Monday, August 14, 2006

Team fights to return to past glory

Team fights to return to past glory

A legend is dying and very few seem to care. Once a very proud, successful franchise, the Scranton Eagles are hanging on by a thread.

Make no mistake, the fight’s not over yet. With all the problems, the spirit is still there. If someone just offered a helping hand, the glory days could come back in a flash.

But those days are getting harder and harder to recall.

“Most people have no idea,” says John Kennedy, a veteran quarterback of 24 years. “The Scranton Eagles are like the New York Yankees of semipro football. Everybody around the country knows who we are.”

At least in the world of semipro football.

The Eagles have won nine championships as a member of the Empire Football League, one of the longest-running semipro leagues in the country, and five national championships since their birth in 1982.

If only the good times had stayed. EFL titles have come few and far lately, the last coming in 1999, and for the last few years it’s been a struggle to make the playoffs. They may have been the Yankees a couple decades ago, but lately they’ve been more like the San Francisco 49ers, desperately trying to rebuild some semblance of their former selves. And their play is the least of the Eagles’ worries.

Take a look at their Web site — — specifically the first link listed on the left. It’s not the schedule or the roster or the last game’s recap. Instead, a plea for help. “Support Our Team.”

The link takes you to a magazine fundraiser, one of those dime-a-dozen things a 12-year-old brings home to raise money for Boy Scout Troop 307. But this is a football team. Made up of adults. Seems a little odd that an outfit like this has to raise money in that mannter, even if it is a nonprofit corporation.

Somewhere along the way the fans stopped showing up. On an average night, the crowd might number 250, and once the team writes an $1,875 check to pay for the use of the stadium and another $580 check for the referees and still more checks for other services, it’s tough to come out ahead with the price of admission at $7.

“We’re almost always in the red after a game day report,” Sue Foley, the team’s general manager, says. “We don’t count on getting a profit from the gate.”

That wasn’t always the case. In 1982, the Eagles packed Memorial Stadium with 8,500 people for a national semifinal against the Chicago Lions.

But such a game hasn’t happened since the first Bush administration, and the sponsors that used to keep the team alive have slowly drifted off, leaving the team cash-strapped and scrambling to find enough money to complete the season.

“If we had one home game, and 5,000 people came in, that would pay for a whole season,” team president George Romiti says.

Right now there’s not enough money for the last three games of this season, according to Romiti. Most teams would panic, maybe shut down, but not the Eagles.

“We’ll fundraise through this season,” Foley says. “Between a couple of the players and a couple of volunteers we’ll raise the money.”

Even if they do make it through this season, next year might be a different story. Most teams would fold. It happens all the time in semipro ball, but this not your average semipro team. A 24-year run is something a few dozen teams have pulled off among the hundreds that play around this country, and it’s not to be given up lightly.

When the Eagles’ board of directors evaluates their financial situation, there will be two choices, but under no circumstances will their run come to an end.

“If we have to, we’ll take a leave of absence from the EFL next year,” Foley says. “If you fold, the team’s gone, it’s done, but with a leave of absence you can come back. Then we would take that year to find more board members, fundraise, get more interest and get us back to the point where we can be successful.”

Right now there are only six members on a board meant to have 15. After originally getting involved to help out her father, Dave Lunger, the team’s president and general manager until 2001, Foley runs the gate, passes out equipment, raises funds, makes sure the uniforms get clean, along with a host of other jobs. Romiti is not only the president but also the middle linebacker.

Trouble is, a lot of people in Scranton have forgotten the team is still around, and with so few to help, it’s hard to get the word out.

Nobody gets paid on the Eagles. They do this for love of game and of team, but that doesn’t mean real life can be forgotten. Most players still have to work 40 hours a week, spend time with their families, take care of necessities, leaving precious little time for the team.

Kennedy thinks this team can still get back to the glory days.

The blueprint is there. Expand the board. Find local sponsors that care about the sport. From that comes more exposure, more involvement from the community, and from there who knows?

See, there’s this thing about legends. They don’t die real easy. Once you’ve been to the top, you’ve got an advantage over everybody else.

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