"This is bullshit."
Normally soft-spoken, at least by defensive lineman standards, Ernie Story may be wired on energy drinks—just about everyone else is. Besides, there are six months of anticipation pent up behind this day. He stomps away from a cluster of older men, back toward the cinder-block locker room.
It's a Saturday, and the Dallas Diesel are set to open their 10-game World Football League summer schedule. The scene around Clark High School's stadium in Plano is somewhat less than festive: 40 players mill about, partially geared up; a few curious fans queue up in front of the single ticket booth; referees swap stories with some of the team's coaching staff by a chain-link fence that guards the locker rooms and a septic tank.
Veteran defensive lineman Tywon Young and I lean against the septic tank, staring ahead like a couple old farmers observing a crop, only we're dressed in shining royal blue pants, two pairs of obscenely bright sanitary socks—red up, blue down—and black stretch undershirts. Our shoulder pads and helmets are inside, propped on long wooden benches. "We should go to Shreveport and find them," Young says, still looking at nothing.
"What for?" I ask.
"To kick the shit out of them," he responds, turning toward me.
I'm all for it. These guys have been drilling since December in preparation for this day and the season that follows. Every one of them is primed for a game of football. Only, their opponents, the Port City Jaguars, aren't there. No one's heard from them since Wednesday, and their coach isn't picking up the phone now.
Welcome to minor league football.
A few steps below the NFL and far more chaotic, populated with highly skilled athletes who just missed the big time, those who saw dreams cut short and perpetual adolescents for whom the phrase "love of the game" excuses their participation, the non-professional leagues exist in a strange netherworld. There are close to 70 leagues, all told, playing out schedules at various times of the year. Some are motley collections playing for fun. The Diesel take part in the 15-team, largely Midwestern-based WFL. Then there's the North American Football League—some 100 squads scattered around the country, organized into regions and conferences, with strict bylaws and a bracketed playoff system. Few in the general population seem to know the teams exist, even though some 50,000 people participate each year, nationwide. Yet the minors are a cauldron of purpose—or purposes, rather.
I joined the Dallas Diesel to find out what makes these leagues, these teams and the players filling the rosters tick. There's no fame involved, after all—Greg Fernandez, the team's general manager complains that newspapers refuse to print league results, even when he types them up and forwards them on. It's never easy to get a fix on the number of teams playing in the sport's forgotten ranks. Minor League Football News lists 1,053 across the nation, including 71 based in Texas. Another source says 800, and Robin Williams, commissioner of the NAFL, puts the figure at "over 900." It's all very much reminiscent of the film Leatherheads, documenting the fits and starts of what became the NFL. Clubs fold and re-form constantly, sometimes in the middle of a season. They have names right out of the comic books: Racine Threat, Okanogan County Commandos, Utica Yard Dogs, DFW Xpress and the Plano Venom, for instance, playing in high school stadiums or public parks. Diesel place kicker Sean Riley, who once played for the Naval Academy, spent 2003 with the Fort Worth Rampage in a league calling themselves semi-pro rather than minor league. Of 12 scheduled games, they managed to complete only six.
"The average life span [of a team] is about three years," Diesel owner Jewell Portwood says. "One of the best teams at this level was the Austin Rattlers," he says. They paid a stipend to their players, setting them apart from most organizations, and claimed the NAFL title twice in three years. "After they lost that third championship game they were gone," Portwood recalls. "They lost money."
Most clubs don't offer salaries, instead asking players to pay their own ways through the season. Yet they also lose substantial amounts of money—some $12,000 to $15,000 a year, in Portwood's case. Williams, who owns a team in Colorado, racked up a six-figure deficit over two seasons. Diesel players are urged to sell 10 season passes at $50 each to defray some of the expenses: $1,500 for stadium rental, $625 to pay referees and another $125 for the public address announcer, per home game. A bus trip to Memphis for a preseason encounter—a 25-0 Dallas win—cost an additional $3,000. Considering the players managed to sell only 120 passes and attendance peaks at 200 for home games, Portwood is already reaching into his own pocket to keep things going. If the Plano School District hadn't allowed the team to carry rent over to the next home date after Shreveport's no-show, "it could have been catastrophic," he says.