Thursday, September 23, 2010
More than semi-tough: Troops take warrior mentality to gridiron - Off Duty ...
George Ashcraft knows what that's like. Head coach of the Watertown Red and Black, just outside Fort Drum, N.Y., Ashcraft and many of his players sport a tattoo with the team's logo bearing the date May 12, 2007. That's the day Sgt. 1st Class James Connell was killed in Iraq.
Formed in 1896, the Red and Black is the oldest semi-pro football team in the nation. Ashcraft first joined as a player in 1973 just out of high school.
"I graduated on a Sunday, and Monday was my first practice," he says. He's been the head coach for the past 20 seasons and says military players have always brought something special to the team.
"It goes without saying most of these men are in fantastic shape. They're disciplined, respectful. Many of them have played college ball. They come and go, but I never forget them," Ashcraft says. He just wishes they wouldn't all go at once.
Last year Ashcraft went to the league championship with a half-dozen of his players in Afghanistan.
That's one of the reasons he now webcasts every game.
"After the first night we put the game on the Internet, I had messages on my phone from soldiers all over the world. One of my coaches is in Germany now, and he watches every game."
Those viewers are on top of the 500 to 1,000 fans who go out to watch the games live. "We had about 2,000 people at last year's championship. I think we might double that if we go again this year."
Not the farm league
It's true, plenty of semi-pro teams would suffer against a good high school squad. And just to be clear, while baseball's minor leagues are the tried-and-true path to the big stadiums, that's decidedly not the case with semi-pro football.
"Pro football has its farm league, and it's called Division I collegiate football," says David Burch, president of the American Football Association, which represents semi-pro teams across the country.
Most semi-pro teams gather a few times a week to practice and play on Saturdays at local high school stadiums. Depending on the league, teams play any of three seasons throughout the year. Some of the better-organized teams with sponsors and a regular fan base will provide uniforms and gear and bus the players to away games, while others require players to outfit themselves and charge a fee to help cover other costs.