in Gallup.

As beautifully descriptive as the Navajo language is, football doesn’t translate easily because it wasn’t around when the language came to be. And so when the sportscaster reports a first down, he has to use more words and say the Navajo equivalent of, “they have 10 more yards to go to get four more tries.”

Frank loves “bringing it into the living room and making it happen for them.”