Cherokee Braves playing for a nation as they strive for state championship
CHEROKEE – Kent Briggs sat quietly behind his desk in the Cherokee field house, wearing a tired expression as he stared at a signed game ball from his team, earned last week after a regional final win over Mitchell.
The strain of a long season has had its toll on a coach that has battled health problems while holding the hopes of a unique community close to his heart. The Braves are one win away from the school’s first state football title, making their first championship appearance since 1978.
“To me, personally, this is the most important game I’ve ever been involved in,” said Briggs, the former Western Carolina head coach, who has been receiving treatment for prostate and lymphoid cancer throughout the 2017 season. “I’ve coached in bowl games, coached in a national championship game, but because of the impact it will have on these kids, and the people who live here, it means everything.”
The Braves’ football team find itself playing for more than a community, but a nation.
“This team is holding the hopes and dreams of this small nation,” said Richard Sneed, the principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. “Our team succeeding does something bigger for this community; it shows them that they belong in this world and that they have the ability to succeed.”
As its own sovereign nation, Cherokee has seen an economic boon over the last 20 years after Harrah’s Casino opened in 1997. The casino supplied the tribal council with money to build new government and healthcare facilities as well as the new high school, which included a glowing new football and basketball stadium.
The community still has its share of issues, poverty and a lack of work among them.
“There are people here who are down on their luck,” said Cherokee athletic director Peanut Crowe. “But I can promise you they will be wearing maroon and gold this week.”
Crowe, the grandson of a former chief, played football for the Braves nearly 30 years ago.
“When you play sports here, you play for your people,” Crowe said.
The emotions of Cherokee fans said it all after the win over Mitchell. Tears ran down the faces of older tribe members who have waited nearly 40 years for another chance at a title. It’s was a win that represented hope for a people who have seen their culture historically shoved aside, that the next generation could not only survive but thrive.
“It’s an honor to get to try and do something for this area and our ancestors that means so much to them,” senior lineman Will Davis said. “They know better than us what it’s like to struggle, and I think that’s why it’s become so important.”
Cherokee’s helmets read “CWY,” pronounced Tsa-La-Gi. It’s “Cherokee” spelled out in its native language, a symbol that’s seen all over town.
“Sports have always been the great equalizer,” Crowe said. “It shows we are as good as anyone regardless of skin color.”
The football program has seen an incredible turnaround over the last four years after the 2013 team went 0-11 and Briggs was hired before the 2014 season. They won three games the first year and four in 2015. Last year the Braves won nine games and advanced to the third round of the playoffs. This year they are one of 16 football teams in the state to play during the final weekend of the season.
“It’s surreal that we are even in the championship,” said senior center Demetryus Bradley. “Looking back four years ago, and seeing where we are, it’s hard to believe.”
Briggs not only credits the team but the community for embracing him — an outsider to Cherokee nation. He said their support during his illness has been incredible. Briggs finished his last round of chemotherapy the day before the Braves defeated Mitchell.
Highlights from the 2017 Cherokee High School season which earned them a trip to the state tournament. Angeli Wrightemail@example.com
He also said he’s felt the support from all across Western North Carolina, from fellow coaches and fans, who root for the success of all mountain programs. Briggs said he’s received almost 30 messages a day from people outside Cherokee since they advanced to the state championships.
“I’m so lucky to be at a place like this that has allowed me to still coach while I deal with all this,” Briggs said. “Sometimes I feel great; sometimes it’s hard to get through the day. But this community and nation did not have to accept me, and they have.”
Cherokee nation did the same for senior quarterback Tye Mintz and his younger brother Cade Mintz, two white, non-Cherokee players exempt from school standards as coaches’ sons.
“I thought maybe I would get picked on when I first moved here,” said Tye Mintz, who will play in the Shrine Bowl later this month. “But they all became my friends, and now they’re family.”
The Cherokee nation family will be in full force Saturday.
According to Chief Sneed, the tribal council will shut down Friday to allow its people to travel to Raleigh for Saturday’s noon kickoff at Carter-Finley Stadium against North Duplin. All employees of the tribe have been given leave and the schools will be closed. The council rented a charter bus for its fans, and it sold out in less than two hours.
“I’m in awe to be a part of a nation,” Briggs said. “I hope more than anything we can finish this thing off for them.”