Thunder starts quietly at Fond du Lac College

CLOQUET, Minn. - When Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College began recruiting for its first-ever sports team, Andy Angell answered the call.

Angell, a Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa member had missed the opportunity to play football in high school, but on the fledgling intercollegiate team he got plenty of opportunity to play. He was a guard on both the offensive and defensive lines - in the same games.

''We had several players going both ways - offense and defense,'' said Tony DeLeon, coach of the new team, dubbed ''Thunder.''

The coach had only four and a half months to recruit and got about 47 interested students instead of the 60 for which he had hoped. Their ages ranged from 18 to 37.

At age 24, Angell ended up being the oldest team member who made it through to the end of the season.

''Being the oldest guy on the team, I knew I had to work extra hard,'' Angell said. ''It was really exciting to have something like this in my town. It adds a very lively atmosphere and more camaraderie between different cultures and different backgrounds.''

A few of the new team recruits came from as far away as Florida, South Carolina and Louisiana; and some, especially non-Indian minority students, were nervous about both the trip to Minnesota and to a reservation.

''They were coming up here not knowing what to expect,'' Angell said. He reassured his teammates that ''they're going to get the best because that's just how we are up North.''

''Everyone welcomed them,'' he said. ''I was proud of my community.''

Community pride and a broader opportunity at the college are the goals behind introducing sports into the Fond du Lac college program, said Athletic Director Larry Anderson, a member of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. Next year, women's softball will be introduced and perhaps other sports such as basketball.

''It's more about offering the whole college experience and the values,'' Anderson said. ''We had over 600 people at our first [home] game.''

Anderson emphasized that the sports additions, while drawing students from around the country, do not change the role of the tribal and community college: ''They're here as students first and athletes second.''

DeLeon, who taught in a local elementary school until getting the call to return to coaching, said community support bolstered the team during its first year even though they lost, often by narrow margins, all but one game. (That win had to be forfeited when the college discovered that one student was not eligible to play.)

While the team - just like the currently combined tribal and community college - represents both the Indian and non-Indian small-town communities, the Ojibwe culture is strongly felt.

''At Fond du Lac, we have a lot of pride in our college,'' said DeLeon. ''I've learned that in just one short year here. You definitely can feel the dedication and the pride in the culture.''

DeLeon said one accomplishment this year came in the comments by other team coaches and game officials. They frequently praised the attitude and deportment of the Thunder team members while marveling at the hearts of players who often took the field in both offensive and defensive plays.

During the coming year, DeLeon will visit local and regional schools, recruiting on and off reservations in Minnesota, neighboring states and beyond. He hopes to get enough players to eliminate those dual offensive-defensive roles.

As for Angell, his schedule next year in pursuing his bachelor's degree in business may not leave time for sports. But he's taking away more than football memories from this year's Thunder games. As president of the American Indian Business Leaders on campus, Angell helped to organize sales of team logo items. ''We wrote a business plan on everything that we sell,'' he said. (Angell also was the 2006 National Student of the Year Award recipient from the AIBL, a national organization supporting business education programs in colleges and universities.)

The team logo sales project will now be judged in a business association competition. The new team gave Angell those opportunities the college hoped to provide.

''I wore a lot of hats,'' Angell said of his football season, ''and helmets.''