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This time of year, I always feel a bit more motivated then usual. It’s a habit now.
It’s not because of a resolution I’ve tied myself to and certainly not because I’m excited for the cold weather. Believe me, I hate the cold.
It’s because I’m still used to this time of year being pre-season. Not for baseball or track, but for semi-pro football. In fact, my former team actually held tryouts this past weekend. This is the first year in five years - despite eventually not playing last year - that I am not working to get ready for the tryout, but I still can feel that same motivation kicking in.
I am always fielding questions from people outside of what I call the “semi-pro world” about what that means. Well let’s take a little walk down memory lane.
Semi-pro really is its own little world. Once you are involved, you unintentionally become a part of a community that extends all across the country. I’ve met some incredible people, coaches and athletes in my short time in the world.
Semi-pro is almost always played in the spring. Why? I don’t know. That’s just how it has always been. I’m sure there was a reason, but I didn’t mind. Like I said, I hate the cold. When the turf is steaming because the temperature is more than 100 degrees in a late June game, cold is not an issue.
Semi-pro is a very general term anymore, too, because there are so many layers to it. There are players that are paid and others who are not. There are 8-man, 11-man, indoor, women’s and women’s indoor football leagues. The rules and talent level changes across all different levels. There are some leagues that are certainly a bit more professional and organized than others.
There are some athletes with aspirations of a college scholarship or a pro contract. There are some who simply are looking to run around and hit someone. One thing is consistent about semi-pro, however. Every single athlete simply stays involved because they love the game of football.
I’ve heard people say before that semi-pro is “one step above Al Bundy’s glory days in high school.” Well, that’s not entirely wrong. It’s not hard to get involved. Some teams don’t even make practice mandatory - those teams don’t often do too well. For me, I played a bit of rugby in college and wanted to see what I could do on a football field against grown men. So I got the contact info from an old friend, called the coach and made my way to Omaha to play.
When I got there, I saw kids fresh out of high school and men pushing 50 years old running around. I played with and against former top-baseball-prospects-turned-football players, former college all-Americans at various levels, former NFL prospects and all-state athletes. Some guys took it seriously and hit the weight room every day. Others spent more time at the closest Hu-Hot. However, for the most part, despite their professional potential or lack thereof, there were two things that were consistent among almost all players. They were proud athletes and they were going to be your best friends regardless of what went down on the field.
My first season, I learned both lessons pretty quick. In the first live-contact practice we held, I filled in at running back for a few plays. I had a couple of solid runs and was feeling good. One guy, a safety that had been one of my biggest mentors in my first few weeks I was with the team, didn’t take too kindly to that. The very next play, I took the ball up the middle and he split me in half. I don’t know if I ever even got hit so hard in a rugby match. I sat out the next few plays to catch my breath.
Some people may not be aware, but this area was pretty privileged with a solid semi-pro team for many years up until recently. The Nebraska Lawdawgs represented Norfolk for a few years, as did the Norfolk Thunderbirds before them. Unfortunately, as is the case with too many teams after a few years, participation dwindled and costs grew too large and both squads went under.
However, do yourself a favor. If you’ve never seen semi-pro, take the time to find a game and watch one. Travel down to Kearney, over to Sioux City or down to Omaha. You’ll find some top-flight arena squads in Grand Island, Sioux City and Omaha if you prefer that.
When you get to a game, you may see some smaller players or players that need to run a bit more, it may seem a bit disorganized and you won’t see many guys that are going to be in the NFL’s Pro Bowl anytime soon. I acknowledge that there are many teams that fit that exact description. However, you’ll see some of the most entertaining football of your life. Not because they are all super athletes, but because there are few people that simply want to play, hit and give the effort that you will see of these guys.
I could really go on forever, as it all goes much deeper than what I’ve given you. But now you have a small look at the life a semi-pro football player.
I still get the urge to get out and play all the time, especially this time of year. Maybe one day, the area will field another team and I can get back out, hopefully joined by a few of you. At least I can hope.
As an old friend recently told me about wanting to get back onto the field, “That’s the tough part, that itch never goes away.”