While most football fans concentrate on the NCAA and NFL, others are actually concentrating on playing the game in semi-pro leagues around the country. One such team is the Capital City Seahawks of the Washington, DC area. Luc Polglaze, who is a coach with the Seahawks, will chronicle the 2016 season with this team to give you an inside look at what it means to be a semi-professional football player.
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12:49pm, Saturday, June 25th
It is a hot, sticky Maryland day and Coach “Twin” Trowell is installing his new defense with the Capital City Seahawks from the relative comfort of a camping chair. He’s limited to crutches at the moment, but even that doesn’t dampen his enthusiasm in fulfilling his duties as defensive coordinator. When he’s not barking orders at his players, he’s cracking jokes with the coaches as a sort of running sideline commentary.
“How’d you see that?” he shouts at a safety after a particularly impressive pickup of an underneath route and pass deflection. The player shrugs and chuckles.
“My IQ, coach!”
Capital City Head Coach James Crowell called Twin “one of the brightest minds” in the DC area. A highly-respected head coach in his own right with back-to-back championships in spring’s East Coast Football Association, Twin is now bringing his defensive acumen to the Capital City Seahawks.
“No, no, no!” he shouts at the nose tackle, a large fellow named Bruce but known to all as Porkchop.
Porkchop nods and wipes his face with a towel before returning to his stance. On the whistle, he explodes to his left and executes a rip move against thin air, this time without stepping through the imaginary lineman. Twin gives him a nod.
This is the first two-a-day of the season for the defending national champion Capital City Seahawks, a session which involves intense defensive install and, later, a scrimmage to warm them up for the season – a season which starts in two short weeks. The atmosphere is relaxed but intense, with players joking to one another before sprinting to assignments when the whistle blows. On the opposite end of the field, Offensive Coordinator Andre Jones is making his unit run a lap every time a ball is dropped.
These are all men devoted to the craft of football and taking an entire Saturday away from their lives to hone their skills. They are united in chasing a second trophy as a team. Some made All-American lists in college. Some received coveted NFL training camp invites or are still on arena team rosters. Others are still young enough to have a realistic shot of playing in “the league.” And then there are those who do it just because they still love it.
They have one thing in common: They’re all semi-professional football players.
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“Strap Up:” Life in Semi-Pro
Welcome to semi-pro football, a world where men work normal 9-5 jobs during the week, go home to their families at night, and then lay their bodies on the line while trying to beat the snot out of each other on the weekends.
It’s hard to define historically what exactly makes a semi-pro football player. In the past, players like Johnny Unitas, Eric Swann, Vince Papale, and even Vince Lombardi saw action in the semi-pro ranks before the NFL. Semi-pro definitions have been fuzzy over the years: Sixty years ago, it would have been any paying team not a member of the NFL. Now, with salaried players in arena leagues, that definition of “semi-professional” is less clear.
There are an estimated 1,000 semi-pro football teams in the U.S., varying from recreational play to extremely competitive, high-talent leagues. Our subjects, the Seahawks, are a member of the World Football Federation (WFF). Technically an NFL D-League (putting them in the same category as the Fall Experimental Football League), the WFF includes 12 teams across 8 states on the East Coast.
It’s an interesting thing to be a semi-pro football player in the modern era. A heckuva thing, really. Players typically pay a league fee just to play, and most play in other leagues during the spring. Seahawks wide receiver Tony Green is one such player, having strapped up for a Philadelphia-area indoor football team. A physical specimen at 6’5″ and 230 pounds in college, Green grew up in Maryland and went to local D-II school Bowie State, where he played with two current Seahawks and one future big-league one – current Seattle player Douglas McNeil III. He earned a training camp invite from his childhood favorite Baltimore Ravens – although when he was cut a few weeks later, he switched his allegiance to the league’s Seattle Seahawks.
Green is mellow off the field, but his attitude comes out when he puts the helmet on. He’s fiery and impassioned, not afraid to mix it up with smaller defensive backs… of which, at his size and this level, most qualify as such. He’s one of several tall, physical receivers on this squad who will make a potent combination for whomever wins the quarterback battle: last year’s All-Star Mike Wilson, or former Navy standout and Seahawk rookie Ricky Dobbs.
Dobbs is not alone. Many on the Seahawks’ roster and coaches have served in the armed forces or are currently active duty; players leaving for service reasons is not irregular. As one player said, “They leave the team, get shipped out. We just hope they ass gets home safe.” It is a special bond that strengthens an already close group of men.
Green greets a receiver in the parking lot with a laugh and quick joke. Delonte Kelly is lanky, but wiry, with an easy-going personality that rivals that of Green. Like many here, he’s a Washington fan, although conversation in the pavilion devolves when he encounters a Dallas fan.
“You’re gonna see this year!” he says. Trash talk about professional football is as ubiquitous as discussions about the logos on equipment. Nike, Under Armour, Adidas, Reebok; each seems to have a different talent level silently associated with it. I once saw an opposing linebacker get ridiculed for several minutes straight during a game for wearing Reebok cleats.
This pre-game chatter dies down as the scrimmage approaches. Green shakes his head. “I’ve been out of these pads for three months, man. Feels good to get them back on; uncomfortable at first, but good.”
2:55pm, Saturday, June 25th
Today’s opponent for this preseason scrimmage are the Maryland Blackhawks. The 2015 champions of the True Football League (a lesser semi-pro division), they are fiery and not about to back down from the Seahawks. The chatter flies as emotions ramp up to the game.
Here, you need to be versatile and skilled on both sides of the ball to see the field for any meaningful playing time. Perhaps it’s the reason why, “He’s an athlete,” is the highest compliment a semi-pro player can render in judgment of another. There’s no such thing as a tight end or cornerback with a neat tidy label – players can and will play both sides of the ball and are, quite simply, football players.
Neither quarterback on the roster is present for the game today, so backup slot wide receiver Matthew Boltz is suiting up as the QB. He laughs nervously while chatting with fullback Brandyn Stark Harned: “Imagine getting hurt as the backup in a meaningless game.” As two of the few players who happen to be white, they’re generally referred to as Welker and Alstott.
The game starts with two rounds of 10 offensive plays for each team before beginning regular action. About halfway through the first series, Boltz takes a shot from a defensive lineman. Offensive Coordinator Jones, standing behind the offensive huddle, looks to the sideline. “Is the QB live? I thought the QB wasn’t live.”
The Seahawk offense moves the ball consistently down the field, eventually running out of plays just inside the red zone, where the Blackhawks take over. Their first series nets them 7 yards in 10 plays. The defense comes off, braggadocio in full swing.
The offense enters the game and doesn’t manage anything, but on the following series the Seahawks force a turnover, with a high batted ball intercepted by DB “Zaz” Wilson. “Way to work, D!” come the cheers from the offensive players on the sideline.
On the following set of downs, Boltz scrambles and, instead of sliding, dives for the first down marker. He’s knocked out of bounds and takes a late hit on the sideline. The players erupt while Boltz pulls himself along the ground, obviously in too much pain to continue.
“What was that!”
“This is some bulls**t, man.”
Down to effectively the fourth-string QB, another WR, the Seahawks are hamstrung and fail to move the ball. The atmosphere becomes more and more chippy as the Blackhawks start to become encouraged. Green’s temper starts to boil, matched up against the smallest player on the field, a cornerback. Pushing and shoving starts to come regularly after plays and, as this is an unofficial scrimmage, there are no referees to break things up.
Finally, on a play that sees the ball get deflected at the line, that diminutive cornerback snags the ball in the flat and returns it for a touchdown. 6-0, Blackhawks. Returning to the sideline, Green is furious. Even though he was running a route against zone coverage that saw him matched up against the safety, he is hot under the collar and not happy about his coverage man getting the pick six.
The next play on offense is a run and Stark Harned, the fullback, leads the way… and receives a cheap shot on top of the pile after the whistle. At this point, the game devolves into a brawl as the frustrated Seahawks fight back to defend their teammate. The coaches rush in to break up the fight, but this scrimmage is beyond over. The two squads are corralled and separated to their opposing sidelines, though a few exchange handshakes and well wishes with former teammates in the opposite jersey.
Coach Crowell marshals his team on the sideline. He tells them in no uncertain terms that he expected this, and that they needed a reality check. “Nobody’s a bum until you make it so. You can say they’re bums, but you have to prove it.” He pauses as the huddle starts to dissolve, before adding, “Hey, guys – we’re everybody’s Super Bowl.”
The target is painted firmly on their backs. Going into their first game, the stage is set. The Capital City Seahawks begin their national title defense in our next installment.
Follow Luc on Twitter @LucPolglaze.