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My Experiences with Semi-Pro Football
Semi-Professional football, for some athletes is a second chance at playing a game they love, for others a way to keep their skills sharp as they prepare to go on to the college level after high school. Players range in age from 18 years old to 40 plus years old, they range in ability from out of shape to pro level athletes. There is however one common bond amongst everyone involved...an absolute passion for the game. Players buy their own equipment, pay for their own travel expenses, and fund their own leagues including referees. Usually to the tune of around $200-270 per season. Most leagues enforce NFL rules and regulations, albeit without instant replay or coaches challenges, but the rules are strictly upheld and can at times result in a fine for a team. There are no physical requirements, players are responsible for their own off-season training (or lack of). Men come to play at their own risk, are responsible for their medical needs, and very rarely is there emergency medical support present at games.
The turnover rate for new players can be very fast, it becomes like in war at times, no one wants to know the new guys name because in semi-pro ball they might not be there the next day. Many new players come after years away from the game, or fresh out of high school and get caught completely off guard by the level of violence and intensity of the game. It is only the truly strong, and the ridiculously stubborn who stay with a team and continue to play after the first time they put on the pads in a full speed, full contact game.
Coaches tend to be volunteers, who at times are the owner/head coach/organizer/team accountant/father figure etc. If asked why they do it I would wager most coaches would answer one of two ways. Either 1: Because I love the game, and can't stand to be away from it, or 2: For the prestige of being coach of one of the best semi-pro teams in the city/state/country. The latter of those two answers being the side effect of the first answer, but who's counting? The coaches experience varies as much as their players, there are coaches who are new to football to ex-NFL coaches. Teams also vary, some teams are extremely organized, while others play their weekly games almost like a pick-up game playing with whoever happens to show up with mismatched uniforms.
How I Became Involved
As a child I played football, and on into high school. Much like any young man who has some talent for the sport, I loved it, and had aspirations of playing in the NFL. Well twenty years later after dropping out of school to work in the family business, my dreams of being a prized NFL linebacker were long gone, replaced with a wife, two kids and responsibilities of an average working class man. I had become overweight in this time, I felt twice my actual age of 34 at the time. I could not tie my boots without getting exhausted. I started thinking that if I continued on that path I wouldn't be around long enough to see my children grow up, so I started running, and doing cardio workouts. After about 8 months I had lost gone from 276 pounds to about 211 pounds. I felt like I was twenty again, that is when it all started for me. I was no longer feeling challenged by my workouts, I was bored, skipping days, and knew I had to do something before I slipped back into a lazy pattern again. Football was my answer, but what began for me as a way to have fun and keep in shape has taken on a whole new identity, and led me on a journey I had not expected.
I found a local team through the internet that actually used the same field as home turf that I had grown up playing on. Some friends cautioned me that the neighborhood was bad, and that the guys on the team would probably kick my ass instead of letting me try out. I went without fear to try out anyway, if my friends were right I would just take my lumps and move on. Luckily they were not. My first night at the field the other players on the team greeted me with a modicum of respect, with a hint of complete dismissal thrown in. I was slightly intimidated, these men were not what I was expecting, they were not just regular guys who still wanted to play football, these men were athletes whom exuded confidence and swagger. The coach looked at me doubtfully, and then had one of his linebackers, a short tenacious guy he called H take me off to the side to run and do some drills. By the end of that night I felt like a horse that has been run too long, exhaustion does not come close to describing how I felt. The coach talked with H for a minute (one day I will have to remember to ask H what was said) and then told me I was stiff, and kind of slow, but come to the next practice and we would see how it went. Definitely not a "you made the team" statement, but I was at least invited back, a good sign as I saw it.
So it went for the next four weeks, I came to every practice. I always came on time, and worked as hard as I could. I could feel myself getting stronger, and faster. Nearing the end of the season the coach finally invited me to play in a game, it was the first round of the playoffs. I was extremely excited tempered with trepidation I still did not feel up to snuff with my teammates. Little did I know that the game was to be a test of sorts, a way for the coach and my team to see if I had guts, or would fold and quit.
If you have never played football, or haven't played for a long time let me tell you the level of violence does catch you completely off guard at first. I only played special teams on kick-off and kick-returns, but the first play I was in my bell was rung well enough that I couldn't remember how I got on the ground. I believe I passed the test only because I did not stay on the ground I got up and went looking for more. Trial by fire seems to be the only way to truly test the courage, and commitment of a man.
The only video I could find of my team, before I joined. Video by Bonehyah
Just the Beginning
Spring of 2013, it was a very cold spring, on most nights the field felt like asphalt with no purchase to be had by our cleats. Spring is hard for semi pro athletes, because it is much more difficult to workout and stay in form over the winter. Unfortunately for us the coach knows this as well, and the first two weeks of practice could rival any boot camp, I leave the field at 10 pm take a fifteen minute drive home, and somehow still feel winded. There is absolutely nothing anyone would consider fun during this time, it is work, it is the price we all pay for love of the game. I feel much looser now, and I am beginning to recover some of my "football speed" that I had as a youth. Among players we all understand that a man can run a 4.5 40 yard dash, but that doesn't mean he is fast on the field. The agility, and speed of in-action play is very different from simply running, every movement must be accompanied with surety,momentum and confidence. I still have much to learn, and more to overcome to feel like a part of the team.
In my first season I was still relegated to special teams, I occasionally got in at defensive end (managing 1.5 sacks for the season) this is not nearly good enough. I have grown to see these men as my brothers, my second family, men I would gladly stand on any field of battle with proudly. To be honest it wrenches my heart to stand on the sideline and wait for a kick or a punt, meanwhile my brothers are sweating and breathing laboriously from their efforts on the field, and here I stand fresh, unscathed, and not yet up to par to be a real back-up or every down player. Some new players get angry because they feel unappreciated when they don't get to play often, or that their skills are not being recognized, but for me it's anger at not being given the chance to share my load of physical punishment. Every moment I stand on the sidelines and watch, I feel as if one of my brothers is suffering needlessly because of my ineptitude. At the end of my first season with the Blaze I am faced with two choices, either give it up, or get much better. After some soul searching I realize I only ever really had one option...quitting just isn't in my nature.
Over the summer in off-season I worked hard, eating right, weight training, and working out on the weekends with two of my teammates. I felt strong, and very fast; however there was still something missing. For some reason I could not seem to find my aggression, before any contact I always find myself worrying that I might hurt someone. My moment of hesitation is not only causing me to look soft, and uncoordinated, it is also the reason my second season ended before it got started. The second day of training camp, the whole team was anxious to get into some hitting drills, everyone was fired up myself included. Defense and offense squared off into a full contact, full speed 7 on 7. This means no linemen, just skill players going head to head with reckless abandon. The second or third play of the night our power back Eric got the ball on an "up the gut" run, Isaiah playing outside linebacker got there first and had him wrapped up but not stopped. I was in perfect position for the big hit, I should be able to say "I lit Eric up like the Fourth of July", but I can't, because again I hesitated. This time my hesitation did more than make me look bad on the field, this time it caused me to have four hundred and some pounds roll up on my right leg and break my fibula almost completely in half. The doctor gave me six to eight weeks before my ankle could support weight, and said I should wait at least six months before I try to play ball again.
When the Blaze began their fall season, I tried to go and watch our home games, and show some team support. The pain of being able to do nothing but stand and watch, after all of the work I put in made my broken bone seem like nothing. Being hurt and sidelined did make me realize something though, I had thought that the adrenaline rush, and surge of energy I would feel before a game was just nervousness in anticipation of the upcoming struggle. It is not what I thought. Being a part of a team, of something greater than yourself means it becomes a part of you on a subconscious level. I realized that the rush I was getting even while sidelined wasn't my own, or at least not mine alone, but the collective energy and strength of the warriors I have had the great honor to be surrounded by calling my soul to join in the hunt for victory.
After my injury family, friends, and co-workers constantly tell me that I should give up playing, that I have too much to lose if I get hurt. I understand and appreciate their sentiment, but they don't realize that this isn't just a hobby anymore. I'm not playing just for the fun of it. They don't understand that being Blaze has become a part of me, if I were to give it up I would be losing a part of myself.