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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Check out Part 1 of Capital City Seahawks Chronicles here.
9:15pm, Thursday, July 7th
Coach James Crowell is not pleased. For the second consecutive night, his team is left on a practice field without light as night falls. Eventually, as the kickoff teams practice returns, illuminated only by passing fireflies and the headlights of a distant car, Coach Crow gives up and calls it an early night.
It is an inauspicious beginning to the first week of the regular season for the Capital City Seahawks, marred by the technical mishaps leaving them stranded on fields without working overhead lights. Matters are further complicated by the wrangling concerning their Saturday game against the Virginia Vipers.
As can often be the case in semi-pro football, instability has hit the Vipers’ organization, with the owner declaring he wished to forfeit the game but the coaching staff and players protesting they wanted a chance to play Capital City. Ultimately, the Seahawks will make the three-and-a-half-hour drive to Virginia Beach to play the Vipers, although their Week 2 opponent, the West Virginia Silverbacks, will end up folding entirely.
Crow calls the team together and explains the details for the game and the team van for those in need of a ride. With that, he dismisses the players until Saturday. The atmosphere in the parking lot is jovial as he distributes the game pants for players. Shy Glizzy’s “Awwsome” blares from a speaker as the players jostle and joke.
11:30am, Saturday, July 9th
For Larenzo Fisher, it’s his first time interacting with the team this season. He hasn’t made it to a practice yet, but the young man stands tossing a ball from one hand to the other in a suburban parking lot awaiting the van. He adjusts the Beats headphones over his ears and starts bobbing his head, already imagining himself making plays.
‘Zo has as much talent as anyone you’ll find on a semi-pro roster. He earned a full-ride scholarship to the D-I program at Ohio where he started in his freshman and sophomore seasons. However, he got into legal trouble with three arrests in a year and was forced to leave the team. Now, he’s attempting to curb the temper that has gotten him into hot water on and off the field as he tries to make his return. Fiercely scrappy and competitive, Fisher is one of the starting cornerbacks in a loaded secondary for Capital City.
You can see the sincerity in his eyes when he says, “This is not my final stop.”
Several hours later, the Seahawks unload and prepare. The game is in Newport News, Virginia, and the temperature and humidity have peaked at 90 degrees and 85%, respectively. Players seek what shade can be found as they assemble their helmets and jerseys for the game.
The coordinators make their final adjustments and run-throughs as the 20-man Vipers roster arrives. The 50+ strong Seahawks sideline dwarfs them, despite the three-hour drive.
The game is clearly over from the first snap. The Vipers quarterback takes the snap, drops to throw, and is hit from behind. The ball squirts out and is recovered for a touchdown by Seahawks linebacker Miguel Dean. It’s the first of seven turnovers the visitors will force on the day.
Three plays later, on offense, QB Mike Thomas takes a deep shot down the sideline for receiver Ray Mack. Although Mack gains enough separation to make an acrobatic sideline catch, the charging safety falls on him out of bounds. Mack immediately slumps and stays down. He will take a trip to the ER, where the diagnosis is a separated AC joint, the first injury of the regular season for the squad.
The Seahawk offense tacks on another score before LB / DE Harold Smith recovers another fumble and scores. One of the more seasoned veterans on the team at 34, he is teased mercilessly on the sideline upon his return.
“You weren’t going to pick that up, man!”
“I thought you were too slow, they were going to catch you!”
Late in the second quarter, Fisher gets himself into trouble on the far sideline after a rough block turns into an altercation with his wide receiver. Punches are thrown and Fisher is quickly tossed from the game. Coaches and players alike shake their heads; although few are surprised, all are disappointed.
On the offense, things are churning along. New Seahawk RB / WR Keith Dickens is making a major impact with a TD on his first offensive series and several long runs. Offensive coordinator Andre “Dre” Jones is rotating QBs Thomas and Ricky Dobbs Jr. Thomas got the start, although it is Dobbs who draws the “oohs” and “aahs” with a late two-point conversion. Running the read option left, he tucks the ball and bounces outside, where he runs through a charging linebacker for the score. Crow is upset at the missed block, whereas Jones is laughing at Dobbs.
“I didn’t tell you to put your life on the line for that, man!”
Someone shouts from the background, “He did that against D-I athletes, man.” Jones laughs and nods his head – all he can do when it comes to the physical well-being of Dobbs, who had a cool 49 rushing TDs under his belt as a starting QB for Navy.
However, it is Jones who blinks first in the game. A man who generally considers himself God’s gift to offensive coordinators, Dre calls an ill-advised onside kick for practice reasons. The Viper upback squirts through for six, the only score the home side would nab on the day, taking the shutout off the board for the Seahawk defense. The final score is anything but a mishap for Capital City, however, to the tune of 56-6.
After the game, Crowell calls the team together. “The best we could have been today, is 1-0,” he tells them, and that it’s a long way to the championship.
8:40pm, Wednesday, July 13th
It is a particularly dark night with a fingernail moon as the Seahawks conduct practice on a field in southeast D.C. On the horizon, the illuminated dome of the U.S. Capitol building can be seen, the starched suits and crisp collars of government a far cry from the sweat and torn jerseys on the backs of players. Tonight, they share the field with the D.C. Woodland Tigers, another semi-pro team in the True Football League, due to the ongoing lack of a field with working lights.
“Work, big dog! Work!” defensive line coach Lee Anderson yells at a charging end coming around on a twist. On the other side of the field, 7-on-7 practice sees the secondary working red zone coverage. Defensive coordinator “Twin” Trowell shouts advice last minute to a corner who fails to react to a run play yards from him and instead the corner turns to the sideline with his hands raised. “What was that?” Twin demands.
“I didn’t hear what you said and I didn’t hear what the playcall was!”
Twin lets out a laugh, “Yeah, and your natural instinct led you right up in that motherf***er, man!”
But on an otherwise ordinary night of practice, it is the rookie Dickens who is making himself felt. He had played with the Tigers in the spring league, where he stood out as one of the best players – enough to get recruited to the Seahawks. One defender told me, “That boy’s got NFL talent.” With his speed and distinctive dyed-blonde hair tips, Dickens has earned the nicknames “Sonic” and “Odell,” respectively. I’ve also heard him called the Devin Hester of semi-pro because of his return ability.
However, setting the pace exclusively on the field isn’t just what Dickens is about. He shared a video of several neighborhood kids rushing to him, believing him to actually be the real-life Odell. One even brought out their Giants #13 jersey for the supposed Beckham Jr. to sign. He had to explain he was actually a football player, but not for the Giants. Then, the man who runs around and through defenders between the lines played catch and posed for pictures with his newfound fans.
That kind of community interaction is standard for semi-pro football. Players have spoken about their work with young football players – “I just want to work with my boys. You know, keep them out of jail. Give them the opportunity to do with their talent what I’ve been able to do with mine.”
Football has become a standard in their world, and for players like Dickens, it drives them to go further and do more with their talent. For them, football is – in their words – “a way out.”
Having talent like some of these men have is rare, and they feel obligated to their communities to succeed because of it.
4:30pm, Sunday, July 17th
In lieu of the World Football Federation game the Seahawks had had scheduled against the Silverbacks, a replacement contest has been scheduled with a Baltimore-area team, the Arbutus Big Red.
They are the only team in the area willing to play the Seahawks for a replacement game.
In the pre-game huddle, Crow tells the men, “Clap it up for them for being willing to play us today. But that’s the last respect we gon’ give them.” Then, he pauses, and, as he so often does, sets a goal for the game:
“Today is my 35th birthday. That’s how much I want to win by.”
As the game begins, Dickens once again makes an impact, with a first quarter touchdown and another called back for holding. The Hawks are rolling once again. FB “Alstott” Stark Harned adds a TD on the ground while the defense adds a couple of scores of their own.
In the end, although they achieve the full game shutout they failed to complete against the Vipers, they fall short of Crow’s birthday present. The final score: 29-0. Two touchdowns (the Dickens run and a deep pass to WR Delonte Kelly) are called back on flags, and Crow remains hot under the collar about the latter.
In the postgame huddle, Crow tells the men once again, “Today, the best we could have been, is 2-0. But now, this extended preseason, it’s over.”
If there was any paper calendar for the team, you could bet the next game would be circled, underlined, and highlighted: The Albany Metro Mallers.
They are one of the top teams in the WFF, and the Seahawks are bitter about a loss to them last year in a game that saw them forced to effectively play right off the bus in Albany. Now, it’s revenge time, and the next installment will show whether the ‘Hawks will, as their season mantra goes, get down… or lay down.
Check out Part 1 of Capital City Seahawks Chronicles here.
Follow Luc on Twitter @LucPolglaze.