There’s been a subtle competition of sorts among NFL players in recent years.
When they introduce themselves on TV at the beginning of games, simply mentioning their college is no longer enough. First it was the nickname of their college. Then there were references to high schools, middle schools and Pop Warner programs. A few elementary schools even have received some recognition.
On Super Bowl Sunday, one member of the Packers can top them all:
“Daryn Colledge … North Pole.”
That’s right, the game that annually brags about how it is seen in all over the world -- this year’s version will be shown in nearly 250 countries and will be available to more than a billion viewers -- actually will have someone from one of the corners of globe this year.
Colledge grew up in North Pole, Alaska, a small community that’s on the outskirts of Fairbanks and roughly 150 miles from the Arctic Circle.
And while the town’s website will tell you it’s the only place “where the spirit of Christmas lives year ’round,” residents are eagerly awaiting a chance to claim a second day in the spotlight. On Super Bowl Sunday, they’ll have a chance to turn on the big game and see one of their own.
“It’s a big deal,” Mayor Doug Isaacson says. “We’re a small town of 2,200 and a close-knit community.
“When a North Pole guy makes it in any category, it’s a good thing and a big deal.”
Let’s get a few things straight about North Pole, Alaska.
For starters, it’s not actually located at the North Pole. (No one actually lives there; a weather/military station in Canada roughly 500 miles from true magnetic north is the closest inhabited spot. It listed five permanent residents in a 2006 census.)
North Pole, Alaska, is not even the northernmost city in the United States (that would be Barrow, Alaska, population 4,429). In fact, it’s about a dozen miles south of Fairbanks -- Alaska’s second-largest city.
But don’t be confused. It is the home of Santa Claus.
Or, at least, Kris Kringle, which is the name on the Alaska driver’s license of the man who works at the Santa Claus House. And while there are actual reindeer at the house (available for photos, of course), he does, in fact, need a license for when he rides his motorcycle in the balmy summers. (It gets close to triple-digits in North Pole -- trust us. More on that later.)
The town embraces its name. There are candy cane street signs, and road names that make it clear just where you are. The Santa Claus house is located on St. Nicholas Drive. City officials work on Snowman Lane. Blitzen and Donnor are street names. As is Mistletoe.
And if you’re looking for Santa Claus Lane, you’ve come to right place. It’s where you’ll find the post office. Yes, the one that really does get all those letters addressed to Santa -- “about 500,000 a year,” post office employee Dwight Sneed says.
Hokey? Not to the people of North Pole, a town that was incorporated in 1953 with hopes of becoming a center for the toy industry. That didn’t materialize, but the spirit of the season remains.
“Our kids have a good bit of pride in it,” says North Pole football coach Richard Henert. “They understand it’s a big piece of our community.”
Lately, so is football.
Three Thousand Fans In A Town Of 2,200
If you went to the sports section on the website of the Fairbanks Daily News this week, you would have found stories on the USA Curling Junior National Championships and a recap from the Alaska Dog Mushers Association Annamaet Challenge Series.
If you check out the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame, you’ll find plenty of references to the Iditarod Sled Dog race (Susan Butcher among others), skiing (Tommy Moe), hockey (Scott Gomez), even rowing (who knew, the first Alaskan to win an Olympic gold medal, Kris Thorsness, did it in the Summer Games).
And while locals will be quick to tell you that basketball (see Carlos Boozer and Trajan Langdon) is the state’s biggest sport, football is making inroads.
While there were some conference title games earlier, the first recognized high school football state championships didn’t take place until 1997. In 2000, schools were reorganized into small school and big school (enrollment of more than 750) classes. Presently, 31 schools offer football programs.
Games are a big deal. North Pole routinely draws 3,000 or so fans. Not bad for a town of just 2,200 (though more than 30,000 live within 15 miles of the town). There are pep rallies, cheerleaders, tailgates and standing-room only crowds.
The only difference is when the games are played.
The season starts in early August and ends in October. And while the skill level isn’t the same as the game played in the “Lower 48,” as they say, there is plenty of talent.
Colledge will not be the first Alaskan in the Super Bowl. He’s actually the third. Offensive guard Mark Schlereth of Anchorage played in three, winning each time -- twice with the Broncos and once with the Redskins. One of his victories came over a Falcons team that featured defensive tackle Travis Hall of Kenai.
And if the Packers didn’t make the Super Bowl, another Alaskan would have. Zack Bowman of Anchorage plays cornerback for the Bears. A third Alaskan -- Chris Kuper, also of Anchorage -- plays guard for the Broncos.
“We have some incredibly talented players up here,” says Isaiah Vreeman, an official with the Alaska School Activities Association. “The difference is that instead of having four or five on a team, there’s usually just one. But the best ones can play anywhere.”
Help From A Rival And The Blue-Turf Gang
Colledge -- and the man who inadvertently helped discover him -- are responsible for building the program at North Pole High.
Colledge was the shining star of the Class of 2000. Some would say he was the only star.
“We were struggling and building at that time,” says Walt Armstrong, the longtime athletic director at the school. “He definitely was a standout on the team, sort of a bright light in a dark period. He was one of the ones who really helped the other students take notice.”
Boise State did, too.
Legendary Alaska high school coach Buck Nystrom, then coaching at nearby Eielson High, sent game films of two of his players to Boise State. The Broncos weren’t interested in the Eielson kids, but coaches there couldn’t take their eyes off the dominating lineman on the other team. They offered Colledge a scholarship instead.
In 2001, Nystrom took over the program at North Pole and almost instantly made it a state power, leading the school to a state title in 2004.
Nystrom, also a member of the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame, passed away in 2006. His legacy, however, lives on in North Pole -- partly because of Colledge.
Colledge’s picture still is prevalent at the school, as is his presence. It’s common to find him talking with the current players when he returns to the area to visit family in the summer.
A school that struggled to produce a single team a decade ago now has three.
And Dane Ebanez, a 2009 grad of North Pole, was a redshirt freshman at the University of Oregon this fall, making North Pole one of the few schools to ever have an alum in the college national title game and the Super Bowl in the same season.
"I Wanted North Pole To Be Proud Of Me"
Eight Alaskans have been selected in the NFL draft. Colledge, a second-round pick (47th overall) in 2006, is the highest-ever selection.
He’s earned it. Colledge became a starter in the second game of his rookie year, and he has started 76 of the 80 games he’s been with the team, including every game the past three seasons. Last year, he was on the field for more than 97 percent of the offensive snaps.
He’s been just as good off the field. He was named the Packers’ 2009 nominee for the Walter Payton Man of the Year, the league award that recognizes off-the-field community service as well as playing excellence.
Last week, in the lead-up to the game, Colledge told his local paper that his work ethic and attitude trace back to his childhood home.
“You want people to be happy with what you’ve done and where you’ve come from,” he told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. “I’ve always worked hard in sports and in school. I wanted my parents to be proud of me; I worked so hard in college that I wanted North Pole to be proud of me, and I’ve worked so hard in the pros that I wanted Boise State to be proud of what I’ve done.”
That pride will be felt Sunday in North Pole, Alaska, more than 3,000 miles away from Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
And maybe on Monday, the town that never stops singing about “five golden rings” will have one more.
Colledge is also quite the enthusiast about tattoos, which prompted a question at Super Bowl Media Day:
Amazing Office Golf Shot