HOULTON, Maine — It’s a debut eight years in the making.
On Wednesday, the progress was twofold. At the Maliseet Sports Complex, Masons from Monument Lodge No. 96 were volunteering time to construct a press box as part of their annual community betterment project.
Across town, some 35 student-athletes were going through drills in the late-afternoon sun, all the while looking forward to Sept. 5 when Houlton High School plays a varsity football game for the first time in more than six decades.
“It’s always been a big dream of mine to play high school football,” said Josh Upton, a senior running back and middle linebacker for the Shiretowners, who will compete in the Class D LTC ranks. “Watching high school football movies and seeing it in the news all the time, I always thought it would be great, and now we’re finally here and I can’t describe it. It’s awesome.”
Houlton, which first hosts Medomak Valley of Waldoboro in an exhibition contest at 4 p.m. Saturday, will play its first official varsity game the following Friday night at Orono before having its first home game against Washington Academy of East Machias under the lights on Sept. 12.
“It’s going to be unreal, an unbelievable feeling,” Upton said. “It’s what you see on TV all the time, and we’re going to be there.”
Aroostook County and Houlton are not without a gridiron history.
According to www.houltonshirefootball.com, Houlton High School fielded a football team in the Aroostook League during the first half of the 20th century until after World War II, when the agricultural workforce became depleted and students assumed many of those duties.
Because the annual fall harvest and football season coincided, there weren’t enough players available and the football program at Houlton High School was ended in 1950.
But football began to experience a resurgence in the County with the birth of the Aroostook Football League in 2003, which has hosted teams from the St. John Valley to midcoast Maine during its first decade of existence and evolved from an original six-on-six concept to eight-player football to today’s 11-player format.
The Houlton Knights joined the AFL in 2006 and quickly experienced success under Brian Reynolds, a former Pop Warner-level coach in New Hampshire who had moved to the area.
“My whole goal when I was asked to coach was to give kids in the community the chance to do something else,” he said. “There’s golf, soccer, basketball and hockey out there, but football kids are just different. I was a football kid, and for me it was important to give these kids something else to do.”
Reynolds and the Knights won four AFL championships in six years, spurring interest in taking the sport to the varsity level, which would be the only one in Aroostook County.
“We had legitimate athletes, kids who could play high school football, and we’d always been good about margins of victory, so we were getting freshmen and sophomores a lot of playing time,” Reynolds said.
“We were on a roll, and the parents of some of the older kids started asking if there was any reason we weren’t going forward with this.”
The Houlton Football Association formed to support that effort and in 2012 the local school board approved the reinstatement of the sport at the school, in part thanks to $30,000 in seed money donated by the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians.
“From there it was pour water on it and it will grow,” said Reynolds, part of an all-volunteer coaching staff.
The privately funded program, which also fields teams at the junior high and youth levels, played a subvarsity schedule the last two seasons before receiving Maine Principals’ Association approval in March to join the varsity ranks.
The re-establishment of football at Houlton High School stemmed from at least two events beyond the popularity of the sport among local youth and their success in the Aroostook Football League.
A conflict for some players was removed when Houlton ended its tradition of a fall harvest break beginning with the 2012-13 school year.
“I remember before I would lose some kids every year because they’d have to go work on the farm,” Reynolds said.
Another pivotal event was the construction of the Maliseet Sports Complex, a regulation-size football field and running and walking track funded in great part by a $600,000 Indian Community Development Block Grant issued in 2011 by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Tribal elders saw the facility as a way to increase physical fitness options for the Maliseet community to help combat obesity, and the tribe committed $151,000 of land resources, cash and in-kind donations to the project.
“This new field will provide healthy exercise activities for all tribal members, helping them return to a natural state of good health,” said Brenda Commander, tribal chief for the Houlton Band of Maliseets, during a dedication ceremony for the complex last September.
“We believe that a multisport athletic field will result in better school performance and better self-esteem, increase family time and bring back good old-fashioned fun,” she said.
A subsequent grant provided funding for lights at the complex, adding to the anticipation of the football team’s first varsity home game.
“It’s awesome,” Houlton senior offensive and defensive back Jake Drew said. “The years I played before, we played on a baseball field and they were all day games. But this is going to be in front of the home crowd on a brand-new field under the lights, so it’s going to be awesome.”
Now comes perhaps the most difficult test for the players: elevating their play to a new arena of competition.
“In basketball you really see a huge difference between the competitive level in JV and varsity,” said Drew, part of Houlton’s state championship basketball team last winter. “Once you get into varsity, you really see everyone hustling and playing even harder to keep advancing in their skill level.”
The Shiretowners got their first taste of the best the LTC has to offer Monday during a controlled scrimmage at Bucksport, the reigning Eastern Maine Class D champion.
“It gives a new team like us a taste of what the league is like,” said senior lineman Anthony Bonilla, one of the few Houlton players with previous high school football experience from playing on the Wells junior varsity team before moving to the County.
“[Bucksport] represents the best of the best in that league, and when you get to play them in a scrimmage, you see that firsthand, so the reality check then kicks in and you know you have to be ready every week.”
And while Upton, for one, is quick to dream of winning a state championship, Houlton’s immediate aspirations are more modest.
“Short-term, I’ve got a bunch of seniors and a bunch of juniors that have been with me for years that I really enjoy and care what happens to them, so I’d like to see them win to legitimize this for them,” Reynolds said. “Long-term, I’d like to see Houlton have football for a long time because it’s just good for kids.”
Senior lineman Sabastian Walton is among the Shiretowers relishing the opportunity.
“It feels pretty good to know that we’re like the pioneers of the varsity program,” he said.