Semipro football players in it for love of the game
They’re unpaid, draw tiny crowds, harbor few NFL dreams — and love every minute
It’s a Tuesday evening in August under an unyielding sun that pushed the temperature to near 90 earlier in the day. There is no shade behind Walsh Middle School field in Framingham where the Metrowest Colonials, one of 44 teams in the New England Football League, are preparing for their next game, which will be against the New Hampshire Wolfpack in Manchester.
It’s a grind. F-bombs pierce the air. All of the players drip sweat and huff and puff with exertion. For linemen like 315-pound Michael Hurst of Northborough, and 280-pound Don O’Leary of Marlborough, the next water break will be the best part of their day. For most people, this isn’t the ideal activity for a late-summer evening. But for semipro football players it’s all part of the deal.
In early September, when the local high school, college, and pro football scene is just starting to heat up, semipro teams are getting ready to wrap up, with playoffs slated to begin in early October.
Unlike those on minor-league baseball rosters, the vast majority of semipro football athletes do not see themselves on a career path to the big leagues and lucrative contracts. In fact none of them get paid; just the opposite is true. Locally, first-year players have to come up with $200 to play; the cost goes down each year a player makes the team.
Virtually all have day jobs. They are roofers and
auto technicians, corrections officers and personal trainers. A few are between things. Some are in their early 20s; some are twice that age. Players even older are not unheard of. They’ve suffered concussions, broken arms and legs, torn joints, and ugly contusions of various shapes and sizes.
Typically, they play at town stadiums and on high school fields before small crowds of family and significant others. Many of their friends and neighbors have never even heard of semipro football.
So why do they do it?
“This is kinda my fountain of youth,” says O’Leary, who is 38. He’s a 6-foot, 3-inch offensive lineman — “where the men play,” he says with a smile. O’Leary, who has three children, is a corrections officer at Bay State-Norfolk. He works the graveyard shift, 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., which means he’ll be going to work after practice. He’s done double shifts so he wouldn’t have to miss a practice or game.
“I only sleep three to five hours a night,” says O’Leary, who played football at Assabet Valley Regional Technical High School in Marlborough and at Dean College in Franklin.
Last season he missed six games with a broken leg. “My wife is supportive, but most of my family say I’m too old, and that this is too risky for me,” says O’Leary.
His wife, Christina Pascal, a social worker, cringed when they carted her husband off the field that night, in Saco, Maine. “I was with my two daughters. It was a rough six months after that. Don was laid up on the couch. He was out of work.”
Miguel Ortiz, 23, shows up for practice even though a hamstring injury has him sidelined. “I’m here because I’m a captain,” he says. He suffered the injury in the last 58 seconds of the previous game, a 20-19 win over North Shore. The injury will keep him out of the next game.
Ortiz, an auto mechanic, played football at Marian High School in Framingham. Between his junior and senior year he had surgery for an irregular heartbeat. This is his third year with the Colonials. “I put this before everything,” he explains.
Many players car pool to the games, which are played on weekends.
The Colonials carry 65 players on the roster. Typically, about 45 are in uniform on game night, depending on who is injured or working or just couldn’t make it. The regular season ends Oct. 4, when NFL, college, and high school games are just hitting their stride.
A handful of players have had an opportunity to play at a higher level. The Colonials’ top receiver, Steve Noyes, 27, had a tryout with the New York Giants. It went nowhere. He’s a personal trainer at Oakley Country Club in Watertown. He shows up for practices and games even though he is in the midst of moving back to his native Vermont. “I can’t bail on this team,” he says.
Quarterback J.R. Suozzo, 25, played at Everett High, helping the team beat Brockton in the Super Bowl his senior year. He led Bridgton (Maine) Academy to its best record ever, 9-1. He says his SATs weren’t good enough to get him into a Division 1 college so he wound up at Merrimack College and had a good run there but wanted more.
He went to a New York Giants camp and got cut. But he knew it was a long shot. “How many get to do that? I was very fortunate,” he says. He’s tried out for several teams in the Canadian Football League. “I’m still trying to get my foot in the door,” he says.
This is his first year with the Colonials. In practice he throws perfect spirals, the ball hitting receivers in stride 45 yards downfield. He believes he can do this professionally. For now, he gets paid as a roofer.
Colonials strong safety Adrian DeJesus became a father at 17 while a junior at Marlborough High. The Panthers were playing Fitchburg on a Friday night when his daughter was born. “I went to the hospital right after the game,” says DeJesus. “I still had my uniform on.”
At 4 a.m., his girlfriend. Brittany Scerra, also 17, delivered a daughter, Aracely. She’s 5 now. DeJesus and Scerra are living together and plan on marrying. They’re both 22.
Brittany knows how much Adrian loves the sport. “It’s definitely a risk, but I don’t really worry. He knows what he’s doing. Adrian’s never had a major injury.’’
At the games, Aracely wears a T-shirt with his number, 12, and the words “Go Daddy.”
Head coach Gene Robinson calls DeJesus “an unbelievable leader, a great player with Division 1 potential. He hits like Rodney Harrison.” DeJesus is 5 feet 10 inches, 205 pounds. This is his fourth season with the Colonials.
DeJesus attended Anna Maria College briefly, but left to “take care of my family.” He got a construction job and now works at a clothing company warehouse in Natick.
Semipro football flies under the radar of most sports fans, with the bulk of the season taking place during the time of beach vacations and the Red Sox. It’s just one of the challenges facing the team.
“We’re still chugging away,” says Mario Alvarez, in his sixth year as Colonials general manager. “There are days when I say ‘OK, why are we doing this?’ ’’ The team runs on a financial shoestring, with the goal being to break even, Alvarez says.
The team uses two home sites, Bowditch Field in Framingham and Kelleher Field in Marlborough. Tickets are $10. The Colonials average between 200-300 fans a game, according to Alvarez. On the road, only a handful — mostly friends and family members — go to the games, a few of which are played out of state.
Besides revenue from tickets and players’ fees, the team solicits financial support from local sponsors, and in exchange the Colonials put their ads on the team’s website, Facebook page, and signage at the field on game nights.
Similarly, the team keeps a close watch on costs. and players supply their own equipment. Rental for Bowditch costs $1,700 per game, while Kelleher charges $1,200. For home games the team forks out around $600 to pay for police, EMTs, and game officials.
Alvarez says that he has spent as much as $17,000 for expenses in a season. “But I’ve run the team on as little as $8,000 by car pooling and not renting buses for road trips,” he says.
It’s no wonder that players don’t get paid, but why are they referred to as semipro?
According to New England Football League officials, the name is a holdover from the first half of the last century, when paying players was more common, a practice that has diminished steadily since. In fact, the bylaws of the NEFL, which was founded in 1994, stipulate that no players will be paid.
“I look at [semipro football] as men’s tackle recreational football,’’ says Tom Torrisi of Salisbury, chief executive of the NEFL. “It’s truly a workingman’s league.”
The Colonials offer game films to players who want to send a highlight package to colleges or professional teams.
Film might help Emmanuel “Mano” Versailles, 22, an unemployed running back from Central Falls, R.I. Versailles, who lives in Attleboro, says he couldn’t afford higher education and still dreams of playing in college. “I just need an opportunity,” says the powerful 5-foot-10, 205-pounder.
Versailles says that he was a relative latecomer to the game. “I didn’t start until eighth grade. My eyes were closed to a lot of things, a lot of knowledge about football. I was just beginning football when I got out of high school,’’ he says.
DeJesus, the young father, harbors similar hopes. ““I still think about playing in college,” he says. “It’s a long shot, sure. But you stay with it. You never know who’s watching from the last row of the bleachers.’’
Like some of his players, Coach Robinson also has greater ambitions. The Southborough native played at Algonquin Regional in Northborough. He’s been an assistant coach at several colleges and high schools. “My goal is to get a full-time coaching job at a college.” For now, his day job is director of facilities and transportation at Marian High.
While some embrace football dreams, for most it’s just about the game itself.
The Colonials had a kicker last year named Pat Caruso. “He’s 51 or 52,” says Alvarez. Caruso continues to play, now for a team in Worcester.
Alvarez figures there’s no player anywhere older — or more devoted —