By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
All of the guys on this team have talent. TCU recognized it in the case of Derek Wash. Wisconsin thought enough of Jarvis Minton to name him their No. 1 receiver for a time. The Redskins saw something in Marcus Stiggers and the Bears in Octus Polk. You think of the choices young men make—are forced to make—when, like Blake Garrison, a back injury presumably puts a finish to their career.
"You have a bad break, you may never recover," says little T-Fair, suddenly philosophical while leaning over a bus seat, covering his mouth. "This league gives you that chance."
But to what purpose? Surely everyone involved understands the desperately narrow odds of landing on an NFL roster. "Realistically, you have to be a stud," Stiggers points out. "When I started playing minor league football, my thought was if I'm gonna make the jump, I shouldn't allow one catch." He switched to cornerback when professional opportunities faded, perhaps as a way to catch a new and more positive break, perhaps as a way to distance himself from his past almosts. "I would never tell anyone 'you're going to the NFL.'"
By adopting the "minor league" moniker, some owners and league commissioners clearly hope to elevate their efforts to the developmental level. Even coach Bridges, a graduate of Upper Iowa University—hardly a football factory—applauds the demise of arena ball, which leaves the non-professionals in a unique position as the last remaining buffer between big money dreams and ordinary life.
Some, however, dismiss the supplemental league goal. "If those leagues promoting themselves as minor leagues were actually able to live up to the minor league sports moniker, they would be so busy right now sending 'their' players up to the NFL to replace those players who have gone down with season-ending injuries that those leagues wouldn't have time to forfeit league games or try to romance semi-pro teams away from other leagues," contends Ron Real, president of the American Football Association, who prefers the slow-pitch semi-pro ideal. There are plenty of leagues that will accept any team—even those made up of guys who never played high school ball. This haphazard, amateurish nature is why Real is reluctant to adopt the phrase "minor league." He even goes so far as to suggest NFL scouts would have eventually discovered Eric Swann walking out of a Gold's Gym location.
Probably true, says Larry Dixon, former Cowboys advance scout and, more recently, NFL player development director for Europe. On the other hand, he says, with the end of NFL Europe and the arena league, the pool of immediate talent has dwindled suddenly. NFL teams need about 200 players each year, all told, to replace injured personnel. "They are going to look at those leagues," he says of the semi-pros. "They have to. They have no choice."
Almost none of this matters, though—not really, when one considers the less stated purposes of this game. Tywon Young has no illusions about catching some scout's eye. When we were leaning against the septic tank in Plano, he just wanted to play football. The other time we loitered together, outside the Bi-Lo at I-30 and Dolphin, he allows that being a member of the Diesel "takes my mind off a lot of problems, like child support." Time after time, when I ask the "why play" question, guys mention stress relief—even coach Bridges.
"When I come out here for those two or three hours, nothing else matters," he says. "All my problems in the outside world don't exist."
But there's something more, something they have a hard time articulating. Once the novelty of my presence wore off and I began forcing myself through the drills, learning technique, bouncing off Mike Larry over and over, I was just another player drenched in sweat and spotted red from mosquito bites on a sticky Carrollton evening. Boarding the bus early on a Saturday morning for that night's game in Beaumont, we all shared silent fist bumps and the "you ready?," "let's kick ass tonight" conversational snippets of a team with one purpose. Black, white, Hispanic, young, old, talented or less so, with hope or without—didn't matter.
The older guys recognize it, the emotion known as camaraderie that all humans crave but few find in life or work. "What the Diesel is, is a brotherhood," Stiggers says one evening. "I wish everybody had a chance to experience it."
And I did. With the clock ticking toward 4:00 remaining, and the Dallas Diesel holding a comfortable 43-12 lead over the Southeast Texas Demons of Beaumont on a humid June night, Stiggers, the former Texas Player of the Year passes me on the sideline and says, "I'll make sure you get in the game." I see him nudge defensive coordinator Al Cotton, and moments later, the coach waves me in, replacing the half-crazy Coleman at defensive end, of all things.
Slowly a chant starts from our sideline: "Rudy, Rudy, Rudy"—it drones on, just like the movie. Certainly the Demons have caught the rhythm, if they haven't already noticed the narrow-shouldered lineman entering the lineup. "Rudy, Rudy, Rudy." Even some of the defensive backs are into it now.