When one thinks of great Native athletes like Jim Thorpe and Billy Mills, it’s hard to believe that there are not more Native American football players playing in college, let alone the NFL. Although the College Football Bowl season is now upon us, one football bowl game was already played — the Fourth Annual Indigenous Bowl, a one-of-a-kind sports event devoted to inspiring young Native Americans.
Unlike those of the Rose, Sugar or Fiesta variety, this game was made up of all-star caliber Native American high school seniors, all part of an effort to offer them a unique opportunity to play in a professional sports atmosphere as a confidence-building measure to inspire young athletes.
Unlike in years past, the 2021 Indigenous Bowl was particularly special because the NFL and the Minnesota Vikings supported it. Without question, their sponsorship made this Bowl game something memorable for this select group of young athletes. The vast majority of the 62 Native Americans hand-picked for this game came from all over the United States, representing well over 30 tribal nations, including one native player from Canada.
Once selected through a competitive process, the players embarked to Minneapolis on Dec. 1 to prepare offensively and defensively for the Dec. 5 game. Before this, these players had never even traveled to another state to play a football game. None of them had ever played in a professional sports stadium like U.S. Bank Field, home of the Minnesota Vikings. Once they arrived, the teams were divided between gold and purple out of respect to the host’s colors.
Although football is a big part of the Indigenous Bowl, it is also an important educational and inspirational tool and a model that could and should be replicated throughout the nation.
During the short week with the players, the host 7G Foundation and its leadership of CEO Bennae Calac, Warren Tauanuu and Mike Stopp inspired culture, respect, self-confidence and leadership.
Their presence helped create an atmosphere of encouragement and inspiration as many amazing speakers spoke during the week on subjects including financial literacy, culture, education, positive reinforcement, history and, of course, football.
Former NFL tight end Derek Fine, an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation, preached that football teaches life lessons and drew upon his own experiences to illustrate how some of sports most fundamental principles: self-determination, endurance and teamwork, and how such qualities can help position these young student-athletes on a path to both victory and life success.
“It’s never going to be easy, but as long as you have heart, you will find a way to finish your goals,” Mr. Fine told his young audience.
“Fear kills more dreams than failure ever will,” said Robert Johnson, former Morgan State University All-American Football player and Head Football Coach in Pikesville, Maryland.
For these young student-athletes, this was the experience of a lifetime. It was a unique opportunity to showcase their football talents in a forum that traditionally has not been recruited well at the college levels and a chance to prove themselves to professional sports athletes they have long admired and emulated.
Suppose this model is replicated and other sports teams make the same generous contribution the Vikings did. In that case, the opportunity given to these future leaders to perform could create a viral trend of inspiration for young amateurs across the nation. What could be better than that?
The 62 Native Americans who participated that day played with all their hearts by giving it their all. In the end, the gold team won 18-14, but everyone went home a winner.
• T. Michael Andrews is SVP at McGuireWoods Consulting Federal Practice and is the former staff director and chief counsel for the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.
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