Stacy Ross fought back the tears during an emotional phone call Sunday afternoon. The longtime Kodiak Football League volunteer delivered news that would have made any of the island’s toughest gridiron fans cry.
The Kodiak Football League has played its last down.
The decision to close the book on The Rock’s youth football league, which debuted in 1999, was decided by its five board members during a Friday meeting.
“We spent a lot of time mulling it over and weighing the pros and cons. It was not an easy decision,” said Ross, a KFL board member. “We just thank everyone for all their support over the years.”
Ross cited the lack of participants — players and volunteers — as the primary reason why the board chose to dissolve the two-decade-old league. This would have been the 21st season of the KFL — the 2020 season was canceled because of the pandemic.
Ross said that the league had seen a decrease in players for the past four seasons. In 2019, about 80 players were on five rosters — two Grizzly (middle school) and three Cubs (elementary school) teams. That’s a far cry from a decade ago when there were double the number of teams. She guessed that parents becoming educated on the risks of playing football — concussions and injuries — played a part in dwindling rosters.
“The numbers just are not there, and it is just not enough to run a league,” Ross said.
Volunteers have also been hard to find. The board used to have around a dozen members and coaches lined up to lead youths on the field. As players aged out, parents left and were not replaced. Stacy and her husband Mike Ross — the league president — are the exception. The couple started volunteering for the league more than a decade ago and have remained at the heart of the program.
“It wasn’t just about football for us. It was always trying to make the best men and women that we possibly could to strive for good sportsmanship. … I always joke that I have about 76 kids. I was in tears at the last meeting,” said Stacy Ross while glossing over the league’s volunteer and fundraising work done through the years.
Rich Walker wasn’t in the initial KFL developmental meetings in 1999, but he has been part of the league every year, either as a sponsor, coach, president or board member. His kids are some of the thousands who benefited from the program over the years. When the league started, the only youth programs on the island were Little League and Little Dribblers.
“It helped out a lot of kids that needed stability in their lives,” Walker said. “They needed something where they could spend their time building confidence — all the attributes that playing on a team gives you.”
KFL paved the way for Kodiak High School football, which came on board as a junior varsity program in 2002. A year later, the team was elevated to varsity status. KFL funded the high school team until a few years ago when the Kodiak Island Borough School District took over the program.
Some of the inaugural KFL players helped lead Kodiak High to three straight small-school state championship games from 2006 to 2008. In addition, the youth league turned into a tremendous feeder program for the prep squad.
The town was hungry for football. According to a Kodiak Daily Mirror article in 1999, more than 140 players took part in the inaugural season. More than 200 spectators witnessed the first football game at Joe Floyd Track and Field on Sept. 3, 1999 — Arctic Physical Therapy blanked Mack’s Maulers 19-0.
“The stands for KFL (games) were full of spectators and parents. I remember moms ringing the cowbells,” Walker said. “It was very exciting times.”
KFL was one of the driving forces behind the Baranof Park complex, which went through a multimillion-dollar renovation project in 2012. The installation of artificial turf on the football field was a game-changer for the island’s sports community. Before that, games were held at Woody Way Field and the muddy, uneven surface of Joe Floyd Track and Field.
“We used to have to hose them (the players) off after each game so they could go home,” Walker said.
Throughout the years, the league fielded all-star teams that traveled to the Mainland and hosted visiting teams. In 2012, KFL held a fundraising camp — funds went to the Baranof project — that featured four Seattle Seahawks players, two cheerleaders and a coach.
“None of us wanted to see it go away,” Walker said.
The City of Kodiak Parks and Recreation Department is creating a flag football league to fill the void of KFL. Corey Gronn, the department’s director, said the youth league will be starting at the end of August and will run through September. His department is hammering out the details of the league this week. He said that information should be posted on the city’s website and department’s Facebook page soon.
“The high school team needs a feeder program, and with the absence of a feeder program, the high school team would really struggle to field a team in a couple of years,” Gronn said. “We are hoping folks will see how fun flag football is, and maybe a new group of parents will want to start up a football league again.”
Kodiak High’s new head football coach, Taylor Masterson, said he would be helping the flag football league get off the ground and is a huge backer of teaching players how to play the game safely.
“If we can build football IQ and build momentum in getting more kids interested, I think that is what is most important,” Masterson said.
The coach mentioned the possibility of tackling camps or, in the future, half a season of flag football and half a season of tackle football. However, he did acknowledge how the loss of KFL would impact the high school program.
“It’s unfortunate we are not going to have the tackle. To some degree, I do think it is important that seventh and eighth graders are jumping into that,” Masterson said. “Otherwise, they come in as freshmen … and will be expected to play and will be playing against seniors.”
Ross said KFL will be donating some of its equipment to the high school program and will hold onto the rest of the gear — including helmets purchased in 2019 — in case a new league starts up.
“We cannot thank all of our supporters and volunteers from over the years enough,” Ross wrote in a post on the KFL’s Facebook page. “We have special places in our hearts for all of the players that have gone through the league, and we are privileged to see the young men and women they have become.”