Jerry Storm, the Colorado Wildcats' No. 1 fan, has been going to games for five years now, so he's seen it all. He's watched women get into fights in the stands. He saw the Cats' Thomas Stubblefield rush for 2,000 yards in 1994. He once saw an opposing player belt a startled official in the mouth. He's been around to watch the Wildcats win the divisional championship four times. He was also there the day a big lineman from the Bulldogs dropped dead on the field from a heart attack. He's seen the Titans fight with each other a couple of times. He even spotted an NFL scout on the sideline one Saturday afternoon. At least somebody said the guy was an NFL scout.
"It's an entertaining brand of football," Storm says.
What we're talking about here is the Colorado Football Conference, a rough-and-ready amateur/semi-pro league that has been knocking heads in relative obscurity for the past ten years--and filling some of those heads with dreams of big-league stardom. The CFC game can be raw and undisciplined, and individual egos sometimes loom larger than actual ability. But you can see and hear the players' deep-down feeling for the sport--whether they're grizzled 35-year-olds reliving their high school glory days, aging ex-college players or someone like Cats defensive back Zachary Brower, still a teenager, who never played football at any level before joining this team.
As for the sprinkling of authentic young talents out there, most of them are sidetracked hotshots looking for a second chance--and a few might get it now that the league's new leaders are determined to clean up its act. Although some small college teams dropped out of the CFC a few years back, the level of play is now something like Division II college, with a strong running game and spotty passing. Discipline is still not what it should be.
"I've instructed the officials to adhere strictly to the NCAA rulebook on taunting and fighting," new assistant commissioner David Acheson says. "The league kicked two teams out last season because they had so many troublemakers on them, but things are getting better. By and large, our players are out there because they love the game."
They have to. Not only do they play for nothing, they pay for their own pads, uniforms and equipment, and they make time for two or three evening practices a week. This year, one Wildcat donated the paint for the team's new gold helmets, and 44-year-old head coach Gary Kozacek, who's a handyman in real life, paid the $975 team registration fee out of his own pocket. Machismo may still run as thick as sweat in the CFC, but the players care.
"Not bad, huh?" Wildcats running back Pat Ingrassia asks.
It is the first quarter of last Saturday's season opener between the Wildcats and the Denver Warriors, and the Cats have just driven the length of the patchy, weed-infested practice field at Montbello High School to take a 7-0 lead. Ingrassia, a 24-year-old six-footer who weighs 235 pounds these days--35 pounds more than when he lettered for three seasons at Colorado State--is sitting on his helmet, waiting for the next offensive series.
"I don't want to do this for a job," he says. "I'm out here for another chance to hit on a Saturday afternoon and to have a good time. There's some real talent on this field, but let's face it--there's already such a huge pool of players for the pros that this kind of football isn't going to attract a lot of attention. Somebody's agent might come out once in awhile, but the stands aren't packed with scouts. This is fun for me, but I want to get my real life started."
On July 8, Ingrassia--three years removed from CSU's appearance in the Freedom Bowl--will move to New York City and begin work as an investment broker.
By the third quarter of Saturday's game, the Wildcats are leading 19-0 and show no sign of letting up. One reason is that some things never change: When the Cats arrived at Montbello earlier in the day, they found themselves locked out of their dressing room, and a couple of minutes later their water bottles had vanished. "Typical bullshit," one Cat complained. Meanwhile, coach Kozacek has used these indignities to motivate his club in the pre-game pep talk.
Now, going into the fourth quarter, the Warriors' sideline is in disarray. Players are squabbling with each other, several are loudly threatening an all-out mutiny against their coaches, and one Warrior has been thrown out of the game for mouthing off to the refs. Another slams his helmet into the ground and screams: "Why don't somebody stop those suckers?!"
"Those suckers" are a lean, 6-1 Wildcats cornerback by the name of Tim Wright, who's already been in on a dozen tackles and frustrated the Warriors' wild, run-and-gun passing attack, and a 5-10 flea named Donta Spencer playing the other corner. They're the type of stand-out player--usually a quarterback, ball carrier or defensive back--who can single-handedly dominate a CFC game and who embodies all the dreams of the 15,000 guys who play for more than 250 semi-pro teams around the country. It was the dream of NFL pro-bowler Eric Swann, who never played college ball but found his way to the Arizona Cardinals in 1991 by way of the Bay City Titans. It was the dream of Ray Seals, who in 1987 was playing for the Syracuse (New York) Express and wound up last January in the Super Bowl, playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Stories like these are few and far between. But Spencer hasn't given up hope. This very morning the former Smoky Hill and Emporia State (Kansas) star has run a 4.39 forty-yard dash at a scouting combine down at Littleton High School, and if things go as he expects, he'll soon be suiting up for the Frankfurt Galaxy in the World League of American Football. "I'm not trying to get to the NFL," he says quietly, "but I think I can go on. There was a time when coaches said I was 'uncoachable,' which was never true...but I've grown up a lot since then. I'm just looking for a second chance."
Tim Wright has a dream, too. In 1992 the New York City native arrived at the University of Tennessee as a quarterback/wide-receiver prospect for coach Johnny Majors. A year and a half later he was out of Tennessee and playing for all-black Knoxville College. Two years after that he finds himself in Denver, with fatherhood and marriage looming ahead of him, in that order. Wearing the purple jersey of the Colorado Wildcats on a high school practice field, he's clearly four or five notches ahead of many others. But is that enough?
"I just got back from Las Vegas, where I had a tryout with Calgary," he reports. "Supposed to get a call back. And I just went to a combine in St. Louis where I rated number one out of 500 players. There are a lot more opportunities now--the CFL, the World League, arena football. But who knows? If I never get to go pro, I want to become a coach. I've had my own problems, and that's given me a real feeling for kids. I get along with them."
And does Tim Wright now regret dropping out of Tennessee? "Oh, yeah," he answers. "Oh, yeah. In my dream, all of us go on further in the game..."
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In her wildest dreams, Gayle Jennings probably couldn't have imagined what she's seeing this afternoon from the sideline. Her husband of seven months, Dwain Jennings, is lined up in the Wildcats' power-I. He takes the handoff, bursts through the middle, gets hit and comes to rest about three feet from back judge Tom Bates...Gayle's former husband of twenty years. That's another way it is in this league--a lot of the players know each other, some of the officials have also been coaches, some of the coaches have been players, and the occasional fan finds two husbands out there on the field.
Until he was 41, Gary Kozacek played quarterback for the Wildcats, and he's been coaching for 26 years at one level or another. Now he wishes he could have his team together five days a week and take it to the next level. "We'd like to go national," he says, which means getting ranked in the American Football Association's standings, maybe aiming for the national championship game in Orlando, Florida. The Concord (North Carolina) Storm won it all last year, and there's no reason, Kozacek says, that his Wildcats couldn't go that far.
In the meantime, the Cats beat the Warriors 26-0 in the season opener and start wondering if the eighteen extra jerseys they were trying to round up will arrive in time for next week's game. Better get some new water bottles, too, before Saturday's team meal down at the Western Sizzlin'. The Cats will be hosting the Pirates next Saturday in Englewood, and the Pirates are a brand-new team, so they may not be very good. But you never know, do you? The Pirates might have the next Eric Swann playing for them. And there might be an NFL scout in the stands to spot him. Maybe.