Local high school football play begins this week, with the first game for Chugiak’s Mustangs tomorrow (Friday) at East while Eagle River’s Wolves host Ketchikan Saturday afternoon. Both schools have their own artificial turf fields with lights.
That has not always been the case.
When Chugiak High School opened in the fall of 1964, the building was designed for 400 students. Built by the state, it was turned over to the Anchorage School District due to the creation of the Greater Anchorage Area Borough that year. Until passage by the Legislature of the Mandatory Borough Act in 1963, Chugiak-Eagle River had been an unincorporated area halfway between Anchorage and Palmer. Its population numbered fewer than 3,000 people. There were two schools for grades 1-8, the original one in Chugiak and a newer building in Eagle River. High school students were bussed to Anchorage, a situation that ended with opening of the new secondary school.
The original high school building is contained within the eastern portion of the present-day structure. Its multi-purpose room served as gymnasium, lunchroom and auditorium. The gym had bleachers on only one side. There were two hallways and a team-teaching room at the southern end of the building. That large room had tiers of seats rising from a small stage; it could be partitioned to allow up to four classes to be conducted at one time. There was no playground.
There was in fact no landscaping of any kind on the school grounds. In those days students did not have vehicles, so only a small parking lot for teachers was provided. School buses drove through the gravel driveway and pulled up in front of the single set of doors on the west side of the building. Rocks left from the construction littered the ground around the school. A large flat area was at the north end of the building, extending to the west where the on-site septic system had been installed. While it had been roughly graded, that area was covered with rocks and gravel.
Four parents who were concerned about the safety of their children made an appointment with School Superintendent Joe Montgomery. They asked that topsoil be added to a small portion of the cleared area and grass planted to allow students to have a place to run and let off steam without fear of suffering bodily harm.
“We are not going to build football stadia at the schools,” Montgomery stated flatly, ending the conversation. Football was not then a school sport, nor was it on the minds of the parents whose children would go on to graduate from the new school.
Over the years, sports facilities were strongly favored by residents who found governmental budgetary problems to be a problem. Always a do-it-yourself community, parents found ways to provide for needs. Hockey, for example, found a supporter in Bob Boehm, a survivor of World War II’s infamous Bataan Death March. He and Stanley Vrem set up forms on the school grounds, filled them with water and tended outdoor rinks where youngsters learned to skate.
Spurred by track coach Andy Kirk, volunteers later cleared an area on the east side of the new high building. An oval track was installed, complete with a small pond that transformed the track into a steeplechase course. It was highly popular with students from all the schools who competed there. A cross-country track soon appeared through the woods around the school. It proved to be one of the most popular in the area.
Then in 1969 came a new PE teacher, a man with a winsome smile, an explosive laugh and a love for football. Under a new superintendent and with more schools in the district, the sport was added to the list of approved extra-curricular activities. The fact that Chugiak had a limited number of students from which to choose, none of whom had ever played organized football, presented Coach Tom Huffer with an uphill battle. His practice field was inside the oval that fellow coach Kirk had secured, the steeplechase pond filled for safety reasons.
Huffer’s determination was contagious. Despite a decade of spirited but under-dog teams competing against bigger schools, parents enthusiastically supported the program. Chugiak High’s enrollment grew rapidly. The campus seemed permanently adorned with relocatable classroom outbuildings that took over the track and playing field. The original building grew like Topsy as additions were made in an effort to keep up with the area’s growth.
Supported by Principal Bill Kuhlman, a new football field was added, its grass lovingly tended under Huffer’s guidance. A strong booster club was formed, providing concessions and other fund-raising efforts. Bleachers and a press box appeared. Lights were added to allow use in the evenings. Artificial turf was added after maintenance of the grass was found to be more expensive.
In honor of his tenure—which included three championships in the Cook Inlet Conference, two state championships and three state runner-up positions—in 2010 the field was officially named Tom Huffer Sr. Stadium. Huffer was nominated this year to the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame. He is the longest-serving football coach in Alaska and has received many honors over a 19-year career. Now retired, he is a much-heralded fixture in Chugiak-Eagle River sports, actively supporting and encouraging all athletic venues in the area.
Early in the new millennium, Chugiak’s enrollment had grown beyond that of other district schools. It was decided to build another secondary school in the area. Eagle River High School opened in 2005 and had a practice field from the beginning. That feature came after strong urging from a booster club’s stadium committee, headed by Lora Reinbold. It now has a lighted playing field. With an enrollment of around 850 students, it has the same problems the older local school experienced in its first decade of competition. It does have an advantage, however, from the fact that its athletes have some experience from organized play in Pop Warner football. In addition, a portion of the school’s attendance area is from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson where students may have played Outside before coming to Alaska.
As a sport, football has spread throughout the state, with teams now representing schools from Utqiagvik in the northernmost area to Ketchikan in the southeast. That’s a spread equal roughly to the northern tip of Minnesota to the middle of Florida.
Several conferences have been created to afford geography as well as schools. The Alaska High School Athletic Association is attempting to balance competition as much as possible to accommodate differing enrollment numbers and widespread locations. In recent years, competition has been expanded to include interleague play with Outside teams.
Chugiak last year was placed in the five-team Railbelt Conference, playing alongside West Valley and Lathrop in the Fairbanks North Star Borough and Colony and Wasilla in the Mat-Su Borough. The Mustangs, formerly a part of the Cook Inlet Conference, won the Railbelt Conference title last year, its first in the new alignment.
The Mustangs open their season tomorrow night, Aug. 11, against the East High Thunderbirds. Their first home game will be the following Friday when the South Anchorage Wolverines come to Chugiak in a second go-round with former large-school conference rivals.
The Eagle River High School Wolves begin play Saturday when they host the Ketchikan High School Kings at 2 p.m.
In leagues for younger players, Alaska Pop Warner Football is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. The Eagle River Panthers are one of seven teams participating in that league. Their first game was scheduled last week and the season ends with championships Oct. 15. Players are selected based on age and weight, with five categories involved. A field at Eagle River Lions Park is their home.
Information on Pop Warner football can be found at www.alaskapopwarner.net.
Lee Jordan has been an Alaskan since 1949, moved to Chugiak in 1962 and in 2016 moved back to Anchorage. An Alaska history buff, he enjoys writing about the place where he did not want to be sent, but came to love. He has written four books on Alaska history and has a blog at www.byleejordan.com. To reach Lee Jordan, email: [email protected].