The men converge on practice fields around 6 o’clock a couple of nights a week. They are truck drivers, accountants, construction workers, teachers. Some are out of work; most are between 22 and 35; others are pushing 50. All are still chasing a dream, and that fantasy is football.
“The biggest thing I get out of it is the camaraderie,” said Pat Caruso, who at 53 is one of the oldest semipro football players in Eastern Massachusetts.
Caruso, who has played since 1980, when he starred with the Marlboro Shamrocks, is the placekicker for the Metrowest Colonials, a Wayland-based team in the New England Football League. With about 2,000 players and 40 teams throughout New England, the NEFL is the largest of the two semipro leagues in the region. The other is the nine-team Eastern Football League.
Talk to players like Caruso and they speak of a reverence for a game that melds speed, violence, friendship, adrenaline, and a type of discipline that has taught them lessons to live by off the field.
“You learn brotherhood, you learn to be family, to be friends with everybody, and to respect one another,” said Alex Fragione, 43, an auto body repairman and Colonials offensive tackle who has played semipro ball for more than 20 years. “If you respect the sport, it will respect you.”
To understand the lure of playing in the NEFL, consider the sacrifice that players and coaches make. There is no pay, and players dole out up to $200 for the right to make the roster. Semi-weekly practices begin in the early spring, and the season stretches to the fall. Injuries are the norm, ranging from broken bones to blown-out knees. On game days, players often carpool to venues in Maine and Connecticut.
Although there are supposed to be locker rooms, players sometimes end up changing in parking lots or behind their cars. When the game begins, they play before an average crowd of a few hundred. After the games and the long rides home, players wind down together at barbecues or over a couple of beers.
For team owners, the commitment is year-round and the season almost always ends in the red. Their investment is motivated by a desire to keep the players’ dreams alive and an extended sense of community spirit. Some owners, like the North Shore Generals’ Kevin Donahue, spend $15,000 a year for the right to own a team.
“The way I look at is, if I had a boat or a country club membership, it would cost me that much. It’s a hobby; it’s what I do,” said Donahue, vice president of sales at Kitchens Seafood, headquartered in Woburn.
Donahue has the game in his blood. His father, Ray, coached high school football for 48 years in the region north of Boston, and his nephew, Sean Donahue, was an offensive lineman for the Generals before becoming an assistant coach.
Others, like Metrowest Colonials owner Mario Alvarez, are simply hooked on the game and the joy it brings players. “I don’t understand the game. But it has helped me out and my family out a lot in the sense that it gives us something to do in the summer,” said Alvarez, who grew up in Guatemala and works in Framingham as a customer service representative for a temporary labor-staffing company.
Games are played on weekends from July through October, and the owners double as fans and stage managers. Before the season, they update their Web and social media sites, recruit players, and pitch restaurant and bar sponsorship deals at $200 to $300 a pop. On game days, they are the first to arrive at the high school fields where most of the games are played. They hand out game jerseys to players and also make sure everyone, from game officials to emergency medical technicians to ticket sellers, has shown up.
On a recent humid afternoon in Hanover, Steve Santacroce stood at the foot of his pickup truck and distributed helmets that had just been spray-painted by an auto body shop. Santacroce, a personal trainer who owns the South Shore Chiefs, has been hustling to get sponsors and more players on his team. Some, like John Lane, a running back who played for Abington High School and just completed his associate’s degree, want to play at a four-year college and need more game film to send to schools.
Despite getting hit on every play, Lane believes the game is much more than execution and violence. “It cures all wounds, any heartaches; football is always there,” said Lane, 22. “It’s a place for us to come and heal.”
Nearby, Sean Papich, a clean-shaven landscape architect from Hingham, pulled on his jersey and grabbed a football. Papich, who is 49, is beginning his third year as the Chiefs’ backup quarterback. These days he considers himself more of a coach than a player, but he still takes snaps at practice and says he is always ready to go when his name is called.
Papich also knows about injuries. During a game in 2013, he was blindsided by a defensive rush and was taken off the field after suffering four broken ribs and two collapsed lungs.
At Manning Field in Lynn, Generals wide receiver Jesse Fowler caught a pass in practice and discussed how football has helped shape his life. “You’ve got to learn how to win and learn how to lose,” said Fowler, who played football at Lynn English and Merrimack College and works as a Web designer. “You’ve also got to learn how to become a leader. You have to have poise and learn how to motivate people.”
A few yards away, Generals defensive lineman Edward Owens-Finch nodded in agreement. “It’s a combination of love, serious passion, and Darwinism,” said Owens-Finch, who played football at Lynn English and Curry College and works as a security officer at a Boston hospital.
The NEFL is divided into three conferences: Triple A is where a majority of the former college players suit up; Double A and Single A teams have mostly former high school and some ex-college players.
From the sidelines, Owens-Finch watched his teammates practice and likened the Generals’ AAA conference to Division 2 college ball. Quarterbacks’ spirals shot out like a cannon and sailed 30 yards on target; wide receivers’ cuts were crisp; tackles were hard and fast.
At 28, and with six years of semipro behind him, Owens-Finch plans to play as long as he can.
Owens-Finch returned to the huddle. The grunts, collisions, and perfect spirals continued. Coaches took players aside to tutor; defensive backs smashed receivers at the line of scrimmage; linebackers slammed halfbacks in midstep. The lights at Manning Field flicked on; players celebrated a long run.
The stands were empty, and once again, the men had the game of football all to themselves.Steven A. Rosenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.