By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
That is the central question. Only a few hundred fans—at most—show up to watch them perform, and most people in Dallas don't know such a thing as minor league football exists. On the long bus ride to Beaumont a week after Shreveport's forfeit, Blake Garrison explains the appeal from his perspective. He was in his third year at the University of Houston when a back injury sidelined him, the team doctor said for good. "It was like one of the biggest things in your life was taken away from you," he recalls. "When the doctor says..." The tall, solid lineman shakes his head, unable to finish the sentence.
He returned home to Grapevine and started work as a device analyst for Fib-X, a Plano-based technology company. But, he concludes, "I always felt there was a little left in me."
We left for Beaumont—the second game on the schedule—mid-morning on a Saturday. It would be an all-day affair: ride five or so hours, play a football game, ride back. Coleman, the AAA roadside assistance crewman and stalwart defensive lineman, pulled up to the bus in a Buick Regal sporting some stunning rims. When he smiles, a gold rack flashes radiantly—and he smiles a lot. The rims, the rack, those are remnants of wilder days, he assures me. No wonder they call him "Crazy," a nickname also leftover from high school and college, when he played with abandon. Now he's 37 and only half crazy. "I don't got it like I used to," he admits. So this may be his final campaign in a minor league career that began when he flunked out of Southern University, losing his football scholarship in the process. "I'm getting a lot of complaining" from family, he acknowledges. Why keep going? Two reasons come out during our conversation. "It releases a lot of stress," Coleman says at one point. "Any problems, I forget all about it." But equally important, he adds later, "This is something I never got to do for a living, which I really wanted to."
Young Tony Fair sits behind me on the bus. We have plenty of time to talk because the driver for some reason heard Austin instead of Beaumont, and rerouting the final destination took us on a rather scenic route through small town Texas. T-Fair, as teammates call him, has a strange habit of covering his mouth as he speaks, but whether this is to hide bad teeth or some sort of phantom microphone thing I never found out. After a year at San Jose State in California, the Arlington native left school to support a newborn child. "I don't regret my daughter," he says. "But having four years of college football..." Pauses or sudden changes in disposition are normal when the guys talk about what brought them here.
"You never know," he finally continues. "This is about opportunity."
Ah, yes. The New York Giants signed Darnell Dinkins from a minor league squad in Pittsburgh after the 2001 season. Although the record books say Philadelphia picked up Charleston Hughes after a stint with Calgary in the Canadian Football League, he made it to the CFL thanks to his play with the Muskegon Thunder and Michigan Admirals. And, of course, there's the case of Eric Swann, who never played college football—grades again being the culprit—and ended up with the Bay State Titans until the Arizona Cardinals snapped him up in the first round of the 1991 NFL draft. A few such instances provide hope, even for owners. "If I could get one guy into the NFL, this would be worth it," NAFL commissioner Williams says. With the demise of arena football, this haven for the game's talented castoffs became the only non-collegiate pipeline into the NFL.
Marcus Stiggers, of course, has been there. Signed by the Redskins in 2000 as one of 16 receivers entering the August camp, he worked his way into the top six, going up every day against defensive backs like Champ Bailey and Deion Sanders. "I was told several times 'you can play in this league,'" he tells me. Unfortunately, Washington didn't have any use for a sixth wideout and cut him two weeks into the season. He hooked on with Chicago of the fledgling XFL for a while, failed in a tryout with the Giants and eventually signed with the Cowboys, only to be released again.
"Everybody at home had expectations," he says. "To go from The Man to cut to can't even get on a team—it hurt."
Stiggers now works as a personal trainer for Bally and helps to raise two kids. He latched onto a minor league squad because, as he puts it, "I came to that crossroads where I just wanted to know." In other words, could he really play? Octus Polk went through the same personal ordeal, then moved beyond it, sort of. A personality clash with Bears head coach Dave Wannstedt led to his ouster from the NFL. "I was still trying to get back in the league when I joined a [minor league] team," he says. Now the massive offensive lineman considers himself somewhat wiser. "At some point you get tired of proving yourself. I hadn't understood that."