Friday night at 7 p.m., 70 alumni of the Juneau football programs put on their jerseys and took to the field. On the sidelines and stands were roughly 3,500 wives, moms, and even grandmas sporting the players’ letterman jackets as well as their kids watching them in the Juneau Alumni Football Game at Adair-Kennedy Memorial Field.
The Juneau Alumni Football Game was the brainchild of Juneau Huskies head coach Rich Sjoroos. He felt inspired to create the unique fundraiser after watching “Old Man Football,” a documentary about a Texas football program that held an alumni game to honor a deceased former player.
Sjoroos, 49, coached the Crimson Bears from 2001-2013, and served as the head coach from 2009-2013. The two teams were the Stars and the Legends, and of the 70 alumni who participated, Sjoroos coached 52.
The goal of the game was to raise $15,000 for the Juneau Huskies football program, and while the grand total raised is not yet official, Sjoroos said the event raised well above their goal before the game started.
It was a low-scoring game of 10-7, with the Legends winning. The two teams went into halftime tied at 7-7, but the game was ultimately decided by a field goal late in fourth quarter. Sjoroos said he enjoyed seeing the balance of competition and fun.
“They had to feel each other out and get comfortable again,” Sjoroos said. “It reminded me of an early high school season football game, but early second quarter they settled in and started to make good drives and plays, and turning loose on the hitting.”
The game was also filmed by NFL Films, who after being contacted by alumni player Trevor League, came back to Juneau for the game almost 25 years after the program “Football in America,” that featured JDHS football in 1995, which originally looked at the challenges of developing a football program in Alaska, like having to play on dirt fields.
Senior Producer for NFL Films Matt Dissinger was initially attracted to making a film about football in the capital city given its geographic location. However, as the film crew dug deeper they learned how the challenges the team faces with travel and fundraising tell the story of the community’s commitment to the game.
“We heard about 18- to 20-hour ferry rides, which is insane thing to overcome, and the fact that they are able to keep the program up and running, we just find it really unique. The fact that the kids participate in their own fundraising to keep the program going, is a story worth telling,” Dissinger said.
The game has united generations of Juneau football players which Tommy Penrose, 41, has really enjoyed.
“I am excited to go out and play with some of these guys that I have never played with, and how I will shape up with them or how they will shape up with me,” he said an hour before the game.
Penrose graduated in 1996 and was one of the players featured in the original 1995 NFL film. Today he now works for Hecla Mining Company at Greens Creek Mine.
While Penrose was excited to take the field with his Juneau “brothers,” his father Dan Penrose vividly remembered the last time NFL Films was in Juneau filming.
“[The film] is good for Juneau, good for Juneau football,” he said. “I swell with pride that our little town can attract national attention.”
As the game started, Dan Penrose described watching his son in uniform and take his position on the field — now green not dirt — as a “flash from the past.” When Tommy was in high school Dan attended every game. Now he was doing it again almost 25 years later.
“When people asked me if Tommy was playing tonight I would smile and say, ‘Yeah, he’s playing, alright,’” he said with a easy smile.
As coaches Chris Connally, 37, Marcos Morehouse, 43, Zach Starband, 30, and Michael Behrends, 39, the men would always tell their players how lucky they are to be able to play. Playing in the alumni game allowed them to not only play with some of the kids they have coached, but show the kids they currently coach that they know what they are talking about.
Lino Jr. Fenumiai, 11, and Liah Aiden, 9, took pride in watching their father, Lino Fenumiai, 37, play after hearing his stories of playing high school then college football their whole lives. Their pride was apparent as they followed him around during halftime and after the game, but expressed some surprise after seeing him on the field.
“We have never seen him move that fast before,” they said.
Lino Fenumiai graduated from JDHS in 2000 and went on to play at Western Washington University. Getting back into uniform on Friday was surreal for Fenumiai but having his kids and wife in the stands watching were his motivation to get back on the field.
“Today it finally hit me, it brings me back to the good old days, my kids and wife get to see me play after hearing the stories, now they can see it live,” he said.
The NFL Films production is estimated to be aired sometime in the fall and Dissinger hopes viewers watch and appreciate the the little things they have available to them.
“I want them to think this is awesome, and that is how much the community cares and supports them with things kids all over the country take for granted,” Dissinger said.
• Erin Laughlin is a freelance writer for the Juneau Empire.