When the week began, Casey Nichols noticed that several of the young visitors seemed a bit out of their element. But within the span of a few days, the participants would go from feeling a bit lost to feeling like they’d found something new.
Nichols, a Texas State University student from Red Oak, was a volunteer for the 2016 Native All-Star Football Classic at UT Arlington. Nichols, a member of the Acoma and the Three Affiliated, played in the all-star game in 2013 and has been helping out each summer since.
The game, held Saturday at Maverick Stadium, was the culmination of eight days of activities, including a tour of AT&T Stadium and a trip to a Texas Rangers game. The all-star game is for Native American football players who are 2016 high school graduates. This year’s event attracted athletes from Oklahoma, Mississippi, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Montana, South Dakota and North Dakota.
“A lot of them have never been off the reservation,” said Nichols, who created posters and other multimedia materials for the all-star game and also helped out with coaching. “I could see how it could be a shock coming to a bigger city. I heard one of the guys say, ‘I’m not used to this: all these guys around and all this noise.’ ”
Nichols, though, knows from experience what happens over the course of the all-star game preparation. The football players from differing Native American backgrounds form bonds with each other.
“At the end of the week, they’re best friends,” Nichols said. “We have guys crying on the way to the airport.”
Ty Killsfirst, a center from Lawton, Okla., is preparing for his freshman season playing football for Bacone College in Muskogee, Okla. Relaxing inside after a morning practice in the blazing sun, his enthusiasm wasn’t affected by the blistering heat.
“It’s cool,” said Killsfirst, a member of the Fort Sill Apache. “I like the atmosphere. It’s also awesome because it’s football.”
Shawn Shoemake, a 5-foot-1 running back from Choctaw, Miss., was ready to impress teams and coaches in the game — especially anyone who underestimated him because of his slight size. “We’ll see on Saturday,” Shoemake said.
Shoemake, a member of the Mississippi Choctaw, will continue his playing career at East Central Mississippi Community College. For some players, though, the Native All-Star Football Classic might be their last time to strap on shoulder pads and a helmet.
“Every time I go to a game like this as a coach you form a bond with these kids, you try to mentor them, try to spend some time with every kid,” said Eric Brock, who served as head coach of the Red Hawks team in the all-star game. “I ask them, ‘Hey, what are you going to do next year? What are your plans for the future?’ Ninety percent of them have a plan. If you run into a guy who doesn’t have a plan, you try to help him, encourage him to continue playing sports. It doesn’t matter what level.”
Brock, who is a member of the Santa Clara Pueblo and Laguna Pueblo, is the athletic director and an assistant football coach at Santa Fe Indian School in New Mexico. He was head coach at Haskell Indian Nations University when the all-star game was founded in 2002.
Brock participated in the early years of the all-star game, then came back last year to help Steve Cardwell of Dallas, who has brought the annual event to UTA. Cardwell is the founder of Native ReVision, a nonprofit that seeks to help at-risk Native American young people.
“They’re all-stars, so they have that intrinsic drive to succeed,” Brock said. “It’s our job to get them to play as a unit in the short time that we have.”
Graham Snelding, Brock’s predecessor as head coach at Haskell, served as an assistant coach for the Blue Eagles at this year’s all-star game. Snelding, a member of the Kaw, decided to pitch in at the all-star game after hearing from a lot of the game’s alumni and coaches about how much they gained from the experience.
“We come from different backgrounds, but yet we’re all Native,” said Snelding, the head football coach of Blackwell High School in Blackwell, Okla. “We get to understand the hardships they deal with and the hardships we deal with. Natives have to work together.”
The Arlington Steelers youth football league is registering players for its upcoming season. The first scrimmage is July 30.
Flag football (ages 5 and 6) is $150 and tackle (ages 7-12) is $175.
Information and registration: www.arlingtonsteelers.com.
The Optimist Club of Arlington is registering 10U and 12U baseball teams. Information: www.ocarltx.org.
YMCA summer sports camps
The Arlington YMCA will be hosting a summer soccer camp Aug. 8-11. The camp will cost $19 for members and $75 for program members and is for ages 5-14.
Soccer camp will be held at the Cooper Street YMCA.
Stephen English: email@example.com, @sbenglish74