There seems to be an ever-growing amount of success for American Indians in major, college and high school sports as Indian Country sports stars.
This past year, Natives everywhere were proud to witness our people participate in national tournaments, set professional records and even compete in reality television dunk contests. Several Native stars from tribes across the country made their presence known — and Indian country got behind them.
Here’s a list of the sports stars ICMN recognized in 2016:
Analyss Benally and Jaden Stanley, High School Basketball
Two of Indian country’s top prep talents inked letters of intent to play Division I basketball next season.
Benally, a Navajo who hails from Shiprock, New Mexico, played point guard for Wichita Heights High School in Kansas. Her San Jose State coach (next year) compared her to NBA star Steph Curry.
Stanley (Chippewa Cree) grew up near his reservation in Montana, but moved to Georgia,where he played high school ball. This 6-foot-5 guard will be playing at the Air Force Academy next year.
Both seem ready for the challenges ahead.
“The thought of being a role-model excites me,” Benally told ICMN in January. “I just hope I don’t let my people down.”
“It makes me happy to know that I’m doing something this big. I’m making a difference,” Stanley told ICMN in December.
Bronson Koenig, Derek Willis and Terae Briggs, College Basketball
The talent of Willis, a 6-9 forward for Kentucky, Briggs, a 6-3 forward for Nevada and Koenig, a 6-4 point guard for Wisconsin, has brought them to the country’s biggest stage for college hoops.
Willis (Southern Arapaho, Pawnee and Creek) has a significant role on perennially top-ranked Wildcats team coached by John Calipari, which he told ICTMN about in April.
“[Playing for Calipari is] the hardest thing you’ll ever do in the sport. It’s so demanding. It’s a full-time job and more. People really don’t understand what goes on behind the scenes with University of Kentucky basketball. It’s stressful. It takes a lot out of you. It’s also been a great experience. There’s great upsides to it. It pays off and it makes you a better person, so you just fight through it and enjoy the process.”
Briggs (Crow) completed a rare and amazing transition from an Indian college to NCAA Division I. She averaged 22.4 points and 12.1 rebounds per game to earn NJCAA Region XIII Tournament MVP her freshman season.
She told ICTM in July she was excited to be a role model for Indian country. “It’s just really special. I never really thought I would be in this situation.”
Koenig famously hit a buzzer-beater in the NCAA Tournament to help the Badgers advance to the Sweet 16.
Kenny Dobbs, Professional Dunking
Sports reality TV has become a thing in recent years. In 2016, a new show, the “Dunk King,” launched on TNT. Indian country’s best-known slam artist, Kenny Dobbs, made his way through the 32-contestant field and into the finale, where he placed second — just shy of the $100,000 reward. Many took to his defense on Twitter under the hashtag #dobbsgotrobbed as Dobbs jumped over a man on fire.
The 32-year-old Choctaw donned an American flag with an Indian on it and eagle feathers when introduced on the show.
Before it aired, he told ICMN, “This show’s going to be awesome for me, because of my goal to get out there and showcase two things I value most: My faith and my culture.” Dobbs told ICTMN.
Brendan Bomberry, College Lacrosse
School can be trying for even the top Native athletes, and Brendan Bomberry, a lacrosse star for the University of Denver, was open about his struggle.
The 20-year-old Mohawk told ICMN in June what it was like to have to be held out his freshman year due to bad grades. “It was tough at first. I never had the game taken away from me. I’ve lived and breathed this game and loved it so much. To have it taken away from me was heartbreaking, but it really helped me become a better teammate in practice and help them become better. I really had to focus.”
He came back as a sophomore in 2016 to score 19 goals and lead his team to the NCAA tournament. What a return.
Antonio Rosales, College Football
San Diego State was the smallest school to have a Heisman candidate in college football this season. Antonio Rosales, a 6-foot-4 offensive lineman from the Tohono O’odham wasn’t up for that award, but the running back he blocked for was.
He showed up at the university at a meager (in terms of offensive linemen) 240 pounds. They had him bulk up to 295 pounds. Part of that diet, he told ICMN in November, was frybread. We asked him if he had to cut out his traditional bread.
“Oh no,” Rosales said. “I actually had frybread last night, as a matter of fact. They just say, ‘eat whatever I want.’”
His success story involved leaving the San Xavier Reservation for Tuscon, Arizona for high school, where he became on of the most celebrated football stars in his high school’s history.
Kevin Hill, College Baseball
This Muscogee Creek flamethrower gave ICMN a call on draft day, enthusiastic about his selection by the Houston Astros in the 25th round of the MLB draft.
“I was overjoyed. I had a few tears. I was at a loss of words, basically,” Hill said after being drafted in June.
Hill put up monster numbers at South Alabama, with 126 strikeouts. That earned him a spot on the Louisville Sluggers’ list of 17 first-team All-Americans.
He has a 90-mph fastball in his arsenal, along with a slider and curve, and hopes to pick up a few tricks in the Astros’ farm system.
Jacoby Ellsbury, Professional Baseball
The 33-year-old member of the Colorado River Indian Tribes sat down with ICMN to explain where he is in his career. The former American League MVP candidate hopes to lead the New York Yankees to a championship before he retires.
The goal is to “come each day and play hard,” Ellsbury said in August, and “give everything you have on the field. I hope to continue to do that for the rest of my career.”
Ellsbury, who had 145 hits and 20 stolen bases last season, appreciates the fan support he receives as one of just a few Native Americans to make it into the MLB.
“I appreciate the support I get at various stadiums,” he said. “I can usually spot ‘em; they usually have signs. It’s very special that they come out to the game and support me. Especially when they bring their kids.”
Chris Wondolowski, Professional Soccer
The great ‘Wondo’ had another successful season, notching 12 goals for the San Jose Earthquakes. It was the seventh-consecutive season he had double-digit scoring. No other player in the history of the MLS has more than five.
Success for this Kiowa striker came in his late 20s, he told ICMN in May. “I was a bit of a late bloomer. I think that the stars all kind of aligned. I think confidence does a great thing for you. You always have to have belief in your ability and I did. There’s many different paths to get to your final goal but you know once things start happening and you believe in what you’ve been doing and all the hard work pays off it kind of snowballs into a great thing.”
Before he hangs up his cleats, Wondolowski hopes to win an MLS championship. “I love this club and I think that this club deserves another championship and I’d love to be a part of it.”
Cary Rosenbaum (Colville) is a correspondent and columnist for Indian Country Media Network. Follow him on Twitter: @caryrosenbaum