On Thursday the Northern Cheyenne Eagles traveled to Lame Deer for an early season basketball doubleheader.
Just before the boys began, as happens every game, the starting lineups were announced.
However, instead of the regular five names, the Eagles featured six.
Five who will play, and one, to honor the memory of an old friend.
Paul Foote’s name is called at the beginning of every game the Eagles play. On May 21, at the age of 16, Paul died in a vehicular accident. He would have been a junior on the basketball team this season.
As the loudspeakers introduced Paul’s name, four people represented him. His mother, Christie Foote; father Merlle Russell; his brother Colton Russell; and his sister Danielle Foote.
For his family, the tribute and moment were special.
“I was overwhelmed,” Christie Foote said. “It’s something big for me because it’s not just us that miss him, it’s everybody. The team, his siblings. We have good days and bad days. It broke a lot of people’s hearts.”
The team and Paul’s family huddled up around a framed No. 32 jersey, Paul's number. The jersey was a combination of his home and away uniforms.
August “Tiger” Scalpcane, Lame Deer’s athletic director and girls basketball coach, said a few words about Paul before the game started. Northern Cheyenne boys basketball coach Terry Curley said Scalpcane and a couple of seniors from Lame Deer’s basketball team sang an honor song for Paul.
“The crowd really went into a somber state and just really took it all in,” Curley said. “It was a really awesome vibe because everyone just quieted down and Tiger said a lot of good words about Pauly and how he had a big impact on all of the communities on the reservation.
“Having lost him shouldn’t be the focal point. It’s more of a these things happen and we also have to learn from these. What Lame Deer did (last Thursday) was special.”
Then, when it was time for the starting lineups, Scalpcane said, “As an honorary starter, No. 32, Paul Foote.”
The gym erupted into applause.
“The entire atmosphere changed, from the excitement of playing ball, and the competitiveness, and parents, fans, rivalries and it just kind of came together as Cheyenne people and a good thing that was happening and needs to happen,” Curley said.
Christie Foote lives in Lame Deer, while Merlle Russell lives in Busby, where Northern Cheyenne is located. Having grown up in Lame Deer, Paul split his time between the two, and his impact in both communities was exemplified by the reception both crowds gave his name when he was called into the starting lineup.
“I was amazed. It really shocked me because a lot of people said he was like a role model to their kids,” Christie Foote said. “For me, I’m still hurting and heartbroken, but I know he meant a lot to a lot of people.”
Lame Deer’s boys each had a white rose, and as each one came through the lineup they would gave their rose to Christie Foote.
Both teams also have custom warmup shooting shirts to honor Paul’s memory. “P32” is centered on the back of the shirt, for Paul’s first initial and his jersey number. The word “Foote” goes vertically underneath the “P32.”
Christie Foote had no idea the team made custom shirts and admits they were a pleasant surprise.
“I didn’t know they were going to do that last night, so I’m kind of overwhelmed with stuff,” she said. “I don’t know how to put it in words. I’m proud of him, even though he’s not here, and I’m grateful for what the team’s doing remembering him.”
Paul’s No. 32 jersey has also been retired until his class of 2018 graduates.
Christie Foote said she worked two jobs while raising him, and that hard work motivated Paul. One of his goals this past summer was to find a job so he could help his mother pay bills, she said. For her, it hasn’t been easy moving on these past seven months since his passing.
However, one of the ways she’s coped with her loss and her grieving, has been continuing to go to the basketball games and supporting the teams.
Curley said Paul’s impact on all three schools on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation was immeasurable, because of the time he spent playing basketball with kids from Lame Deer, St. Labre and his Eagles’ teammates.
Curley also mentioned how important academics were to Paul. While most saw him as an athlete, Curley said he was approached by Paul's English teacher with his class journal after he passed.
“He really pushed all his classmates to do better in class," Curley said. "One of the comments I overheard him saying to one of his teammates last year was the teammate said, ‘You know, I think I’m failing bad in this one class and I don’t know what to do.' Paul just said, ‘The one thing you’ve got to do is sit down and do the work. And not just so you can play ball. This is going to impact you for the rest of your life. For short term, right now, I need you on this basketball court with me.’”
Curley said because of the impact Paul had on other lives, he, along with girls basketball coach George Elkshoulder III, wanted the teams to come together to represent him well.
“Pauly deserves a lot of recognition for what he did on the court, the football field, and what he did for his classmates in the classroom,” he said.
The boys are 1-4 to start their season, while the girls are 4-1. Curley said Paul’s passing has affected the team greatly, but he reminds them of their teammate when things look bleak.
“One question I asked them (against Lame Deer), was, ‘When you guys are feeling down or worried about what the outcome might be, what would Pauly say?’” he said. “They all just kind of stopped what they were doing and they each had their own thoughts in their head, and I didn’t ask them to say it. I said, ‘Just keep that in your mind because that’s exactly what he would say.’”
Elkshoulder, who coaches Paul’s younger sister Danielle, said most of the girls on his team grew up with Paul, and helped spearhead these tributes.
“When this honoring happened they felt a sense of pride. It brought their spirits up,” he said. “All together, losing him, and the girls overcoming that loss as a classmate, together in the school, they bring a different attitude this year. It brought them together more.
“As a Cheyenne people, when something happens like that, we come together. Even though we’re competing against each other, we’re all family in some way. Seeing that, that was awesome.”
The girls will sometimes break their huddles by counting "1...2...3...Paul," as another way of paying tribute to his memory.
"They know that he's there watching," Elkshoulder said. "In that sense, they feel his presence still."
As they continue to honor Paul in the starting lineup, Christie Foote said it has “touched her heart, that they’re honoring him this way.”