By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
"They're gonna have to knock that shit off," I say to my old nemesis, Larry.
After one play, he moves me inside. "I'll take DE," he says. Fine—what do I do? "Rush the A gap."
No problem. I'm facing two guys about 270 pounds each. The first snap had gone the other direction, and I tracked back in hopes of a cheap tackle, a statistical note to prove my contribution to the team. But a linebacker dropped the ball carrier before I could catch up to the flow. I was on about 3,000 mg of ibuprofen, thanks to a pulled muscle in my hindquarters and my second-hand shoulder pads rattled, slowing my pace, um, dramatically. This time I buried my head between a mass of meat about four times my size while the Demons' quarterback squirted into the space I should have held. Later I ask Larry why he stuck me in a two-on-one situation.
"Hey," he answers, defending the move, "it doesn't matter how old you are, you can still free me up."
There's a line in the film Hamburger Hill I always thought prescient, but didn't know why. To soldiers on the line in Vietnam who wish only to get the hell home, the old sergeant says, "Don't want to pull on the little people? Fine, don't use your weapon. All I ask is that you get your ass in the grass with the rest of us." On the Dallas Diesel, one of the best teams in minor league football, it doesn't matter how talented you are as long as you put in your best effort through practice, bus trips and games that may or may not happen. "I played arena football," Polk tells me later. "The reward was a little compensation. What's $300 or $400 a game? It has to do with the team."
Players may harbor dreams of making it to the NFL. One or two have the basic skills for it, but for most of them, this is the last hurrah. No matter—the team is built on that unspoken bond created through time and sweat and mosquito bites, and that's why the minor leaguers, the semi-pros, plug along year after year in the shadows.
Bullshit? When I finally come off the field I shout, without even realizing it, "Damn, that was fun."