Football Among the Old Believers, in Alaska

But Zank had learned patience in this unincorporated village of about 50 or 60 families on the Kenai Peninsula, more than 200 miles south of Anchorage.

He could not expect high school football to be consuming here, the way it could be in Texas and the Deep South. Voznesenka has no gym and shares a playing field 45 minutes away in the fishing hub of Homer.

Zank improvised by constructing a weight room in his garage, where he also placed a wrestling mat for training. The Cougars had won only four games in four seasons, and the coach took his satisfaction from small improvements, a player’s awakening.

“Here,” he said, “it’s life with football on the side, not football with life on the side.”

Voznesenka is a community of Old Believers, a secluded offshoot of the Russian Orthodox Church that resisted reforms in the mid-17th century and still adheres to traditionalist worship, customs, dietary restrictions and styles of dress.

The local church, with its onion dome, sits next to the school. All students speak English and Russian. Depending on the strategy of a particular football game, placards are sometimes held aloft on the sideline, signaling plays in Cyrillic.

At the head of Kachemak Bay, the pavement ends. Gravel roads dip steeply through spruce forests and purple blossoms of fireweed to the Old Believer villages of Voznesenka, Razdolna and Kachemak Selo, which pool their athletes to sustain teams. Across the bay, glaciers sit atop mountains like alpine sand traps.

Isolation has been long pursued by Old Believers in places like Siberia, China, Brazil, Canada, Oregon and — beginning in the late 1960s — Alaska, as they sought to practice their faith, avoid persecution and escape unwanted influences from the outside world.

Voznesenka was established in 1985, and when the school got its first computer in the early 1990s, parents kept their children home for two weeks in protest, school officials said.

Gradually, as a younger generation had school-age children and technology became more vital to the fishing industry, many in the village began to welcome the internet, smartphones, television and sports — football, wrestling and hockey for boys and, most recently in a male-dominated society, soccer and cross-country for girls.

“The younger generation of parents want their kids to have the same opportunities as others and to be active,” said Efrocia Polushkin, a special-education aide who has worked at Voznesenka School for 29 years and has two sons who played football. “We have to grow with the times. We can’t keep our kids locked in drawers.”

• • •

The home opener was five days away, but only six players suited up for practice. Among the absent were those busy with home chores, butchering chickens or digging potatoes. Zank received a text message from Prokohpy Konev, 16, a junior wide receiver and defensive back: “Mom made me shovel out the chicken coop.”

It was drizzly with temperatures in the 50s. Practice was held at an elementary school 10 miles from Voznesenka. After two hours of drills, players ran around cones on an unmarked field, 25 to 30 seconds per lap, until they bent in exhaustion. Two players who had just returned from fishing, and were not yet in football shape, went into the bushes and threw up.

Nikit Anufriev, 18, a senior center and defensive end, was the biggest player on the field and the best conditioned. Once, he was so gangly that older boys shoved him into lockers. Now he had filled out to 6-feet-2, 190 pounds. While fishing over the summer, he jumped rope to stay fit and did push-ups and situps on the boat. He ran effortlessly, opening a gap on his teammates with each lap.

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Source: New York Times

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