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They arrive, many in pickups, with helmets, shoulder pads and cleats cluttered in the cabs or stored in athletic bags in the back next to a cooler or a toolbox.
The locker room? No such thing. They’ll be suiting up tonight, as they do every Monday and Wednesday evening, in their vehicles, parked in a lot at Jet Service Envelope Co., just off Interstate 89 near Barre.
The owner of the printing company is a big booster of this team, the Vermont Ravens, so he has given players a place to practice regularly. It’s not exactly a lush green gridiron; in fact it’s just a lawn out back. The mowed field comes up maybe 20 short of 100 yards, there’s no chalk lines or goal posts, and on this evening in late summer it’s rough and sun-hardened.
Who cares? Certainly not the players on this semi-pro football team. No million-dollar contracts, no lucrative product endorsements, no comforting whirlpools, no physical therapists. It’s a game unvarnished, played at the most elemental level, and the players are appreciative and expressive.
“I’m here because I love the game,” says a bearded and tattooed Aaron Carrien, a receiver, who a dozen years ago played football for Montpelier High School. “It keeps me in shape,” he says.
Jaren Jeffcoat, 24, is a quarterback who played basketball but not football for Norwich University. He says camaraderie is the draw. “Close, like a family,” he says of the team.
What does it take to play semi-pro football? Ability, certainly. Also: a promise to attend practice; a willingness to pay annual dues of $100, and, unless you have some old gear in the attic, an ability to round up $300-$500 for equipment.
Good to have medical insurance too, because the team doesn’t offer that.
“I actually think my wife would love it if I got hurt,” says Carrien, smiling. “I’d have to be home all the time.”
Head coach Mike Foster, who played football two decades ago at Barre’s Spaulding High School, says experience is not critical. The Ravens’ 40-man roster has some players who never played high school football but who, because of their natural ability and “eagerness to learn,” have picked up the game quickly. It’s actually easier to teach fundamentals when there’s an absence of acquired bad habits, he explains.
Foster describes his team with affection as a “mixed bag” of ages and vocations. Not to mention appearances. They arrive at practice taped and knee-braced; some are bearded, some balding and some tattooed. Among the players are teachers, a police officer, carpenters, college recruiters, “computer geeks,” laborers, “environmentalists,” businessmen and even parolees, says Foster.
The Ravens are not Vermont’s only semi-pro team; the state has three others, including the Ice Storm, based in the Burlington area; the Southern Vermont Storm of the Bennington area; and the Catamounts (club team) of the University of Vermont.
The Ravens, who play in what’s known as the New England League, were promoted this year from the bottom of the league’s three divisions to the middle, from A to AA, which on paper may seem a good thing, but in reality has presented a big problem.
A team that routinely made the playoffs now faces much tougher competition. The Ravens have lost the first five of their 10 games, and just last week lost 38-6 to the undefeated Beavers of Concord, N.H.
Because of injuries suffered in that game and the fact only 18 men are here for this Wednesday’s practice, Foster decides it’s psychologically best to go easy. He orders calisthenics in pads, then a scrimmage of touch.
No official jerseys, no numbers, and with practically everyone a receiver, the game is a happy jumble. The ambient whoosh of traffic on I-89 is punctuated by the usual grunts and groans, but also some good-natured whining, mock trash talk, laugher, and triumphal whoops when passes are well received or defended.
The game, on an evening with temperatures in the 50s and a full moon rising, continues until near dark, when thrown balls, virtually unseen, start slipping off hands of receivers and landing in out-of-bounds patches of goldenrod.
The referee for the night is special teams coach Dick Powell, a deputy sheriff and auxiliary state trooper, who in the 1960s played for Montpelier High School. Powell says the team draws heavily from Norwich University for its players, with as many as eight Ravens being former NU athletes. The team has no formal relationship with the university, nor, for that matter, with the state corrections department, which furnishes as many or more players on probation or parole.
Team members with families and regular jobs are good role models for players who may have had problems with the law, says Powell.
“We just put it out there that we don’t mind players (with a police record); it gives us a chance to help some people who didn’t necessarily get the most breaks in life,” says Foster.
There’s been only one problem with former inmates: Those on furlough are barred by interstate agreements from leaving the state for away games.
Running a semi-pro team is mostly a year-to-year deal, often fraught with financial and other uncertainties. The Ravens, established in 2006, are owned by local group of businessmen, who have a passion for football, explains Rick Theken, a retired hospital administrator, who is on the team’s board of directors.
The team operates with a budget of only $12,000, fed by player dues, ticket sales, sponsorships and donations. Around 200 to 400 spectators might show up for a game, Theken says.
The big challenges the Ravens face, besides winning games, is filling several empty seats on the board of directors and now finding a regular place to play home games.
The team had been playing at Spaulding High School, but scheduling problems and concern about the semi-pros damaging the high school turf, has forced the team to move around to other fields in other communities for “home” games. That makes it harder to win local support.
“Spaulding took a hard view because of the way the field is beaten up,” says Theken.
Theken guesses the team would benefit from more publicity. WCAX and the Times Argus once could be counted upon to run features on the team, he says. That’s less so these days.
As darkness arrives for real, the players begin heading back to their vehicles. Time for a few beers? Not really. Most on the team have wives or girlfriends to go home to or jobs to face early Thursday. Many will turn onto the interstate for long drives to other towns.
The Norwich University crowd, however, being on the younger side, will visit a nearby Applebee’s for “burgers,” says Jeffcoat, an assistant director of admissions, who later clarifies that by confessing he’s a vegetarian.
He also confirms that despite the team’s losing streak, he’s into this sport for the long haul. “I will do this as long as my body will let me,” Jeffcoat vows.
Dirk Van Susteren is a Calais freelance reporter and editor.