By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
Note to self: Despite repeated attempts, the sensation of fried hamstrings cannot be quelled with a cocktail of Stoli, rest, and 15 Advil. Really, the only true cure for such discomfort is the knowledge that this is not pain without cause.
Last month, I had the pleasure of practicing with the semi-pro St. Paul Pioneers football squad, defending champions of the coast-to-coast Northern American Football League. The objective: to get me ready for some action in a regulation game.
Now a member of the regional Northern Elite Football League (with a dozen teams spread across Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan), the Pioneers are composed mainly of former college ballers. And as I was soon to learn, this level of play isn't a bunch of dudes looking for the low charge of slow-pitch softball. Rather, the vast majority, ranging in age from early 20s to early 40s, remain in exceptional shape.
"We've got some schoolteachers, some personal trainers, guys that sell cars, several guys that have played Arena League pro ball," says defensive coordinator Jim Walsh, a former semi-pro player. "We've got Kym Trueblood, our 40-year-old defensive tackle, who played at Clemson and used to be in the military. There's Ukee Dozier, who started for the Gophers. At quarterback we've got Alex Neist, who played in the Arena League."
These guys are pocketing passion in lieu of paychecks. There's no compensation at the semi-pro level—quite the opposite, they pay $100 to play. Walsh estimates it costs about $18,000 annually to keep the squad running, with cash flow derived from ticket sales and fundraisers.
But at their regular Tuesday night practice, the business of sport is drowned out by the universal lexicon of smack talk.
"It's the same type of stuff that's happening through Pop Warner, through high school, through college—it's football," says defensive lineman Guillaume Paek, a former Augsburg player who has been with the Pioneers since their inaugural season in 2002. "It's all about getting a group of guys together from diverse backgrounds, but all with the same common goal in mind."
Paek's intellect is as abundant as his devotion to the Pioneers. He's as quick to reference George Plimpton's Paper Lion as he is to lend me a jersey and run me through defensive drills. When not bruising bodies on a game-day Saturday, Paek spends his time molding minds.
"I teach at Anwatin Middle School, teaching seventh-grade social studies," Paek says. "There are actually a few people on our team that work in the Minneapolis School District. I get razzed by the other teachers: 'Why are you doing this?' I tell them it's my cheap therapy. I get go out and hit something and feel good about it afterwards."
Tuesdays are heavy on drills, instruction, and running offensive vs. defensive sets. I join in the last, under the instruction of focused (and funny) defensive-backs coach Kahn Powell. Wasting little time in testing my rusty gridiron skills, Powell throws me in with an athletic core of corners and safeties.
"There's nothing like getting out and playing," Paek says. "The crowds are a little bit smaller in semi-pro football, but it's still about the feeling that we came out and accomplished something and did a really good job. For me, it's about the game day itself. And also about the practices. It's the idea of friendship and camaraderie. I don't think there's any other place else I can go as a 32-year-old man and act like I'm 14 years old."
The lesser merits of sport at this level—"Welcome to semi-pro football," I was offered with sarcastic regularity—were soon forgotten upon my arrival at Humboldt High for the Saturday game. With the onset of hail, both teams were forced to dress in creative confines, as no one at the school had opened the locker rooms. Bitching ensued from the Phoenix contingent, and it appeared for a brief spell that the game would be forfeit.
Donning number 40, I stretched and went through varied pre-game routines with the Pioneers while a modest fan base arrived. With the contest starting 45 minutes behind schedule and head coach Mark Heiser absent with a fever, Walsh led the Pioneers on the field, and in short order the "P-Unit" had regained both the focus and intensity I'd witnessed in practice. While the Phoenix collected a series of unsportsmanlike penalties, the composed, efficient (and really damn athletic) Pioneers took a 14-point lead into the second half.
As for number 40? Well, aside from a P.A. announcement as to my presence (which I silently suspected may put a target on my back), I saw no action in the first two quarters. Nor would I debut in the third. And I'd be lying if I said that the waiting didn't get the butterflies swooping through my gut. With the Pioneers pulling away, I knew my opportunity was nearing. The sensation was akin to waiting to give a speech before a sizable crowd, except with the added knowledge that myriad audience members are trained to sock you in the mouth.
With about 11 minutes left in the game and the Pioneers ahead 28-6, I was called to the podium. Harkening back to my last play of competitive football (circa 1992), I sprinted out. After a blur of alignment calls from my genuinely helpful defensive-back mates, I lined up in a mirrored formation from my strong safety slot for my second play, and I cleared through my fog enough to understand that my responsibility was to man the left flat.
And where did the QB toss that rock? The left flat, on what appeared to be a bubble screen just in front of the left cornerback. The receiver caught the pass, eluded the corner briefly, and I charged with target in line, shoulders squared, ready to wrap up this quick sucker...only my attempt found no purchase. Remember the Normandy scene from Saving Private Ryan where one moment the soldiers are quietly approaching shore, and then boom, the bullets start flying? It was kinda like that, but with helmets for bullets, less vomit, no actual death, and far fewer Germans.
Similar attempts at adding a tackle onto the stat sheet in about a dozen more plays offered only additional incompletions and a sound collision on a long touchdown run—but hot damn was it fun. Fear can prove an amazing natural drug, and the only hangover I walked away with was a bloody elbow.
As the game's final seconds ticked away and players from both teams walked to midfield to shake hands, to pray, and to laugh away the remnants of the afternoon's combat, I was approached by a Phoenix player against whom I'd lined up in a safe punt formation. For that play in the game's dwindling moments, this man had looked me over in the same fashion that a large cat eyes a ball of yarn. In the course of the play, we cracked heads maybe eight or ten times, with neither of us finding the turf. I don't even know what happened to our returner.
"This guy came hard at me. I like that," he offered, an arm on my borrowed shoulder pads.
Yes, I did. And in that moment I remembered just how gratifying it can feel to try to knock another man on his ass.