By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
They laughed when I approached with the idea of joining the team for a month or so. Out of shape 47-year-old George Plimpton wannabes don't hold up well to the beatings one takes in this rough subculture of America's game. Head coach Jackie Bridges, who played a dozen years on this level and walks with an uncomfortable limp, is younger than me. He shrugs in a "your funeral" kind of way as I explain the plan: work out with the team for the final few weeks of practice and suit up for a few league games just to get a feel for things.
I picked up shoulder pads from Second Hand Sports, and they wobbled a bit. But the clerk informed me a team from the Panhandle drove down and bought all the good stuff. So I was stuck with loose pads. And the shelf at Plano Sports stocking size medium pants was empty. I end up with an ill-fitting large pair, thus cutting a less-than-imposing figure in a huddle of former college and professional athletes. I think coach Bridges took cruel pleasure during team drills of holding my line in place, legs and arms pumping furiously up and down for excruciating seconds—10, 20, 30—before releasing us with a blast from his whistle. One evening in the rutted Carrollton park the team uses as a practice facility, big lineman Mike Larry, 6 feet tall and packing about 270 pounds into a Weeble-like frame that turns deadly once unleashed by the snap of the ball, drops into his three-point stance and sees me line up opposite.
"I'm up against Pa-Pa," he huffs.
Minor league football—or semi-pro, as some still call it (the semantics are important)—is not like playing softball after your days of fast pitch are over. The Diesel holds practice sessions at Josey Ranch on Sunday afternoons and Wednesday nights, cutting back to just one weeknight workout once the season starts. The field can be rutted in spots and mottled with bare patches. In May and June the little valley can be stifling and thick with mosquitoes. The smack-smack-smack of guys swatting insects builds into a steady background beat. Lights click off promptly at 10 p.m., and you listen to the coach in darkness. It takes awhile for your eyes to adjust, but you can pick out faces in the gloom by the time everyone huddles for the team cheer: "You say...You say...You say...Diesel!"—all shouted in unison while hopping around in a tight circle. Tempers flare at times. Once the entire defense began nagging in unison after I inadvertently leg-whipped a blitzing linebacker, an illegal move caused more by my inability to catch up to another threatening black-jerseyed blur than any forethought. Still, the offensive line seemed happy when the linebacker sprawled in their wake. "That's how we do things," Blake Garrison crowed, slapping my fist. The guys run through conditioning drills, jog in full pads before practice and hit with brutal force in games. By the middle of July, part way into the season, six of the Diesel regulars are down with injuries, a broken tibia being the worst, and they must provide their own insurance.
Yes, it seems like a cut-rate organization at times. Having your helmet painted the requisite silver costs $15 and is handled by Freestyle Paint & Body, an auto shop in Mesquite. When mine was finished, Young brought it to Bi-Lo Beer & Wine at Interstate 30 and Dolphin Road, where I met him one Friday afternoon. All I needed to do was reaffix the pads and screw the face mask back on.
The other stuff they carry over from year to year. Players also shell out maybe $45 apiece for each bus trip and stack up four to a room to cut hotel costs on the road. Years ago, when the team traveled to Seattle for an NAFL playoff match-up, several guys decided to avoid room charges by sharing a car there and back, arriving a few hours before game time and leaving shortly after. Players devote half a year to practice, games and travel, taking time away from other responsibilities. Running back Dashawn Perkins, who graduated from North Dakota State, works overnight hours as a manager at Roadway, a nationwide trucking company. In order to make practice he must leave the loading docks for a few hours and then hustle back. Dedrick Coleman has the same problem, as he's on-call for AAA, rushing here and there to fix flats and charge dead batteries. Place kicker Riley has it easy, on the other hand, since his credit card-processing business runs itself, and he spends the day teaching private kicking lessons. Even the owner holds down a real job, as managing partner for Parts Center USA, dealing in aftermarket auto parts.
"I was married," says coach Bridges, who works with Chrysler Financial during the day, of the money and time commitment required to participate in minor league football. "This took a toll on my family." Between jobs, injury, kids and significant others, playing at this level can cause issues. "Guys have to ask themselves why they do it," he explains.