Icing the kicker
PHOTOS BY MATT TUNSETH
Craig Lowe’s high school football career lasted only six games — perhaps just long enough for him to become a legend.
Duncan Shackelford didn’t know what to make of the skinny little kid with the big, shy smile and confident brown eyes. But the Chugiak High head football coach was intrigued when Craig Lowe first introduced himself with a brash proclamation last November.
“He comes up to me and goes, ‘Hey coach, I just want to let you know I’m going to be your new kicker next year,’” Shackelford recalled.
As head coach, Shackelford said he often hears from students who regale him with tales of undiscovered football talent.
“I wish I had a dollar for every kid that’s told me that,” he said.
Over the winter, Shackelford rarely saw the kid — for good reason. Craig Lowe wasn’t enrolled in school. Although he attended Chugiak High as a freshman and had lived in the town for nearly a decade, Lowe (then a junior) attended school at home, where his proud Christian mother administered a curriculum of clean morals, love of family and a strong belief in God.
But every once in a while, Shackelford would see Lowe hanging around the public school or working out with the football players after the bell rang. One day last winter, Lowe looked like he’d been working up a sweat as he walked in from the cold.
“He comes in one day, he was kinda limping a little bit and I go, ‘What’s wrong?’” Shackelford said. “And he goes, ‘Coach, I was outside kicking footballs. My feet get really cold, you know?’”
Shackelford didn’t know what to make of it. It was freezing outside.
“I go, ‘What do you mean you’ve been outside kicking?’”
Mary Vallieres is Lowe’s mother. She and her family moved to Chugiak 10 years ago from Chevak, a Cup’ik Eskimo village near the Bering Sea coast. Like many villages in the Bush, high school sports are popular in Chevak — Mary played basketball and ran cross-country for the Comets — but Western Alaska isn’t exactly West Texas.
“There’s no football out there,” she said.
So when Craig came to her a year ago and said he was going to try to become a placekicker on the local high school football team, she thought he was dreaming.
“I thought it was something he was doing to pass the time away,” she said.
But Craig wasn’t just killing time.
“First I watched a video, like, ‘How to Kick a Football,’” Craig remembered.
Next, he found a football and headed to nearby Chugiak Elementary, where at night he started knocking the old football back and forth across the school’s big, empty parking lot. Before long, the ball was jumping off his foot.
“I hit it right once and then I started to get it,” he said.
As winter descended, Lowe’s regimen ramped up. Whenever he could, he’d quiz Chugiak’s all-state senior, Bryan Maley, about technique. Sometimes, he’d sneak onto the turf at Tom Huffer Sr. Stadium and shovel off a patch of snow. Sometimes he used parking lots. Usually, he’d spend two or three hours a day kicking off the frozen ground — often with one or two of his five siblings tagging along.
Lowe’s mom said her son became obsessed with learning how to kick, and spent all winter honing his newfound skill.
“He’s been practicing in the rain, the snow, the cold, the dark…” she said.
Rather than being a hindrance, Lowe said the snow could actually be used to help steady the ball.
“We’d just pile up snow and put the football on it,” he said.
Before long, his old ball had become useless.
“I’d kick it and bumps would form on it so I had to get a new one,” he said.
When it came time to start practice this year, Shackelford said Craig was nowhere to be found.
“Then Tuesday he comes out and says, ‘Coach, I had to take care of my little brothers and sisters, but I’m here to kick,’” Shackelford said.
Shackelford’s defensive coordinator was running drills at the time, so the head coach — more out of curiosity than anything else — walked to the other end of the stadium and told Lowe to show him what he could do.
“I go, ‘Ok, show me an extra point,’” Shackelford said. “So he gets all stretched out and sets up his little stand and he goes back and goes up to the ball and ... Boom! Ball goes one bounce and over the fence. It split the uprights.”
Shackelford started moving Lowe back, and the skinny kid kept banging the ball through the posts — all the way to 46 yards out.
“I said, ‘You’re hired,’” Shackelford said.
When Lowe came home from practice, his mom said her boy was overjoyed.
“He comes home and says, ‘I’m the kicker!” Vallieres said.
Football is kind of a big deal at Chugiak, the second-smallest football school in the Anchorage School District. The Mustangs typically pride themselves on playing a scrappy, hard-hitting brand of ball-control football built around toughness and conditioning that Shackelford said is a reflection of the town’s character.
“We like to think of ourselves as a little blue-collar out here,” Shackelford said.
Chugiak’s night games draw big crowds to Huffer Stadium, which this season was chosen to host the Alaska state playoffs for all three classifications. Getting to be a part of the games, Lowe said, had been a dream of his.
“It felt real good,” he said. “Like all my hard work had paid off.”
Alongside his new teammates, Lowe proudly took the field as a Mustang for the first time on Aug. 13 as the starting kicker for the Chugiak varsity. It was one of the best moments of his life.
“I liked being on a team and having my teammates out there with me,” Lowe said.
Decked out in the team’s traditional white uniforms trimmed in black and blue and sporting a new pair of bright orange and blue kicking shoes, Lowe kicked off four times and went 1-for-2 on extra points in his debut, a 21-18 win over South Anchorage. Five weeks later — following a disappointing 21-14 loss to Dimond at Huffer Stadium — Lowe said kicking that first extra point against South had been the most memorable moment of his brief football career.
With Lowe serving as placekicker, the Mustangs went a disappointing 3-3 through their first six games and were fighting for one of the Cook Inlet Conference’s last playoff spots. Lowe started every game for Chugiak, booting 10 extra points and a pair of field goals.
Seeing Craig out on the field was a huge thrill for Mary, who showed up to games wearing Mustangs gear and joining in the team’s famous “Choo, choo, Chugiak!” cheer alongside the rest of the football parents.
“I’m in awe, because it’s like, ‘Wow, my son’s on the football team,’” she said. “This would have never been possible in Chevak.”
Following the Dimond loss, Chugiak was down — but not out — needing wins in its final two regular season games to clinch a playoff berth.
Then it all fell apart.
Homeschooled students are eligible to play high school sports, and many do. So because Lowe lived in the local area, Shackelford said he didn’t think much of the fact that the player wanted to come out for the team. Craig was an A student who Mary said attacked his schoolwork with the same zeal he approached his kicking.
“I don’t have to get him to do his work, he just does it,” she said.
Before the season began, Mary submitted the required transcripts and paid Craig’s activities fees, and her son’s eligibility was cleared with the Chugiak activities office.
It was a new experience for her. Although her eldest daughter, Sandra, had graduated from Chugiak, none of her children ever played sports.
“This was our first family sport,” she said.
Being unfamiliar with the process, she said she was led to believe Craig’s eligibility wasn’t an issue.
“The school thing didn’t even cross my mind,” she said.
For two months it didn’t cross anybody’s — until the Chugiak’s activities office got a call from an administrator at another school on Sept. 21 informing them Lowe’s paperwork should be checked. A few hours later, activities principal Kevin Theonnes gave head principal Sam Spinella some very bad news.
“He told me that he had heard and investigated and that it was true we had an ineligible player,” Spinella said.
In an emailed press release sent to Anchorage media outlets the next day, the school district said that because Lowe was not registered in the district, he should never have been ruled eligible to play for a district team.
“The district acknowledges the administrative mistake,” the release read.
There are two home school programs based in the Anchorage School District, but Lowe wasn’t taking his classes through either of them. Interior Distance Education of Alaska (IDEA), a statewide home school program based in the Interior town of Galena, administers Lowe’s education. Because IDEA is based in far-off Galena and not the Municipality of Anchorage, Lowe is considered a Galena student by the Anchorage School District. That means he’s ineligible to play for any ASD team.
That strikes Mary Vallieres as a bit odd.
“We do pay our taxes in Anchorage,” she said.
After hearing from Chugiak about the eligibility snafu, Alaska School Activities Association executive director Gary Matthews ruled the team had to forfeit all six games Lowe played in — including wins over South Anchorage, Eagle River and Colony.
“I didn’t have any options,” Matthews said.
Principal Spinella said Chugiak’s administrative staff should have caught the issue before the season. But with so much paperwork to deal with before the start of the fall season, Lowe’s didn’t get the attention it deserved.
“Unfortunately, human errors do occur,” Spinella said.
Shackelford said he understood how a mistake could be made. He said that in addition to the usual “mountain” of paperwork, administrators had the added burden this season of ensuring sure every high school athlete completed mandatory baseline concussion testing — a requirement the district added less than a month before the season began.
“When you think about all the things that that activities office has to deal with, it’s mind-boggling,” Shackelford said.
After hearing the bad news, Shackelford called his team together for a meeting none of them will ever forget.
“Toughest 10 minutes of my life,” Shackelford said of informing his team they’d have to forfeit their wins and give up on any dreams of making a late playoff surge.
Chugiak running back/defensive back Justin Schneider (with only about 30 players on the roster, most of Chugiak’s best players play both offense and defense) said the somber meeting with ‘Coach Shack’ was the low point of his football career.
“Like he ripped our hearts out,” Schneider said.
Senior tackle Kody Trombley, another captain, said nobody was more hurt than the skinny first-year player with the big smile.
“He took it real hard at the time,” Trombley said.
Lowe said the news was heartbreaking.
“I was devastated,” he said.
Lowe said he felt like he’d cost the team its season, and that all his kicks in the frozen winter air had been for naught.
“All that hard work down the drain…” he said.
Trombley said nobody was about to blame the kicker.
“We stood by him and said, ‘Hey, you got a bum deal, dude, and you’re still part of our team and we still love you and we still want you out here,” Trombley said.
The moment proved to be a turning point.
Chugiak still had two games remaining on its season, but without their conference wins over Eagle River and South (their third victory was over non conference Colony), the Mustangs would have no shot at the playoffs. Shackelford said he told the team they had two options.
“I told the kids, ‘You’ve got two roads you can go down. You can snuggle up on the couch and watch a good cartoon or you can go to work,” Shackelford recalled.
For the remaining players on the team, it was an easy choice.
“They went to work,” Shackelford said.
Although that afternoon was supposed to be a heavy conditioning day, Shackelford said he gave his team the option of skipping their usual practice-ending running routine.
“They said, ‘Let’s go to the hill, coach,’” he said.
Just two days after the forfeitures, Chugiak had to strap on the pads for a showdown with defending state champion West Anchorage at Anchorage Football Stadium. When they began warm-ups, Lowe was right there with them — wearing street clothes while holding for new kicker Chase Wilson.
Behind 138 yards and two touchdowns from Schneider, a touchdown pass from Dane Prince to Tyler Rohde and touchdown runs by Prince and Jake Wenzl, the Mustangs defeated the Eagles 34-32 to improve their official record to 1-6.
In the parking lot after the game, West coach Tim Davis walked up to Shackelford, who was about to board the team bus for the 20-minute ride back to Chugiak.
“I’m so proud of you guys,” Davis said to Shackelford.
Later, the third-year West coach explained why he had such admiration for a team that had just beaten his.
“Basically their season’s done, and they knew that,” Davis said. “And they came out and put a hurtin’ on us.”
Shackelford, who won two state championships at Dimond High before arriving at Chugiak in 2004, said the win over West was one of the most inspiring performances he’s seen on the gridiron.
“I’ve never been prouder of a group of young men,” he said.
Trombley said having Lowe on the sidelines for the game made a big difference.
“It was extremely important,” he said. “Craig’s conditioned with us, he’s practiced with us, he’s been there with us all year … it wasn’t his fault and we all know that and we feel for him.”
It wasn’t just the Chugiak players who embraced Lowe and his family in the days following the forfeitures. Craig’s mom said she was overwhelmed with positive words from her fellow parents.
“The support we’ve got from all the other Chugiak parents and the team has been wonderful,” she said.
Sandra Lowe said seeing the team welcome her little brother back onto the sidelines was touching.
“I don’t know what made me cry harder, finding out that he couldn’t play or seeing everybody out there around him,” she said.
Chugiak’s final game of the regular season was against East Anchorage on Oct. 1, again at Anchorage Football Stadium. Before the game, a group of about a dozen “Mustang Moms” gathered together for a group photo. Smiling right there with them was Mary Vallieres.
“I love Chugiak,” she said.
In the week leading up to the game, Chugiak’s administration said it planned to appeal ASAA’s decision at the governing body’s meeting in Anchorage on Oct. 3 — two days after the conclusion of the regular season. That meant that with a win over the T-Birds on Saturday and a win in their appeal the following Monday, Chugiak would be in the playoffs.
The Mustangs delivered their part of the bargain. After trailing 7-3 after two quarters, Chugiak put together a nearly perfect effort in the second half, holding the playoff-bound T-Birds to just 48 yards of offense while dominating the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball to claim a 24-7 win. They committed a season-low two penalties, Schneider and Ryan Harris scored rushing touchdowns, Kenny Pegues returned a fumble for a touchdown and Wilson nailed a 30-yard field goal.
Craig Lowe was right there with ‘em. He served as a ball boy during the final two games, tracking down wayward passes for referees while offering words of encouragement to his teammates on the sidelines between plays.
Shackelford said Lowe continued showing up at Chugiak practices even after he’d been officially taken off the roster and turned in his pads.
“And you know who he’s helping? He’s down there for 45 minutes helping our freshman kicker,” Shackelford said.
Near the end of Chugiak’s win over West, Lowe and 6-foot-6 lineman Steven Puterbaugh cut the tension by alternately blowing puffs of steam into the chilly night air.
“He’s just a great kid, man, a great kid,” Shackelford said.
Before the ASAA board’s decision, Shackelford said he hoped it would reverse the forfeitures and allow the Mustangs to continue their charge into the playoffs.
“It would be like a Disney movie,” he said.
Unfortunately for moviegoers, reality shut the door on Chugiak’s dream. In a unanimous vote, the ASAA board upheld Matthews’ decision despite impassioned pleas from Shackelford, Trombley, Spinella, booster club president Drema Fitzhugh and a letter of support from the Anchorage School District.
Officially, the Mustangs finished the 2011 football season 2-6 overall and 2-5 in the conference — in seventh place, one spot ahead of last-place Eagle River, whose only win was its forfeit over Chugiak. And as far as ASAA is concerned, Craig Lowe never kicked a ball in high school competition.
None of that seems to matter much to those who saw how Chugiak came together in the final weeks of the season.
“I believe things happen for a reason, and I think this has brought this team closer together,” Shackelford said. “It’s totally genuine the emotion they show when they see Craig.”
Although the 2011 team will go down in the history books as an also-ran, Shackelford said he’s never been prouder of a group of players.
“This last two weeks is to me what coaching’s about,” he said. “These guys stopped being players and started being young men.”
Shackelford said the thing that bothers him most about the situation is that Lowe put in so many hours of work just trying to earn a spot on the team.
“He was just about wanting to be the best he could be,” he said. “And that’s why we rewarded him with the job.”
Craig’s mom said she holds no ill for what happened with her son.
“We don’t have any anger or anything towards anybody,” she said. “People make mistakes.”
In fact, she said she firmly believes that more good than bad will result from what happened both on and off the football field this season.
“When I first found out, I told my son I believe something positive’s going to come out of this,” she said.
Lowe, 17, said he’s already found a positive in the season. His teammates.
“They were just so supportive of me,” he said.
After high school, Lowe isn’t likely to pursue a career in the NFL. Instead, he said he wants to become a police officer.
“I just like helping people out,” he said.
Following his speech to the ASAA board during Chugiak’s appeal, Shackelford took questions on how the eligibility issue arose in the first place. One of the board members inquired about Lowe, asking if he’d ever played on the team before the 2011 season.
“You’ve got to understand Craig…” he started.
The coach then told about his first meeting with Craig, about the skinny kid’s brash prediction, and about how Lowe taught himself the sport by toiling for endless hours in the snow. When he finished, Shackelford said Craig’s story was an example of what’s supposed to be good about high school sports.
“It made sense to me here at the end of this,” Shackelford said. “He came out to have fun. He came out to have a good time. He came out to kick the ball.”
Contact Matt Tunseth at 694-2727 or email@example.com