Army Spc. Carlose Prescott, no. 23, who plays for the Fayetteville Enforcers, runs a sweep during a game against the Carolina Falcons August 15 in Fayetteville NC. (Thomas Brown / Staff)
Members of the Fayetteville Enforcers, a semi-pro football team, rally before a game against the Carolina Falcons. (Thomas Brown / Staff)
Editor's note: The Fayetteville Enforcers and Camp Lejeune Bulldogs both advanced to the second round of the Alliance Football League playoffs, scheduled to continue Saturday, Sept. 26. If both teams win, they face off in the division championship.
They don't play for money or to the roar of big crowds.
But for a growing number of military gridiron gladiators, the rise of semi-pro football is offering a second chance to play the game they love.
And maybe, just maybe, some will have a shot at real glory.
Meanwhile, old interservice rivalries are finding new life in unlikely places.
Meet semi-pro football's Fayetteville Enforcers and Camp Lejeune Bulldogs, members of the Alliance Football League's Coastal Division.
"The Enforcers are the team we measure ourselves against," says the Bulldogs' defensive coordinator, Cpl. Leonard Allen. And for good reason. The 'Dogs have taken their licks from the Enforcers already. Both teams are among the newest in the AFL. Only 5 years old, the league is already one of the largest in the country, with its roster now up to 35 teams in 11 states with 19 new teams slated to join in 2011.
The AFL's growth is part of a larger explosion of new leagues and teams calling themselves "semi-pro," "adult amateur" and "minor league" many of which are providing a fresh chance for troops to get back in the game, in more ways than one.
If you think semi-pro football is merely the last refuge of mediocre gridiron die-hards trying to recapture their high school glory days, you might not want to tell that to Staff Sgt. Dave Minnis.
Minnis makes a break from his job at 1st Special Forces Group at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., to get to practices with the South Sound Shockers, members of the Washington Football League, three times a week.
"The guy is a freak," says Shockers head trainer and Army veteran Bob Saxton. "He's one of the best running backs I've ever seen. If he went to college, he'd be an All-American."
Minnis holds four league records in rushing and kickoff returns and was elected team captain last year. About half the team comes from the local military community, Saxton says, including the head coach, who's also an active-duty soldier.
"Our team is successful because of the military," says Saxton, with a nod to the Shockers' list of recent championships.
But military players can also bring the kind of losses few other teams have to endure.
Such was the case when the Shockers' fullback, Staff Sgt. David Gutierrez, was killed in a Christmas Day ambush in Iraq last year.
"It was devastating. He was the heart of the team," Saxton says.
George Ashcraft knows what that's like. Head coach of the Watertown Red and Black, just outside Fort Drum, N.Y., Ashcraft and many of his players sport a tattoo with the team's logo bearing the date May 12, 2007. That's the day Sgt. 1st Class James Connell was killed in Iraq.
Formed in 1896, the Red and Black is the oldest semi-pro football team in the nation. Ashcraft first joined as a player in 1973 just out of high school.
"I graduated on a Sunday, and Monday was my first practice," he says. He's been the head coach for the past 20 seasons and says military players have always brought something special to the team.
"It goes without saying most of these men are in fantastic shape. They're disciplined, respectful. Many of them have played college ball. They come and go, but I never forget them," Ashcraft says. He just wishes they wouldn't all go at once.
Last year Ashcraft went to the league championship with a half-dozen of his players in Afghanistan.
That's one of the reasons he now webcasts every game.
"After the first night we put the game on the Internet, I had messages on my phone from soldiers all over the world. One of my coaches is in Germany now, and he watches every game."
Those viewers are on top of the 500 to 1,000 fans who go out to watch the games live. "We had about 2,000 people at last year's championship. I think we might double that if we go again this year."
Among the newest teams in semi-pro football, the Marine Corps-owned Lejeune Bulldogs so far draw only about 200 fans, mostly friends and family. That's OK. A Cinderella lash-up of Marines and sailors coming together for their first season, they've surprised even themselves, says Allen, the defensive coordinator. They won eight games of the 10-game season that ended in August, securing a playoff berth.
"We're the new guys on the block, and everyone is gunning for us," says Allen, an avionics electrician at Marine Corps Air Station New River, not far from Camp Lejeune.
The only all-military team in the league, if not in all of semi-pro football, the Bulldogs are at a distinct disadvantage on the line of scrimmage. While opposing teams field linemen tipping the scales well past the 300-pound mark, a 200-pound weigh-in would exceed standards for all but the tallest Marines.
"Being in good Marine Corps shape is not always the same as being in good football shape," says Allen, "but we make up for it in strength, speed and determination."
Despite the handicap, the Bulldogs pack plenty of bite, racking up 239 points this season and giving up only 82.
"It may sound crazy, but our goal now is to go all the way and win the championship and open the eyes of the Marine Corps that we have players who can dominate at this level of play."
To get there, though, they may have to beat the Enforcers. In their second season playing in the Fort Bragg, N.C., community, the Enforcers lost only one of their 10 games this season. They're also the only team that's managed to put a dent in the Bulldogs' record, but just barely. In their two regular-season face-offs, the Bulldogs lost by a total of nine points.
"Every time we play them, they try to be our kryptonite, but we can beat them," says Bulldogs running back Cpl. Miguel Garcia, an armorer at Camp Lejeune who joined the team midseason after getting back from Afghanistan. In some way, he says, it's like being downrange.
"In Afghanistan, you share things with people you wouldn't share with anyone else. But now on the team, it's the same. There is this really tight bond."
Lance Cpl. Anthony Martin, a Bulldogs receiver, says there's one key difference.
"In Afghanistan, you have to worry about everything. You don't know if your buddy is even going to be alive the next minute. But when you walk out on the field, you have no worries. ... You just go out there and have fun."
Not the farm league
It's true, plenty of semi-pro teams would suffer against a good high school squad. And just to be clear, while baseball's minor leagues are the tried-and-true path to the big stadiums, that's decidedly not the case with semi-pro football.
"Pro football has its farm league, and it's called Division I collegiate football," says David Burch, president of the American Football Association, which represents semi-pro teams across the country.
Most semi-pro teams gather a few times a week to practice and play on Saturdays at local high school stadiums. Depending on the league, teams play any of three seasons throughout the year. Some of the better-organized teams with sponsors and a regular fan base will provide uniforms and gear and bus the players to away games, while others require players to outfit themselves and charge a fee to help cover other costs.
Among the growing ranks:
Copperas Cove Soldiers and Killeen Knights: Finishing their first season in May with about half of their roster from neighboring Fort Hood, Texas, the Soldiers will begin tryouts for the 2011 season in October. Their elder rivals, the Knights, will launch their fourth season.
San Antonio Warriors: Consistently ranked among the top five semi-pro teams in the nation, the Warriors are coached by Glenn White, a 13-year veteran of 10th Special Forces Group. With a roster and coaching staff supplemented by the local military community, the spring-season team has racked up 113 wins and only six losses since forming in 2004.
Clarksville Foxes: Men aren't the only ones getting into the action. Among the newest semi-pro teams near Fort Campbell, Ky., the Foxes are just one of several all-female teams near major military hubs. With more than 50 teams and 1,600 players from California to New York, the Independent Women's Football League has become one of the largest full-contact semi-pro organizations in the country since forming in 2000.
The vast majority of semi-pro players will never get beyond the fan side of the bleachers in any NFL or college stadium.
But military players in particular can be legitimate contenders for top-level college teams, says Enforcers kicker Maj. Randy Smith, who at age 44 can still nail a 55-yard field goal.
"It's not a pipe dream for a lot of these guys," says Smith. He should know he played for Southern Arkansas and Auburn on football scholarships and was good enough to get invited to Dallas Cowboys and San Diego Chargers training camps before becoming a kicking coach at Louisiana Tech.
NCAA rules stipulate that players past age 21 lose a year of college eligibility for each year they play semi-pro ball. But that gives many players time to regroup after a troubled high school career or other setbacks to leverage strong showings on semi-pro teams. After keeping his football skills sharp playing semi-pro, Sgt. 1st Class Tim Frisby went on to play wide receiver for the University of South Carolina as a 39-year-old walk-on freshman after retiring from Fort Bragg's 82nd Airborne Division in 2004. He earned the nickname "Pops" and picked up the Disney/ESPN Sports Spirit Award.
That's exactly the kind of break 21-year-old Lance Cpl. Terry Alexander is hoping for.
Alexander feels as if he's getting a second chance at his dream every time he runs out onto the gridiron. The starting running back for the Lejeune Bulldogs, Alexander will tell you he plays because he loves football. The truth, though, is that if he hadn't joined the Marine Corps, he might be on his way to the NFL right now. And there's a chance, however remote, that he still could be.
"I had high hopes," says Alexander, who accepted a football scholarship to West Virginia Wesleyan College after high school. But when his girlfriend got pregnant during his freshman year, he manned up, put those hopes on hold and joined the Marines so he could support his new daughter.
With his enlistment up next year, he's hoping his highlight reel might be enough to earn a spot back on a college team.
The same goes for Spc. Carlose Prescott, a 24-year-old vehicle mechanic with the 3rd Psychological Operations Battalion at Fort Bragg and the Enforcers' star running back.
Prescott dropped out of football his senior year of high school. Maybe his heart just wasn't in it then, or maybe it's been the past few years of Army PT, but he's been averaging about 100 yards a game.
Either way, he'll be putting together a highlight reel for a few college coaches, too.
Filling the void
So many of Arthur Maxwell's Army buddies seemed broken after they left the military. "Guys were used to being in the Army and the camaraderie, male bonding and physical nature of being on active duty, and all of a sudden, that's gone. As you get older, as a man, it becomes harder to make friends, especially when everyone you know moves away," says Maxwell, a former chaplain assistant.
That's why he started the Clarksville Vipers just outside Fort Campbell four years ago. The Vipers are now one of four semi-pro teams near the 101st Airborne Division's home turf.
Maxwell's roster of 49 players and five coaches draws almost exclusively from the local military community, including active-duty soldiers, dependents and vets.
"And we do it not because anyone gets paid, but … for the true love of the game," says Maxwell, who is also vice president of the AFL.
Although the Vipers have made the playoffs twice so far, they didn't pull it off this year. But they will be hosting the AFL championship game.
Jeff and Carla Redman were feeling pretty confident their Fayetteville Enforcers may just be one of the teams making it to the game. Jeff, a former Army tanker, coaches the team, and Carla manages the business side. Not that she can't handle a whistle and clipboard. A teacher at Fort Bragg's Albritton Junior High School, she coaches the football team there, the first woman in the state to coach a boys' football squad.
Back in the day, she was an offensive lineman for the all-female Cape Fear Thunder.
"The Bulldogs are looking pretty good," she says. But she doesn't sound too worried.
The playoffs began Sept. 11. AFL Bowl V, the league's championship game, is set for Oct. 16 in Clarksville, Tenn., with an All-Star game the next day.