While all championship-winning teams and seasons are one of a kind, the 2021 Division I Alaska state football champions are in an especially unique position because of what they had to endure and overcome along the way.
On Friday night at Service High School, the Bettye Davis East Anchorage High School Thunderbirds captured the program’s fourth state title in the last six years with a 30-17 trouncing of the Juneau Huskies.
“Every one is different, but this is special because this (season) was tough,” East High coach Jeff Trotter said. “We had a rough year.”
The Thunderbirds this year experienced much greater adversity than the typical run-of-the-mill injuries or humbling defeat.
Before the season started, the Thunderbirds lost a projected starter for the year due to a bone cancer diagnosis.
Junior wide receiver Paula Seluini was one the best players on the Thunderbirds’ junior varsity team last year and was going to be featured heavily in his first year on varsity. Then he was diagnosed with cancer over the summer.
Seluini has spent the entire season in Seattle, where he’s receiving aggressive rounds of chemotherapy. The Thunderbirds brought his No. 81 jersey out for every game and video-called him in the hospital.
“We get him on FaceTime at the school, FaceTime after, and we bring his jersey with us everywhere,” Trotter said.
Trotter said that early on, he’d encouraged Seluini to get his hip checked out. The tumor that was discovered in Seluini’s hip was so severe that he had to get a hip replacement.
“He called me in June and it was bad news,” Trotter said. “He said he had hip pain, and I’m a medical guy, and I said ‘I don’t like how this sounds, especially at your age.’ When he called me, he lost it, and I ended up sobbing in the parking lot.”
Since the program was severely understaffed in 2020 as a result of the pandemic, Trotter spent time coaching junior varsity last season and worked with Seluini personally. Trotter was excited for the opportunity to coach him at the varsity level before Seluini’s diagnosis upended their plans.
“He would’ve probably been a starter on this team and now he’s fighting,” Trotter said. “He’s a fighter and looks great. I hope he keeps it up.”
Trotter said the entire 2021 season has been about fighting through and overcoming the adversity of losing a beloved teammate for the year, and much more. East also had several players and coaches lose loved ones to COVID-19 over the course of the season, which coincided with a coronavirus surge that ramped up through late summer and sparked record case counts, hospitalizations and deaths in recent weeks.
“We had two dads die within the first three weeks of the season, a coach’s wife died and another coach’s sister died, all COVID related,” Trotter said. “Add in some aunts and uncles, it’s been a road, and it seems like every week, we’re dealing with it.”
Last week, Trotter had his players write down who they were playing for. Many of those pieces of paper contained the names of family members who had recently passed away.
“This has been the longest short season ever, and that’s who we’re playing for,” Trotter said. “That’s what this year has been about.”