The Boston Brawlers sit crammed into the little kids’ seats of the yellow school buses after a recent practice at Holy Cross. They look like sweat-dripping giants.
The players have a lot in common. According to the Brawlers, all of them have recently been in NFL camps. Last summer, one Brawler was a Patriot catching spirals from Tom Brady in practice while another Brawler briefly quarterbacked the New York Jets.
Some players still wear their NFL team warm-ups like badges of honor. But the cruel fact is that all have been cut, and they all have something to prove.
That is why they are playing in the inaugural season of the Fall Experimental Football League. The four-team league strives to be a feeder league for the NFL. Baseball has its minor leagues, the NBA has the Developmental League, and now football has the FXFL. Since the league’s inception, several FXFL players have jumped back to the NFL.
“The opportunity is now,” says Cory Bachman, the Brawlers’ director of football operations. “It’s now or never and these guys know it.”
The Brawlers play an abbreviated five-game schedule. Their road games are at minor league stadiums (on Coney Island and in Omaha) and their home games are at Harvard Stadium. The fourth FXFL team, the Blacktips, must hit the blacktop for all of their games. They have no home field.
The Brawlers are owned by the league, though a senior league official, Michael Halem, is trying to arrange for an ownership group in Boston.
FXFL players are paid $1,000 a game, share a room at a suburban Holiday Inn, and receive no meal money.
“It’s a minor league model, but it’s a major league product,” says FXFL commissioner Brian Woods. “The talent on the field is NFL-caliber.”
Tickets range from $5 to $40, and games are on Wednesday or Friday nights, so as not to overlap with the NFL. Everybody plays — that’s part of the deal, because everybody needs current game film.
Although FXFL teams are not affiliated with the NFL, the NFL teams are watching the game tapes, according to Woods.
“The NFL member clubs have been very supportive of what we are doing,” says Woods. “We’ve had a few players signed for the 53-man roster, two on the practice squad, and three players working out for NFL clubs.”
The new league hopes to charge the NFL for training players in season, but so far, they have not been compensated. The league is operating at a loss but believes its low costs will keep it from the fate of other defunct alternative football leagues.
Fires still burning
The Brawlers, whose fist-first logo looks more like V.I. Lenin than John L. Sullivan, have lost their first two road games.
But before their inaugural home game, on a Friday night in October, coach Terry Shea, a former Rutgers head coach who has been with four NFL teams, urges them to “rally to the ball. Get yourself around the football and pick up your ballcarrier.”
The Brawlers go out and beat the Blacktips, 28-10. The announced paid attendance is 945, but there appears to be no more than 350 people in the stands.
Those who attended got themselves a bargain — a high-energy
Jon Halapio, a 320-pound offensive lineman, was drafted in the sixth round by the Patriots out of Florida last spring and played in all four preseason games. He was one of the last cuts in training camp.
He didn’t cry when Bill Belichick told him he was “not up to par” for the offensive line rotation.
“It can always be worse,” says Halapio, a new father of a baby girl. “It beats being home working out by myself. I’m grateful that I’m here and not home doing nothing.”
He believes he can make it back to the NFL.
“I think I’ve got a good chance if I stay the course and get some good film,” he says.
Others have not gotten much of a chance in the NFL.
Quarterback Tajh Boyd, the 2012 Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year at Clemson, was a sixth-round pick by the Jets this year but barely played in preseason.
“Do I feel like I can be a starting QB in the NFL? Absolutely,” says Boyd. “So why should I stop striving to be the best player I can be?”
With his rental car and other expenses, says Boyd, he’s losing money in the league.
“But it’s definitely not about the money,” he says.
Against the Blacktips, Boyd stands out, tossing four touchdown passes. But with the FXFL regular season ending this week, time is running out for him and the Brawlers.
“You hear the skepticism: ‘He didn’t play in a pro-style offense in college, and he’s not really that tall,’ ” says Boyd. “You hear a little bit of everything.
“But that’s the crazy part of the NFL: It’s almost like a carousel, it goes round and round and eventually you get on the right horse.’’
Boyd says playing in near-empty stadiums is bizarre.
“If you let it, you can struggle with it, especially coming from Clemson, with 90,000 in the stands,” he says. “It feels weird, I’m not going to lie to you. You’ve got to find a new energy, you’ve got to find a new light.’’
Sense of camaraderie
The FXFL uses some rules that differ from standard football.
Extra points, for instance, are attempted from the 35-yard line and from an off-center hash mark to increase difficulty.
Kickoffs are from the 25-yard line to encourage runbacks. The returning team must bunch up eight players in a 10-yard area between the 35- and 45-yard lines to reduce concussions.
“They’re trying to experiment,” says Wilson Van Hooser, an undrafted wide receiver who was cut by the Patriots in training camp. “It’s cool, it’s been fun to do.”
Von Hooser, who reads the Bible before taking the field, says the team of NFL misfits has bonded well under adversity.
“It’s great enjoying the team camaraderie, just trying to keep getting better,” he says. “It’s actually an incredible opportunity. If you love football, come watch some good football.”
Corbin Louks, a wide receiver out of Nevada who was on the Seattle Seahawks’ practice squad, says, “I haven’t played in a real live football game since college. So the fact that you can get back out there with live bullets and to put that on tape is vital.
“That’s all the NFL teams are looking for now. If you don’t have recent film, they don’t care what you did in college.”
As long as the tape is rolling, says Louks, he’s happy.
“Obviously it’s a lot more fun when there’s people in the stands,” he says, “but I’m not here for the people in the stands. No, I’m here to play football. I’m here to chase a dream.”