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2021 Indigenous Bowl Provides Great Opportunity | SportsEngine

In early December, Easton Laster and Rocco Clark had the same sobering reaction when they stepped onto the turf at U.S. Bank Stadium, home of the Minnesota Vikings.

They never imagined such an opportunity.

"Just walking on an NFL field and then running around it," Clark says, "it's truly an honor because a lot of people don't get to do that. This is something I'd never dreamed of."

Added Laster, "When I walked out from the entrance, it was such a humbling experience and intimidating to look at the stands and imagine them full."

Both Native-American young men arrived to play in the 2021 Indigenous Bowl, an event open to high school seniors of American-Indian descent that provides the opportunity for them to showcase their talents and develop skills needed to take their competition to the next level. The gravity of the moment brought both of the young athletes to the verge of tears. 

Bennae Calac, the executive director of the 7G Foundation, which has hosted the Indigenous Bowl since 2017, was inspired to action by the struggles of her own children: talented athletes who were not garnering much attention from colleges. So Calac's emotions overwhelmed her when she too arrived at U.S. Bank Stadium alongside her daughter Malia, to watch 60 student-athletes from 30 different Native tribes in the U.S. and Canada prepare for a tour of one of the NFL's newest—and most admired—stadia.

"It's exciting," she said, "and I'm going to tell you that I walked on the field today, and I started crying. I told my daughter, 'Look at all that stuff that you and Edward had to go through..."

More than a game

Laster's parents' roots are connected to the Ho-Chunk and Oneida nations, and he grew up in Green Bay, Wisconsin. As a boy, Laster didn't like sports, and he spent most of his time obsessed with video games.

When he was in fifth grade, his father approached him with a deal.

"Go and play football for one season, then I won't talk to you about physical activity or sports again."

Laster agreed, fully convinced he'd stop as soon as the season ended.

"I was dealing with some mental struggles," Laster said, "and I was just sitting on my bed, playing video games, going nowhere in life. But when he gave me the choice to stop (after the season), I said, 'No, I love this game!' I have such a huge passion for football, and I'm happy my dad put me on the right path."

Laster has also participated in basketball and lacrosse, but he shines as an offensive and defensive lineman on the football field. Despite his passion for the game, he has had limited experiences with it from a fan perspective. Though the Green Bay Packers are close to home, Laster has never been able to experience a game at Lambeau Field.  This month, Laster's trip to Vikings' country was the furthest he'd ventured from home.

The opportunity wasn't just about playing in the Indigenous Bowl. The 7G Foundation, which strives to develop Native-American leaders through education, athletics, culture, and real-world support for the next seven generations, lined up cultural and local visits, as well as speakers and informational sessions on important subjects such as finance. Highlights included a discussion with Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan Page, a Hall of Fame defensive lineman for the Vikings, and visits to the American Indian Center in Minneapolis and, of course, the Mall of America in nearby Bloomington.

"I've just been thriving in this program!" Laster said. "All the coaches, all the volunteers have been helping me, and I've been picking their brain, asking questions. This is the best advice I've gotten in my life."

Clark's roots are in the Yakima Nation and Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate. He grew up in Washington state, in a home where football was loved.

"I always thought football was super interesting, just a super cool sport," he said. "Then as soon as I turned seven, my dad got me into the youth (football) program."

After just a few weeks, Clark started to feel comfortable and confident in the sport, mainly playing center. It didn't hurt that he was almost always one of the biggest kids on his team. He also excels as a wrestler and was undefeated for Toppenish High School last year before the state tournament was canceled due to COVID-19 concerns.

"This year, I'll be coming in bigger and stronger," Clark said.

He said he's humbled by all the experiences at the Indigenous Bowl, including the pep talks from coaches and the chances to get to know other athletes from other tribes and communities throughout the continent. He and Laster both marveled at the generosity of the Vikings, which provided a tour of U.S. Bank Stadium along with cleats and gloves for each of the players.

"It's truly a blessing," Clark said, "and I'm never going to take any of it for granted."

Inspired Leaders

Calac's son and daughter were standout athletes, earning a lot of "first" distinctions in their community. Calac, a member of the Pauma Band of Luiseño Indian of Pauma Valley, California, encouraged them to shine both academically and athletically. Her son Edward in particular had strong aspirations to participate in collegiate football, and he had a high GPA, served in student government, and was named a captain of his team as a junior. He even edited and emailed coaches his own highlight clips.

But Edward got no traction.

Calac candidly asked a recruiter why her son wasn't drawing any interest.

"He goes, 'We just don't know where to find the Native students-athletes, and—I'm sorry to say—we just don't know you guys as athletes,' " Calac recalled. "I said, 'No, I'm glad you said that because that's what I'm going to change.' "

The defining moment of inspiration came in a conversation Calac later had with Edward. Frustrated with the lack of interest, Edward broke down on the phone with her.

"Mama, what's wrong with me?" Edward asked her. "I've got the size, I've got the talent, and I'm doing everything that the non-Indian people are. Why isn't anyone talking to me?"

Calac recognized that the challenge wasn't a unique one, especially since many Native athletes are in rural communities. She created the 7G Foundation and developed programming and fostered impactful relationships. The first Indigenous Bowl was played in 2017, with Native student-athletes spending time at the Soboba Band of Luiseno Indians' reservation near San Jacinto, California. The game wasn't held last year due to COVID, but the NFL stepped up to host the Indigenous Bowl in 2021 and 2022.

We are proud of our long-term support and partnership with the Native American community in Minnesota,” Vikings co-owner Mark Wilf said in a statement. We look forward to hosting the Indigenous Bowl at U.S. Bank Stadium and to welcoming these players, coaches, and fans to our community.”

Jerry Racine played in a Native-American All-Star game in 2004, and he was grateful that it opened up opportunities for him. A graduate of Browning High School in Montana, Racine went on to play college football at Haskell Indian Nations University in Kansas as a running back. When he eventually returned home, Racine sought to provide Native youth opportunities to grow and develop through football.

"I try to instill that dedication and hard work and talk to them about being a better human," said Racine, a successful high school coach who also coaches one of the teams at this year's Indigenous Bowl. "It's just trying to make a more rounded person."

He loves the game, but Racine really appreciates the chance to build relationships with players and other coaches.

"I've gained so many brothers," he says, "and we've become really tight and feed off of each other."

Calac was nervous hours before an event on the eve of the 2021 Indigenous Bowl. That's because her son Edward, an offensive lineman at Colorado Mesa University, was one of the featured speakers.

He has big aspirations in football, just like Clark and Laster. But all three young men are thinking about a bigger picture.

Clark, for instance, wants to teach English, and Laster hopes to follow in his father's footsteps.

"He's my main role model," Laster said, "the one who took me out that swamp I was in. I want to be a manager anywhere I can."

Playing in the NFL? For all three, the barriers and challenges feel so daunting.

It's those barriers that keep pushing Calac, even when she herself faces adversity.

"People always go, 'Bennae, you can't save the world.' But you know what? I'm going to do something about it. And I'm going to say this to you, as well. Thank you. Thank you so much for listening. Thank you so much for caring."

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