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A Warrior's Game

Few in the U.S. Have Heard of Team Handball, but to Native American Athletes, It Could Mean a Shot at the Gold-- and a Chance to Triumph Over Hardship.

June 30, 1996|Duane Noriyuki | Duane Noriyuki is a staff writer for Life & Style

The students have gone home and the fragile April sun has dropped behind a jagged, snowcapped horizon on the Blackfeet Reservation in northern Montana. Jonson and Kyle Running Crane, cousins, wander into the high school gym and climb into the upper deck to get a better look at three men playing catch with a ball the size of a large cantaloupe.

Six-year-old Kyle tugs at a piece of green gum. No, he says, he has never seen this game. Seven-year-old Jonson nods his head in agreement. They watch the men run up and down the court, leaping high and hurling the white ball into a goal about twice as large as the one used in hockey.

Dan Foster stops play, picks up a ball and clutches it firmly in both hands, their knuckles scarred. "The ball is precious," he tells the players. "Always take care of the ball." For Foster this is something of a mantra that reflects not just the game's strategy but a larger philosophy.

Foster, an Oklahoma Cherokee, is director of mental health at Blackfeet Community Hospital in Browning, a town of 1,170 people. He and his wife, Becky Crawford-Foster, also a psychologist, and their three children have lived on the reservation for two years. When addressing his players, he walks up to them or asks that they move in closer. He chooses his words carefully, often pausing between sentences. He doesn't blow a whistle. He never shouts.

If you were choosing sides for a pickup basketball game, you would want Foster on your team. Although he is 46 years old and his ponytail is graying, he still has the spring and build of an athlete. Six feet two and 225 pounds, he has only put on 20 pounds since college. Off the court, he smiles easily; he has a natural gift for putting people at ease. On the court, though, he is grim-faced and tenacious, moving swiftly with powerful strides when open, battling hard in a crowd of swarming bodies.

There is a similar dichotomy within this game, team handball. "It's part roughness, part finesse," Foster says, explaining why he was drawn to the sport in 1971 while serving in the Army. He was training as a wrestler, attempting to qualify for the Pan American Games, and after practice he would drift over to watch friends play team handball. They invited him to do drills, and he found himself drawn to the contact, the calculated brick-wall picks that can knock the air out of an opponent, as well as the grace, catching the ball on a dead run, leaping straight up and hanging weightless in the air, waiting for the precise moment to cleanly fire off a shot.

Popular in Europe (and increasingly in Asia and South America), team handball is played over two 30-minute halves with six players and a goalie on a court somewhat larger than that for basketball. The object is to throw the ball into the goal and prevent the opponent from doing the same. More contact is allowed and required than in basketball. It is water polo without water.

Just before leaving the military, Foster was invited to compete with an all-Army team at the national team handball tournament. He caught the attention of the U.S. team and was invited to train for the 1972 Olympics in Munich, but a month before the Games, he brokea bone in his foot and ended up serving as an alternate. For 11 years, Foster played on the U.S. team, competing in such countries as France, Germany and Argentina. In 1994, John EagleDay, a member of the Bannock tribe in Idaho, asked if he would coach team handball for the Native American Sports Council.

The sports council had been a dream of EagleDay's for 15 years. A former college football and rugby player, he worked eight years counseling Native American community college students in Washington state and developed youth leadership programs that incorporated ancient native games. He was searching, he says, for a way to integrate traditional Native American games into the contemporary world of sports. He envisions the council having two functions: to develop Native American athletes for Olympic competition and to train coaches to conduct community sports programs. In doing so, he hopes to revivify the spiritual role sports played in native cultures.

By January, 1993, he had put together a board of directors (including Republican Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado and 1964 Olympic gold medalist Billy Mills, among others) and had raised enough money so that he could approach the U.S. Olympic Committee with a proposal. "What I said, I don't recall. I believe the spirit was moving," he says. "I believe it was a time and place . . . to come to an understanding that the sovereign tribes of this continent have been excluded for too long in allowing their communities to have access in an official way to the opportunities that could be provided through the Olympic Committee."

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