"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.
Web extra: Follow the Dallas Diesel from a team practice to a game in Beaumont, in this web-only photo set.
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.
But of these many hundreds of teams, the Diesel are considered one of the most successful in recent memory. They've been around since 1997, won the 2006 NAFL championship and lost the title game a year later before switching to the newly formed WFL. Their lineup includes the likes of Marcus Stiggers, former Lake Highlands High School immortal who ended up briefly with the Washington Redskins, wisecracking Jarvis Minton out of the University of Wisconsin and Octus Polk, veteran of two years with the Chicago Bears.
They laughed when I approached with the idea of joining the team for a month or so. Out of shape 47-year-old George Plimpton wannabes don't hold up well to the beatings one takes in this rough subculture of America's game. Head coach Jackie Bridges, who played a dozen years on this level and walks with an uncomfortable limp, is younger than me. He shrugs in a "your funeral" kind of way as I explain the plan: work out with the team for the final few weeks of practice and suit up for a few league games just to get a feel for things.
I picked up shoulder pads from Second Hand Sports, and they wobbled a bit. But the clerk informed me a team from the Panhandle drove down and bought all the good stuff. So I was stuck with loose pads. And the shelf at Plano Sports stocking size medium pants was empty. I end up with an ill-fitting large pair, thus cutting a less-than-imposing figure in a huddle of former college and professional athletes. I think coach Bridges took cruel pleasure during team drills of holding my line in place, legs and arms pumping furiously up and down for excruciating seconds—10, 20, 30—before releasing us with a blast from his whistle. One evening in the rutted Carrollton park the team uses as a practice facility, big lineman Mike Larry, 6 feet tall and packing about 270 pounds into a Weeble-like frame that turns deadly once unleashed by the snap of the ball, drops into his three-point stance and sees me line up opposite.
"I'm up against Pa-Pa," he huffs.
Minor league football—or semi-pro, as some still call it (the semantics are important)—is not like playing softball after your days of fast pitch are over. The Diesel holds practice sessions at Josey Ranch on Sunday afternoons and Wednesday nights, cutting back to just one weeknight workout once the season starts. The field can be rutted in spots and mottled with bare patches. In May and June the little valley can be stifling and thick with mosquitoes. The smack-smack-smack of guys swatting insects builds into a steady background beat. Lights click off promptly at 10 p.m., and you listen to the coach in darkness. It takes awhile for your eyes to adjust, but you can pick out faces in the gloom by the time everyone huddles for the team cheer: "You say...You say...You say...Diesel!"—all shouted in unison while hopping around in a tight circle. Tempers flare at times. Once the entire defense began nagging in unison after I inadvertently leg-whipped a blitzing linebacker, an illegal move caused more by my inability to catch up to another threatening black-jerseyed blur than any forethought. Still, the offensive line seemed happy when the linebacker sprawled in their wake. "That's how we do things," Blake Garrison crowed, slapping my fist. The guys run through conditioning drills, jog in full pads before practice and hit with brutal force in games. By the middle of July, part way into the season, six of the Diesel regulars are down with injuries, a broken tibia being the worst, and they must provide their own insurance.
Yes, it seems like a cut-rate organization at times. Having your helmet painted the requisite silver costs $15 and is handled by Freestyle Paint & Body, an auto shop in Mesquite. When mine was finished, Young brought it to Bi-Lo Beer & Wine at Interstate 30 and Dolphin Road, where I met him one Friday afternoon. All I needed to do was reaffix the pads and screw the face mask back on.
The other stuff they carry over from year to year. Players also shell out maybe $45 apiece for each bus trip and stack up four to a room to cut hotel costs on the road. Years ago, when the team traveled to Seattle for an NAFL playoff match-up, several guys decided to avoid room charges by sharing a car there and back, arriving a few hours before game time and leaving shortly after. Players devote half a year to practice, games and travel, taking time away from other responsibilities. Running back Dashawn Perkins, who graduated from North Dakota State, works overnight hours as a manager at Roadway, a nationwide trucking company. In order to make practice he must leave the loading docks for a few hours and then hustle back. Dedrick Coleman has the same problem, as he's on-call for AAA, rushing here and there to fix flats and charge dead batteries. Place kicker Riley has it easy, on the other hand, since his credit card-processing business runs itself, and he spends the day teaching private kicking lessons. Even the owner holds down a real job, as managing partner for Parts Center USA, dealing in aftermarket auto parts.
"I was married," says coach Bridges, who works with Chrysler Financial during the day, of the money and time commitment required to participate in minor league football. "This took a toll on my family." Between jobs, injury, kids and significant others, playing at this level can cause issues. "Guys have to ask themselves why they do it," he explains.
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."
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."
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."
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.
"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.
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"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."