Teammates become competitors at Native all-star game

PULLMAN, Wash. – Martin Stadium on the Washington State University campus was the site of the 2009 Native All-Star Football Game. The crowd wasn’t huge, but enthusiasm was high on the field and in the stands, as some of the best Native American high school football players in the nation lined up against each other.

The game turned into a defensive battle with a final score of 7-0 favoring the white team. John Harjo, game director and member of the Creek Nation of Oklahoma, said rather than having an east versus west game, they had the two coaches alternately select players to build their teams, hoping to create equality.

Jim Sandusky, Colville, coached the red team and Bryan Raymond, Oklahoma Cherokee, coached the white team. Each team had four assistant coaches representing tribes from across the country.

Harjo talked of the selection process saying either the athletes or their coaches might have signed them up. “We go through video, talk to coaches, even talk to parents, making sure we get some good kids. It’s not really the best-of-the-best because some have already signed with Division I schools and their college coaches didn’t want them to play, but we have a lot of really good talent here anyway.”

Harjo said the selection of white and red teams created some interesting rivalry. In some cases, players who had played together all through school were suddenly facing off against each other. Cousins Gideon and Ashley Griggs from the White Mountain Apache Reservation were on opposing teams. “You can figure the rides home featured some serious trash talking. You know they’re going to be rubbing it in.”

The largest contingent of players came from the Oglala Lakota Tribe with eight athletes. Second in numbers was Choctaw with six. About 25 tribes were represented by the 53 players.

Steve Cardwell, owner and president of Brenco Industrial Services in Dallas, was one of the sponsors, and served as a judge to select the players to receive most valuable awards at the conclusion of the game. Cardwell is from the Cheyenne Nation in southern Oklahoma.

Midway through the game his enthusiasm likely represented what many others in the stands were feeling. “This event, by far, is the most incredible Native American athletic event I’ve ever seen.

“We are just so excited to be here. We can’t wait till next year to get the corporate sponsors involved in this. We are having a wonderful time – the Indian music playing. And it’s a hard hitting game. They’re knocking each other around pretty good. I couldn’t have asked for anything better. I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Harjo said the game has been going on for seven years and initially began as a recruiting tool for Haskell Indian Nations University. “When Coach Crock took over the football program the athletic budget was minimal, so this was a way to locate players they might need at Haskell.” It’s hoped that other coaches will attend these annual games; Harjo knew seven colleges watched the game last year in Mississippi.

Gideon Griggs’ father had similar comments when asked why he drove three athletes up from Arizona. “They want to continue on after high school at the college level. This is an opportunity to probably have a scout here or just word of mouth. Attending college is one of the main goals. Even if they don’t make the football team they just want to go on to college.”

A note from Coeur d’Alene Tribe Vice Chairman Ernie Stensgar was read over the loudspeakers: “The Coeur d’Alene Tribe has been honored to host the many athletes from the great Indian nations. It does our hearts good to see the sportsmanship and skill they have presented. The players have brought honor to their families and their tribes. We look forward to seeing them play at the college level.”

Gale Jefferson from Lummi High and Marty Old Horn, Crow, both wide receivers, were selected as offensive MVPs. Defensive MVPs were Matt Billy, Oklahoma Choctaw, a lineman, and Merlin Weaselhead, Colville, but a student at Lakeside High on the Coeur d’Alene Reservation, a defensive back. Game MVP, Joshua Mouse, Cherokee, quarterbacked the white team to the win.

“Trust me, this game will be on the map next year,” Cardwell said. “We’ll have at least six or seven sponsors.” No location has yet been selected; Dallas and Las Vegas are being considered.