St. Paul Pioneers sign Spicer to one-week contract [with Video]

Note to self: despite repeat attempts, the sensation of fried hamstrings cannot be quelled with a cocktail mesh of Stoli, rest, and 15 Advil.  Really, the only true cure for such discomfort is the knowing 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 game-ready for some action in their June 5 matchup against the U.P. Arctic Blast.

Now a member of the regionally-located Northern Elite Football League (with a dozen teams spread across Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the U.P. of Michigan), the Pioneers are comprised namely of former college ballers who played at varied strata of the sport.

And as I was soon to learn: this level of play isn't a makeup of dudes looking for the low charge of slow pitch softball.  Rather, the vast wealth of these guys (ranging the age spectrum from early 20's to early 40's) remain in exceptional shape.  As a mirror of their myriad ages and levels of past experience, the Pioneers' shared devotion to football is pieced together with a mosaic of vastly different personal backgrounds and livelihoods.

"We've got some schoolteachers, some personal trainers, guys that sell cars, several guys that have played Arena League pro ball," says d-coordinator Jim Walsh, a former semi-pro player whose own daytime responsibilities come as a federal courts and agencies reporter for the Star Tribune.  Thumbing down the roster, Walsh adds:  

"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."

Per the Pioneers' new league environs, Walsh adds:

"The league we were in had 70-something teams from coast-to-coast, and now we're in a 12-team league with teams in Minnesota, Wisconsin and one team in Michigan.  The biggest difference hasn't been in the regular season.  I think the regular season quality is the same -- the difference will be in the playoffs.  For the National Championship run last year we were playing teams from Iowa, South Dakota, Washington (state), and Tennessee.  Last year, we rented six minivans for the trip out to Bellingham, Washington, which was a 25-hour drive."

To compete, these guys are pocketing passion in lieu of paychecks.  There's no compensation at the semi-pro level; actually, there's a per player fee of $100 to play.  Walsh estimates that it costs about $18,000 annually to keep the squad running, with cash flow derived from the afore-noted fees, combined with ticket sales and numerous fundraising activities.

But at their regular Tuesday night practice, the business of sport is washed out by the entertaining (and at times intense) lexicon of smack talk, a splash of some rah-rah, and an immediately-evident flavor of unity and purpose.

"It's the same type of stuff that's happening through Pop Warner, through high school, through college -- it's football," says d-lineman Guillaume Paek, a former Augsburg player whose been with the Pioneers since their inaugural season of 2002.   "One of our assistant coaches in a prison guard, we've got some guys who do construction, some who work in finance.  One of the guys I brought over from Augsburg is a day trader at RBC Wealth Management.  There are quite a wide range of professions here.  It's all about getting a group of guys together from diverse backgrounds, but all with the same common goal in mind."

Peak's intellect is as well-evident 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 immerse me in defensive drills.  When not bruising minds on a game day Saturday, Paek spends his time molding them.

 "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."  While practice time is light on hitting and conditioning (players are expected to self-condition during the week), Tuesdays are heavy on drills, instruction, and running offensive vs. defensive sets.  I work with the latter pool, under the instruction of focused (and funny) d-backs coach Kahn Powell.  Wasting little time in testing my rusty gridiron skills, Powell throws me in with this athletic core of corners and safeties.  The reintroduction to shoulder pads takes some adjustment, but Powell's undoubtedly a coach of the positive-reinforcement variety and makes a point to focus on my acceptable footwork and earnest hustle instead of rolling eyes at Walsh as if to imply, "Why did you throw me this slow writer?"

Powell could have done that -- and I wouldn't have blamed him.  Nor would I have blamed any of these dedicated fellas for treating an outsider such as myself with ample skepticism.  But these guys don't roll that way.  They were wholly inviting and offered continued instruction as to technique.

Hell, even when the last thirty-minutes consisted of O vs. D drills and I was pure toast on at least two coverages, my efforts were met with a pat on the butt instead of a smack to the head.  

"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 freedoms found on a field of play extend to the coaching staff as well.

"I was a player from 1998-2001 for the Minnesota Lumberjacks, then for the first season of Pioneers football in '02," Walsh adds.  "For me: I love my job and career, and have never had delusions of ever being more than a hobby football player.  But doing this at this level has allowed me to stay close to the competitiveness of football.  And there's a lot of close friendships here."

I won't be so cocky as to predict any tackles in my near future, but should my stat sheet solely display the foundations of the friendships to which Walsh referred -- then my time as a "Paper Pioneer" will have proven a something of a success amidst this intense, albeit inclusive cache of athletes. 


(To read Part 2 of this piece, "Paper Pioneer: An Epilogue," please click here.  Game description, box score, and Slideshow included).

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