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Football fervor returns to Northport

When LeRoy Key went to Northport last fall to spend a year as interim superintendent, he found a community that needed a jolt.

“From an outsider’s look, the student population was decreasing and there was no economy to speak of in the town,” Key said. “It was a small community that was decreasing. It seemed to me they needed something to stir up excitement, something positive.”

Key, who spent 30 of his 40-plus years in education as a superintendent, got his start as a football coach. Along the way, he founded a program at Friday Harbor on San Juan Island.

Key did some investigating and discovered that Northport once had a football team.

For the first time in almost 60 years, Northport will field a team Friday night when the Mustangs play host to Curlew in a nonleague game at 7 p.m.

“It captured the imagination of the kids and much of the community,” Key said. “Maybe, just maybe, it will help a little bit and breathe some new life. It has a chance to do some real good for not just the kids but for the teachers and community.”

The last football game played at Northport was in 1951. Four players off that team will be part of a ceremonial coin flip Friday.

After Key got the project under way, he handed it off to Erik Stark, Northport’s head boys basketball coach and athletic director.

“He told me ‘I got it started, you finish it’,” Stark said.

So Stark immediately sent out pleas to surrounding schools in Eastern Washington, asking for donations of football equipment. Donations came in from University, Odessa, Inchelium. Sprague-Harrington, which split up this year to join other schools, sent uniforms.

“Sprague-Harrington’s colors were red and white,” Stark said. “We’re black and red. That was close enough.”

Northport had to purchase some equipment, including new helmets, for safety reasons.

“The stuff we had to buy we’re fund raising for,” Stark said.

Stark advertised for a head coach. This is where he felt like he was plain lucky.

Don Fox, a former head coach at Colville and Kettle Falls, applied. Fox, who had retired from education two years ago, wanted to return to coaching.

Fox, who lives south of Kettle Falls, drives 37 miles one way to Northport each day.

“I thought this would be a lot of fun,” Fox, 66, said. “The biggest challenge is it’s not Football 101, it’s Football 99. You can’t take anything for granted.”

In other words, Fox can’t assume his players – 18 of them – understand what he’s talking about.

Fullback David Higgins wasn’t sure what position he played.

“I don’t know the name of it, but it’s the spot right behind the quarterback,” Higgins said. “I don’t really know how to play. The coach tells me what to do and how to do it.”

Higgins has picked up fairly fast, though. In a jamboree Monday, he led Northport in tackles and sacks from his middle linebacker position.

Phil Johnson is one of two seniors on the team. A pitcher in baseball, Fox tabbed Johnson as his quarterback.

“I’ve always watched football on TV since I was a kid,” Johnson said. “I’ve always wanted to play. To be able to play my senior year is really exciting.”

A football field was measured out of the outfield area on the baseball field, which has lights. An old scoreboard from the high school gym is being installed.

Jerry Matteson, 75, and Fred Phillips, 78, both played on the final team at Northport. They will take part in the coin flip.

They don’t remember why football ended after the 1951 season. They both admitted their memories are foggy. But they did recall losing a lopsided game their final season to Metaline Falls, 106-6.

Fox told his players not to worry, that they won’t lose a game that bad.

“I told them the reason they won’t is there’s a 45-point mercy rule,” Fox said. “They didn’t know what that means.”

Still, Fox has high hopes.

“If the kids keep coming along we’re going to compete,” Fox said.