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Semi-Tough

I'm 37, short, out-of-shape, and happily married. Never did I imagine that trying out for a semipro football team in Boston would lead to the most unlikely bonds among young and not-so-young men -- black, white, and Hispanic, struggling and successful, from Beacon Hill to Roxbury, all still clinging to their dreams.

This year, I joined a semiprofessional football team. This was strange for three reasons. First, I was nearly 37 years old. Second, I stand about 5 feet 8 and weigh 160. After a full meal. Third, I had never played a single down of real football -- helmets, pads, referees, pain -- in my life.

Pray for me.

While I wasn't exactly hooked up to an iron lung at the time, I was still too old for new hobbies that involved physical violence. In the 15 years since playing soccer in college, aside from the occasional jog along the Charles, I had morphed into a primarily couch-bound mammal -- an advertising-copywriter-turned-author who was better suited to noncontact activity. Something, say, from a continuing education catalog. Like origami. But instead, not only had I chosen to play football, I had set my sights on the most pressure-packed position there was: place-kicker. Which was curious if you knew that in my earlier life, the only skill I'd mastered in sports seemed to be choking when it counted most: clanking last-second free throws, striking out with the bases loaded, missing easy breakaways. So, lining up for a game-winning field goal with a second left on the clock and large, angry men plotting to hurt me was quite simply the last thing I should have been doing.

But I never planned to actually play. I was starting work in June on a book about semipro football and, through a series of contacts and Google searches, tracked down Reggie Murphy, 37, general manager and offensive lineman for my local semipro team, the Boston (formerly Roxbury) Panthers of the Eastern Football League, and a 14-year semipro veteran. At one point during our interview, I casually mentioned my soccer experience, and -- ding! -- I could practically hear the light bulb click on over Reggie's head. "Hey, we need a kicker," the outgoing Mattapan resident told me. "You should come try out at practice tomorrow night." Before I could stop myself, the words were already out: "Sure. Why not?"

There are more than 600 semipro and amateur football teams and 60 leagues from Maine to Hawaii. In the glory days of the 1930s, '40s and '50s, it was one of the routes to -- or back to -- the pros. (Before the late great Johnny Unitas had his epic career with the Baltimore Colts, he played on Pittsburgh's rock-and-glass-covered semipro fields after being cut by the Steelers in 1955.) Today, the EFL, established in 1961, remains the oldest continually running amateur league in the United States. Since its founding, it has fielded teams in 74 cities and towns throughout New England, New York, and New Jersey. Currently, there are nine area EFL teams in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Most participants have at least played at the high school or college level and just want to compete. Only a rare few get paid.

This means that almost all players buy their own equipment, cover transportation to and from games, and pay team dues, which help with everything from field lights to referees' fees. Some 20-somethings play to keep sharp for their next NFL/CFL/Arena League tryout. Most, however, play because they can't purge football from their systems -- those "my day job's not enough" warriors with mortgages, kids, knee pain, and bosses, who just want to play a game they love and blow off some workday steam in the process. It's also a chance to feel like a star. "I was at a bus stop tonight, coming over here, and all these little neighborhood kids gathered around me," Carl Davis, a backup defensive end who lives with his grandmother and four children in Roxbury, told me one day at practice. "They wanted to touch my shoulder pads, try on my helmet. They said, `We want to play for the Panthers someday.' That made me feel proud, you know?"

The night after talking to Reggie, I attended my first practice at Franklin Park. Not as a player but as a writer, observing, taking notes, secretly hoping he'd forgotten all about that whole kicking thing.

As practice ended, Reggie approached with his childhood friend, wide receiver/team owner Delaney Roberts, 36, a friendly, softspoken Mattapan resident and former Hyde Park High track star who now walked gingerly with knees that had seen one injury too many. "Want to kick?" Reggie asked through the black face-mask bars of his silver Panther helmet. As the others stared, they had to be wondering, Who's the old, skinny dude? I followed the veterans out to the battered, divot-filled turf. Reggie set a ball on a tee and asked Donnie Williams, 41, the oldest Panther -- he drove nearly an hour each way from Berkley for practices -- to shag my kicks. "All right, Mark," Reggie said, nodding encouragingly. I took a deep breath and started forward, in my sneakers (of course I didn't have cleats).

The ball flew fairly long and straight, sailing over Donnie's head. Reggie tossed me another ball; I teed it up and kicked again. And again. About 10 times. Some I hit well; others I shanked and sent careering off into the darkness. I was no Adam Vinatieri, but my old-guy leg at least hadn't detached from my torso, helicoptered into nearby power lines, and burst into flames. Finally, Reggie looked at Delaney: So, what do you think? Delaney shrugged. Better than what we got. "All right, Mark," Reggie said and grinned. "You're our new kicker."

That was my tryout? Shouldn't I have run through tractor tires? Had my vertical leap measured? Passed a urine test? Apparently not. I was the new Panthers kicker. The season began in three days.

As my wife and friends looked on with a mix of bewilderment and amusement, I was like the Tasmanian Devil that weekend, buying football equipment, practicing how to put it on (wrangling a jersey over shoulder pads is not as easy as it looks, trust me), stretching, and kicking anything in sight (cans, rocks, the air). Then Sunday came, and I found myself under the lights of Brockton's Marciano Stadium - being mercilessly heckled by the fans behind our sideline. I was the obvious target, wearing a massive No. 63 offensive lineman's jersey, baggy black pants, and an ill-fitting helmet still streaked from my having spray painted it metallic silver.

I looked like Corey Haim in Lucas.

"Yo, do they get any smaller than No. 63?" one creative heckler screeched, this despite my effort to strategically place myself at all times next to Pedro Guirola, a 5-foot-4 reserve running back. For the next 60 minutes, I'd never felt smaller, more out of place. Or more white.

I was one of only three white guys out of 50-plus active Panthers. I had attended two ivy-covered prep schools. I lived on cobblestoned, blue-blooded Beacon Hill. And I was raised in Wellesley, which made Beacon Hill look like Compton.

But I quickly found that my white skin didn't matter to the Panthers. Could I kick? That's what mattered. And while I had yet to prove myself in a game -- I didn't play in our 13-6 loss at Brockton because head coach Mike Pittman, known as Coach Pitt, didn't trust someone he hadn't really seen kick yet -- my teammates, perhaps hearing of my soccer past, were already confident in my ability. "Don't worry, man," Felipe Ogaldgz, a defensive back, told me the next week at practice, as I hit mock extra points against a chain-link fence at Franklin Park. "We know you'll hit one for us when it counts." Their support pushed me to attend every practice, run every sprint, do every push-up, because I knew that at my age, I might never get the chance to play football again.

Weeks, and games, passed. We lost our first two -- to Brockton and to the 2003 EFL champion Middleborough Cobras, a bitter 27-18 defeat - which brought out the worst in human nature. Sulking. Finger-pointing. Threats of quitting. Behavior that seemed even more crass when, later that week, a stray bullet hit an 11-year-old boy trying out for South End Pop Warner. "I coach that team," Coach Pitt told us at practice, almost whispering. "My kids were on the field that day. I was the second one to reach that little boy. And all I could think about, while I put pressure on the wound and tried to stop the bleeding, was you guys." He grimaced. "Here's this little boy trying to do something he loves -- play football -- and you `adults' can't even respect this game. You take it for granted, and it makes me sick."

He was right. We had the most talented team in the EFL yet were playing like immature, selfish "me-first" individuals. Things had to change. And from late July to late August, they did. While young Jenry Gonzalez recovered, we reeled off six straight wins, finally combining talent with smart, unselfish play. The mood lifted. No one quit. Football meant too much. For some players, it was the only good thing they had.

"Lots of these guys have done [jail or prison] time," assistant coach Mike O'Neal told me in mid-September, holding footballs as I practiced field goals. "Drugs, robberies, some domestic abuse, stupid stuff." Mike was no stranger to adversity. His was the first African-American family on the block in suburban Needham, and he taught for 12 years in the state prison system. Some of our teammates had come up learning to "fight, claw, survive," he said. "That's why I say my postgame prayers, to teach them that actions have consequences, that violence isn't always the first option."

After every game, win or lose, Mike would gather both teams at the 50-yard line. Grown men who'd just been enemies for 60 minutes held hands, took a knee, bowed heads. Mike would then ask God to bless the players and their families and help them take the lessons learned in football back to their communities and become better men. And he'd always stress that there were no winners or losers, only competitors. "I want to make playing meaningful, because for some of these guys, football is the only good thing they have." Like all our coaches and players, Mike O'Neal didn't get paid. He did it for the same reason we all did: He loved football and he loved these guys. "They're a pain in my butt," he admitted, "but I think of all you players as my own sons."

In June, I was a nervous, underconfident neophyte. Over the next months, I discovered that, much to my shock, I could actually kick. Riding my teammates' and coaches' growing confidence, I became the clutch player I'd never been. The consistent Reggie was my snapper, and the playful, if slightly eccentric, Donnie my reliable holder (he once played a game wearing fur-covered, ankle-high cleats that would have made Joe Namath blush). We formed an effective, if aging, Mattapan-Berkley-Beacon Hill connection. Shaking, I kicked my very first extra point against Charlestown -- an ugly boot that hit the left upright (causing momentary heart failure) but slithered through -- and hit the next 17 of 19. I converted five field goal attempts, including an NFL-worthy 43-yarder against Middlesex. I even gained the respect of Coach Pitt, who did not recklessly distribute praise.

"We got a secret weapon," the rock-solid, almost neckless football lifer and coach of three other local teams -- Pop Warner, Norwood High, and women's semipro -- exclaimed one night, asking me to stand up. "Look at Mark. He's got dynamite in that skinny leg!" Everyone cheered and whooped. That was my proudest moment to date.

I was also making strides off the field. I began a car pool of sorts, shuttling first-year player Freddy Vicente between the football field and Charlestown. Friendly, polite, intelligent, he was just 24. Freddy's childhood was unsettled, his single mother moving the family nearly every year in search of lower rent. As the saying goes, he had to become the man of the house at an early age.

"I had no father, no big brother -- just sisters," he told me one night on Storrow Drive, windows down, cool September air keeping us awake after a tough practice. "So I had to teach myself how to behave, how to survive on the street." Like me, Freddy was also a football rookie. He admitted with a sheepish grin that he had partied too much in high school and didn't get the grades to play football. But he was always the best player on the block, and now that he was older, he wanted to give it a try. "I'm new, so I know I have to prove myself on special teams, but I want to play running back next year," he said, smiling. "I'd be a good running back." I didn't doubt it. The guy just radiated optimism, a soft-spoken inner strength, and the more I got to know him on those car rides, the more I thought that if I had a little brother, I'd probably want him to be like Freddy.

That said, I didn't feel accepted by the whole team until one night at the Drinking Fountain, a no-frills bar near our home field, English High in Jamaica Plain. Not wanting to intrude, I'd skipped the first few postgame gatherings held there. But after the Middlesex win (and my 43-yarder), my confidence was higher, so I went. Inside, I saw all the team leaders gathered at the bar: Delaney, Reggie, and Donnie; our sturdy bowling ball of a fullback, Todd Matthies; Darrel Jones, our star linebacker and defensive captain; Northeastern graduate Mohammed Bitahi, looking professorial in his wire eyeglasses (a professor who could bench-press me with one hand); Jason and Anthony Young, identical-twin offensive linemen who always seemed fused at the shoulder; William "Pee-Wee" Holliman, a punishing defensive lineman; and coaches Mike Pittman and Mike O'Neal. As the Keno screen glowed above the bar and the jukebox cranked out Marvin Gaye's "Mercy Mercy Me," they looked over almost in unison, paused momentarily, and then, with a big smile, Todd called out, "Hey, `Just Kick It'!" Everyone waved me over. Instantly, I was Norm entering Cheers.

"What up, baby boy?" asked the terminally energetic, outgoing Elvis Figueroa, a South End resident and one of three Latinos on the team, giving me one of those handshake-and-shoulder-bumps that I'd slowly been mastering. Someone handed me a Heineken. Over the next few hours, we gorged ourselves on the trays of buffalo wings Delaney had ordered from Jake's Boss BBQ up the street, talked football, laughed, drank. Seemingly every five minutes, assistant coach and former player Cliff Braithwaite, a club MC and aspiring radio DJ, would stand up on his stool and demand, "All my Panthers, get 'em up!" We'd raise our bottles and bark out, in unison, "Panthers!" Soon, some of the bar's regulars were joining our toasts. I didn't stumble out and taxi home until much later. From then on, "Just Kick It" was my official nickname. Reggie, the team webmaster, added it to the roster on our home page the next week. I was a Panther.

After losing again to Middleborough, we won our last game to finish 7-3, in third place, a huge turnaround from the 2-8, last-place finish in 2003. In the first home playoff game in team history, we routed the Randolph Oilers, 27-7. The night before the game, Mike O'Neal had given us each a copy of Rudyard Kipling's "If," which reads in part:

If you can keep your head when all about you are
Losing theirs . . .
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you . . .
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it
And . . . you'll be a Man, my son.

"My father gave this to me when I was young and I thought I knew everything," he told us, eyes welling up. "And now I'm giving it to you. You don't have to read it now, but read it. It sums up what this season's been all about."

Poetry could only take us so far. Our season ended the next week, exactly where it had begun three months earlier, in Brockton. In our second playoff game, we lost a sloppy, rain-soaked dogfight to the Buccaneers, 14-9, my last contribution being a late 31-yarder through the drizzle. We could have -- we should have -- won, but for silly penalties and overall lack of execution. There was anger, frustration, and tears afterward. Guys hugged, exchanged cellphone numbers, promised to stay in touch until training camp opened in April. Reggie told me he'd be back for his 15th season; Donnie said he was quitting. "Then again," he said, winking and yanking off his fur-covered cleats, "I quit every year."

I drove Freddy home that night. We were silent most of the way, two men separated by 14 years, with utterly polar life experiences, sharing the same pain.

Dorchester, Roxbury, Jamaica Plain. These were neighborhoods I'd never really visited before. It was sometimes a letdown when I returned to Beacon Hill. It was quieter there, often safer, too, but my unlikely foray into football taught me that sometimes the safe route isn't always best. If I'd never pushed my athletic (and geographical) limits, I'd never have met these guys, become a part of this team, played this game. I also recognized -- and my teammates and coaches might have, too -- that while our season ended in defeat, we at least avoided the unfortunate fate of living our entire lives a few miles apart, yet never crossing paths.

Football's given me a lot over the years: countless hours of entertainment; the pride of the Patriots' two Super Bowl titles; the thrill of actually playing the game. Now it's given me something surprising: a bigger Boston. And not solely for one unexpected, unforgettable, bittersweet season, either. I'm still a writer, but now I'm a kicker, too, a football player. Only four months until training camp.

Mark S. Atmant is a Boston-based writer and author of the recently published Committed: Confessions of a Fantasy Football Junkie (Scribner). Reach him at mark@markstamant.com. 

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