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Paper Pioneer Spicer: An epilogue [with photo gallery]

(To read Part 1 of this piece, "Pioneers sign Spicer to one-week contract," please click here).

The admonishing hymn came with blunt regularity: "Don't get yourself killed."

More than a month after my semi-pro debut was quashed due to the U.P. Arctic Blast's cancellation in travel plans, the St. Paul Pioneers re-upped my services for their second-to-last regular season contest, a rematch versus the Minnesota Phoenix, whom the Pioneers crushed 61-0 in the teams' initial meet back in mid-May.

In the two months since that contest, the Phoenix evidenced some rise while St. Paul showed some settle.  From a standings vantage point: The Phoenix evened their record at 2-2 before dropping two straight heading into the rematch at 2-4. The Pioneers? After the U.P. forfeit, the team ran their record to 3-0, then suffered back-to-back losses (by a combined six points) before rebounding with a steady 36-14 win over Rochester prior to their Independence Day bye week.

But a small sense of malaise had no doubt gripped this bunch by the time of my return to their circle. Whereas the early June practice featured a focused, well-attended game prep,  merely half the Pioneers' roster showed when I returned mid-summer for a chalk talk that sought to prepare for the Phoenix' offense on a night that favored Jim Walsh's pen over Pioneer pads.

So it was that -- among the fewer than 30 present -- I was able to accrue an interception in 7-on-7 drills from my spot in the d-backfield.

The lesser merits of sport at this level ("Welcome to semi-pro football," I was offered with sarcastic regularity) were soon to segue to my arrival to Humboldt High for the Saturday game. With the onset of hail soon to paint the gloomy pre-game, both teams were forced to dress in creative confines as the school contact neglected to open access to the locker rooms. Bitching ensued from the Phoenix contingent and it appeared for a brief spell that, as with my initial attempt, a second crack at game action might not be.

Paper Pioneer Spicer: An epilogue [with photo gallery]
Image courtesy of Rebecca Allen

Donning #40, I stretched and went through a varied pre-game routine with the Pioneers while a modest fan base arrived, and the impasse eventually was assuaged. 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 time the "P-Unit" had regained both the focus and intensity I'd witnessed a month previous en route to grabbing an early 14-0 lead. While the Phoenix collected a series of unsportsmanlike penalties, the composed, efficient (and really damn athletic) Pioneers took a 21-0 lead into half time.

As for #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 these 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 the gut. With the Pioneers pulling away, I knew my opportunity was nearing, but the sensation is 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. (Photo gallery after the jump.) 

With about 11 minutes remaining 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 attempting to find focus and drive with a song. But although I'd prepped to recall the pound of The Roots' "Seed 2.0," all I could muster were the far less inspiring chords of James Taylor's "Fire and Rain," which I heard just upon my arrival at the field.

After a blur of alignment calls from my genuinely helpful d-back mates on the first play (an incompletion), I lined up in a mirrored formation from my strong safety slot for my second play where 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 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 when one moment the soldiers are quietly approaching shore and then BOOM the shit starts flying? It was kinda like that for this nascent soldier, but with helmets for bullets, less vomit, no actual death and far fewer Germans.

Similar attempts at tacking 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, albeit the only hangover I walked away with in the Pioneers eventual 30-12 win was a bloody elbow.

As the game's final seconds clicked away and players from both teams walked to mid-field to shake hands, to pray, to laugh away the remnants of the afternoon's smack-talk, I was approached by a Phoenix team member, #90, against whom I'd lined up in a safe punt formation.  For that play in the game's dwindling moments, this man -- bigger than me; stronger -- looked me over in the same fashion in which a large cat eyes a ball of yarn.  In the course of the play, we cracked heads with great repetition, 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 the process remembered just how gratifying it can feel to try to knock another man on his ass.

To read the Pioneers' game story of their win vs. the Phoenix, please click here.

To follow the Pioneers' on their NEFL playoff run, please click here. 

Photo gallery courtesy of Rebecca Allen

Paper Pioneer Spicer: An epilogue [with photo gallery]
Image courtesy of Rebecca Allen
Paper Pioneer Spicer: An epilogue [with photo gallery]
Image courtesy of Rebecca Allen
Paper Pioneer Spicer: An epilogue [with photo gallery]
Image courtesy of Rebecca Allen
Paper Pioneer Spicer: An epilogue [with photo gallery]
Image courtesy of Rebecca Allen
Paper Pioneer Spicer: An epilogue [with photo gallery]
Image courtesy of Rebecca Allen
Paper Pioneer Spicer: An epilogue [with photo gallery]
Image courtesy of Rebecca Allen

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