For the love of the game

There is an afterlife.

I swear to you, I’ve seen it.

It’s only visible on weekends, but it’s alive and kicking. Drive down Interstate 80 and you can catch a glimpse for yourself as former football stars are hitting, tackling and generally skipping around football fields as giddy as can be.

Finding the football afterlife was by happenstance. As I sat at home, preparing for another weekend of debauchery, I ventured online to visit the staggering social networking site MySpace. I came across the profile of an old friend and high school teammate whose page was littered with photos and videos of him playing football. But it wasn’t the getup of purple and gold from my alma mater Galileo in San Francisco, or that of any junior college or college for that matter. It was the uniform of the Bay Area Buccaneers, a Northern California Football League minor league football team.

Football for those who still have game left in their tanks.

Intrigued, I probed further. The Buccaneers were scheduled to play the next morning as I planned to be in San Francisco, facing the South Bay Stallions at Menlo-Atherton high school in Atherton. At 6-2, the Bucs were the favorites.

I couldn’t help but wonder why my friend was still playing ball, what was the reasoning behind it and where the hell this league came from? I dug deeper.

A quick scan of the roster, I noticed it was littered with names of guys who were my teammates in high school. Nine to be exact. Then, there were the guys we played against on the very same team. To be precise, there were a lot of fellas from the Fillmore neighborhood I grew up in. All-City athletes, MVPs and more. I felt like I was in bizarro land when one name came up: Hudari Murray. Murray was my high school coach and he was listed as the offensive coordinator.

Twilight Zone was in full effect.

That’s it. That’s all it took. I had to go see this game. I high-tailed it down to the Bay Area, made a couple of phone calls and found my way to Menlo-Atherton.

Before I knew it, I was having a flashback. There was coach Murray, yelling at so-and-so over playing time. Former all-city running back Charles Linsday, the owner of the team, ran up, down and sideways against the Stallions as he did the rest of the AAA nine years ago for the now defunct McAteer High School. Dion Pickett, the 2000 AAA player of the year for Galileo, showed off his gun at quarterback.

Same characters, just aged a tad — most in their mid to late 20s.

The NCFL was formed out of a couple of smaller football leagues this last year to balance out the number of strong and weak teams on the landscape. Although its precise purpose is to be a vehicle for former players who feel they still have mileage left.

One of my former teammates, Randy Munmon, is the president of the Buccaneers and one of the team’s starting cornerbacks. As he sees it, there are three levels of involvement: Guys just out of high school who didn’t get the offers they wanted, those who have played at the junior college and college level and are still looking for attention by either of the Arena Football Leagues, and those who are strictly playing for love of the game.

“Guys like me and older guys, that’s just has-beens, rather not stay at home,” said Munmon, who works as a property manager in Hayward during the week. “With the stress on the job, it helps me get through the week. I don’t plan on doing anything with this.”

Players have to shell out quite a bit of coin too. Jerseys and equipment are on the players’ own dime. As one person put it to me, while the league tries to build itself up, nobody is getting paid. And the Bucs, among other teams, represent themselves as a not-for-profit enterprise. So, it really is all about the love of the game.

There are teams in Sacramento, West Sacramento, Woodland, Lodi, Solano, Marin, Oakland and San Jose. And while the league has been under the radar to most of the media, they’ve enjoyed a steady following of friends and family at their games.

If this doesn’t represent a love for the game, dedication to a sport you love and the friends you love, I don’t know what is. But it also presents a gentle dilemma for the former athlete fearing a quarter-life crisis: Continue to drift away from everything you’ve known as a a junior midget, midget, on junior varsity, varsity and in college or keep pounding away on the gridiron till you’re dead tired of the drills, the yelling, the tape on your ankles and the lint lining of your pockets after your funds are drained.

With 16 teams in the league, not to mention an abundance of alumni games across California including here in the foothills, there’s not a lack of want for something like this. Nor a lack of love.

The football’s not too bad either.

Editor’s note: This column originally appeared in The Union.

One Reply to “For the love of the game”

  1. Great opening, and column. I’ve been to a couple semi-pro football games in Yuba City, and it definitely fills the void. “The love of the game” might be a bit cliche, but in cases like these it’s absolutely true. Good times.

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