GERVAIS – For most high school football teams to be informed that their star running back was leaving the state for the summer, it would be a cause for concern.
Nikita Kalugin, Gervais High School’s star senior running back, spent this summer – as he has been doing for a few years – commercial fishing in Alaska’s Bristol Bay.
For the school’s star athlete – he was first-team all-West Valley League in football and baseball and was a district wrestling champion – to spend his off-seasons a couple thousand miles from home working one of the toughest jobs in the world is a level of dedication rarely seen by a high school student.
He acknowledges it was a touch couple of months.
“There’s times when work was slow, and that’s when you really want to be back and you know you’re missing a lot of practice and fun,” he said. “But when work is good and you’re making a lot of money, time flies by. It was like that for a month real fast and it kind of slowed down second month.”
The way Kalugin describes commercial fishing in Alaska it sounds almost pedestrian, but it’s not.
Even when the weather is good in Bristol Bay, fishing is intensely physical work that tests a person’s strength and stamina.
“If you know the guy was going to go fishing and work all those hours and get that much stronger and they eat like fishermen, so he came back 10 pounds stronger, and the year before that he came back 10 pounds stronger,” Gervais football coach Duane Riddell said. “Wherever I was, if they all went up and fished like that, I’d send them.
“And then you end up just being tough. He had three or four days where he wouldn’t sleep. I don’t know of anything else that would match that, maybe SEAL training.”
For students in an area like Gervais, it is not unusual to spend the summer working long days or out of town.
The ones who are in town keep the others up to date on what the rest of the team’s players are doing.
“Some take off like Nikita and I kind of leave, but a lot of people are definitely working,” said senior lineman Henry Fleener, who farmed in North Dakota in the summer. “It’s a big deal in the Willamette Valley.”
When Kalugin is in a Gervais uniform, he takes it seriously, no matter what season it is.
Gervais started last season 0-6, but somehow won its final two games to make the state playoffs for the first time in 60 years.
“The offense kind of started clicking, the defense started clicking,” Kalugin said. “We were having fun, I think, and winning is a lot more fun than losing. Once we started winning, it’s like a snowball. It’s fun that way.”
When Gervais needed the win in the regular season finale against Amity to make the state playoffs, Kalugin performed.
He rushed for 251 yards and four touchdowns on 36 carries and made 10 tackles.
“I would almost say he was the face of the team,” said senior quarterback Sam Wheeler. “Almost kind of what everyone looked to.
“It almost inspired everyone I thought on defense because he was there to make a tackle and everyone had a thought of I want to tackle. All of a sudden our defense everyone was hitting.”
Kalugin said he has fought through injuries the past few years, and his play at the end of the 2013 season showed that for once he was completely healthy.
“I know that his knee was hurting a little bit, and it might have helped because he felt more powerful, like it was getting back his strength,” said senior receiver Ben Goumy. “But also he was more concentrated at the end. He had to make a name for himself, and that’s what I’m trying to do now.”
While living on a boat in Alaska, there isn’t a lot of physical conditioning in which Kalugin can undertake.
He said he’ll get down and do pushups on the deck when he’s could and he’ll do sit-ups, but he couldn’t run until he got home to Gervais.
After a couple months of hard work, Kalugin is happy to be back home and to get to take part in such a different pursuit like playing football.
“It’s awesome to be back,” he said. “It’s awesome to where I can be in such a different environment and be accepted. It’s awesome. Gave me a helmet right when I came in and put on my cleats and I’m ready to go.”
bpoehler@StatesmanJournal.com, (503) 399-6701 or follow at twitter.com/bpoehler