Still, Polk—O.P. to his teammates—can't shake the moment when he lost his dream for good. Though he's 37, he turns away when I ask about those two years at football's top level so many years ago, and his head droops. "The only thing I knew was football," responds the man who grew up hard in Sulphur Springs and earned a degree while playing at Stephen F. Austin. He works in quality assurance at GMAC. "I'm still adjusting," he says. "I haven't understood corporate America yet."

What amazes me is that none of them—Polk, Stiggers or the rest—show any signs of slacking off, physically or mentally. During practice before the Beaumont trip (when once again the diabolical Bridges sent me, all 185 pounds of me, to work with the linemen), Polk argues with the coaches. One particular scheme called for Polk to pick up any linebacker with designs on the gap he protected, but the big man continued to shove the defensive tackle inside. "If I move this direction, I cause havoc," he tells offensive line coach Tom Jones. "He [the linebacker] has to react." The ride to Beaumont includes a constant parade to the front, where Bridges and his volunteer staff flip through game plan details individually, one final time—lots of nodding, lots of "so if" scenarios, lots of Texas countryside. Bridges also pops the remake of Brian's Song into the bus' DVD system. When we stop for a belated lunch at some small-town Jack in the Box, Jarvis Minton dismisses the film as a fraud.

"I don't believe that Piccolo movie," he says to pretty much everyone as we file into the restaurant. The other guys hold their collective breath, waiting for Minton to flesh out the logic of his statement. Then it comes: "If it was a true story, he would have died on the field."

Defensive back Thomas Ford (6) and running back Antonio Evans (28) celebrate a 43-12 win over the Demons in Beaumont.
Brandon Thibodeaux
Defensive back Thomas Ford (6) and running back Antonio Evans (28) celebrate a 43-12 win over the Demons in Beaumont.


Web extra: Follow the Dallas Diesel from a team practice to a game in Beaumont, in this web-only photo set.

Every team has a guy like this, a comedian so natural you can never say for sure whether he's a born humorist or just missing a few critical synapses. During practice in Carrollton toward the end of May, one of his comments prompted Tony Fair to question Minton's résumé.

"Did you even finish high school?" Fair asks.

"Flying colors," Minton assures him. It only takes a 2.0 grade point average to qualify for an athletic scholarship, the others crowding around point out. Of course, he responds—but Wisconsin is one of the nation's top academic centers.

"Yeah, but you went to play football," Fair counters.

This byplay continued into the locker room as we began dressing for Shreveport. Minton sat taping his own wrists without looking, yapping across several spaces to the diminutive Fair. "You're the only midget I know," he says. "Remember when your family came to visit in that tiny car and like 15 of them got out?"

Fair just shakes his head. "You should have heard him in Memphis," the little guy comes back. "He's just stupid: 'How do they get butter in popcorn when it's a kernel?'"

Minton is unfazed. "Well, think about it," he says. "The kernel is hard, so do they plant butter next to the corn? Do they inject it?"

"You went to Wisconsin?" someone calls from another corner of the locker room.

"Three years," Minton confirms.

At that point he had sustained two severe injuries and slipped in the Badgers' depth chart. With a wife and newborn son, he says, the swirl of events was overwhelming—so he returned home to the Dallas area in 2007. Until recently, he was working for a plumbing company involved in a reconstruction project on the University of Texas-Arlington campus. The firm went bankrupt this summer, however, casting him into the ranks of the unemployed. So Minton spoke to a U.S. Army recruiter. "I didn't think there was anything out there for me besides football," he says, "and football didn't pay the bills. I had to look at reality." In October Minton ships out to basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia. The military will pay for his final year of college, as well as study for his wife and son. As for the comedic routines, he just shrugs. "I've always been like that." He's fond of Tony Fair too—although, he adds with a kind of wink, "he's mad because I'm faster than him and quicker than him."

There is, however, that one thought nagging at Minton. "I should have been in the NFL," he says. "Things just didn't fall right." It's a mantra you hear over and over in the minor leagues. Punter Derek Wash graduated from TCU two years ago. A scarecrow figure with a ballistic leg, he received calls from Indianapolis, Seattle, San Francisco and Baltimore before the 2007 camps began, but nothing came of these. "Sometimes it's a matter of luck or timing, who makes it and who doesn't," he explains. I sat under his kicks the night of my first practice, watching the ball shoot up beyond the light poles into the darkness. "Thousand two, thousand three"—the ball hangs in the black night, the glare catching those old-school stripes as the ball loses its fight against gravity and begins to plummet back to earth, making it look like something from a silent movie. The next practice, I overheard one of the return men recounting special teams drills. "I heard it," he said of the punt. "I figured I'd just set myself—then I saw the white stripes."

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