Thursday, October 20, 2005

Mallers savor return to glory

Albany-based semipros are 11-0, playing for title

By PETE IORIZZO, Staff writer
First published: Thursday, October 20, 2005

Practice begins in 23 minutes. Players dress behind their cars in the Bleecker Stadium parking lot. Rap music blares from an SUV's speakers. The stadium lights flicker on as dusk sets in. 
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Akili Duncan, whose semiprofessional football career spans more than a decade, steps onto the grass field. Duncan is 33 years old. He works as a teaching assistant at Kipp Tech Valley Charter School in Albany. He has three children.

"Why do I do this?" he says. "A chance for one more down, man. One more down."

Duncan jogs toward midfield, where between 40 and 50 players dressed in tattered sweats and mismatched jerseys prepare to practice a brand of football that's anything but ragtag.

The Albany Metro Mallers, a semiprofessional team in the Empire Football League, finished an undefeated regular season (11-0) Sept. 24. On Saturday at Bleecker Stadium, they play the Orange County Bulldogs for a chance at their first championship since 1989.

For the organization, the game represents an opportunity to reclaim status as one of the country's best semipro teams. For the players, it's one more chance at fulfilling a dream.

"Maybe it's no big deal to the average person," quarterback Scott Lawson says. "Maybe they don't understand. But there's something about this that just makes us crazy."

Crazy? Just look at their routines.

Lawson, 36, wakes up by 5 a.m. every morning to report to work at Rifenburg Construction Inc., where he's a manager. He often heads directly from work to practice. Despite a height of, "Oh, say 6-foot," and a weight of "2 ... 15 ... about," he has played quarterback his entire career.

Mallers coach Norman Mann lives in Plainfield, N.J. For practices and games, he commutes 2 hours to Albany after leaving work at Newark Liberty International Airport. Mann shrugs off suggestions his routine is anything exceptional. One season he flew to Fairfax, Va., three times a week to coach the Virginia Storm.

"I love the sport," Mann says. "As long as I'm doing this, I don't care, I'll go to Canada."

For the first two decades after their 1971 inauguration, the Mallers embodied the blue-collar, hard-working characteristics of both their players and namesakes -- the laborers who constructed Albany's Empire State Plaza. The team played in the league title game seven times -- winning twice -- and became one of the EFL's flagship franchises.

But 13 years ago, a group of investors from Troy bought the Mallers and changed their name to the Collar City Chiefs and then Capitaland Thunder. The franchise lost games, players and its reputation.

"We were the bad boys of the league," Duncan says. "Back then, we'd be at a game, like in Watertown, and guys would be chasing the referees back to their cars. We had a black eye."

In 2004, the Mallers returned under their original name, with local businessman Frank Rogers as owner and former player Joe Barbagallo as general manager. Barbagallo brought 88 players to the team's first minicamp. He found players at the University at Albany, RPI, Union College and Hudson Valley Community College, among other places. Former players also returned.

"I knew we had something special going," Barbagallo said.

Barbagallo then hired Mann, a coach with more than 25 years of semipro experience. At the first team meeting in the East Greenbush Community Library, Mann asked all the players to stand and introduce themselves. As each player spoke, others interrupted with wisecracks. Mann allowed the scene to play out, then told the team, "First of all, we need to learn to respect each other."

He changed codes of conduct and vowed more discipline. If a starter misses a practice, he plays second string during the next game. Any player who skips two practices risks not playing at all. Mann demanded players act like professional athletes off the field.

"Discipline was the biggest thing," Mann says. "We had to have the discipline. This is the first team I've coached in a long time that averages 40 to 45 players at every practice."

The Mallers reaped results immediately. They lost only twice last year, once during the regular season and then in the championship game. This year, the Mallers started their season by allowing only eight points over the first six games while averaging 34. They're led by Lawson's 1,510 yards passing, the rushing tandem of Jadel Whitfield (514 yards) and Sylvester Cooperwood (397), and middle linebacker Greg Woodward's 63 tackles.

"The talent here is top-notch," Woodward says. "We're going to bring this one home. I guarantee we're going to bring this one home."

Duncan stands near the sideline while the special teams practice on one side of the field and the offense and defense line up on the other. He plans to soon end his football career to concentrate on his professional one. He hopes to earn his master's degree in education administration and, someday, become a superintendent.

"This has been fun," he says, "but there are some other things I've got to take care of now."

He straps on his helmet and trots back onto the field. Before all that, Duncan has at least one more down to play.

Iorizzo can be reached at 454-5425 or by e-mail at

All Times Union materials copyright 1996-2005, Capital Newspapers Division of The Hearst Corporation, Albany, N.Y.

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