Sports

For the love of football

By DAN BEEKMAN

The Mirror

You’ve just finished a long day at work and your family is at home eating dinner without you. As you pull on your pads and limp across the turf at Kent’s French Field, an old injury makes you wince with pain. You’ll spend almost three hours here — sprinting, crashing around and gasping for air.

But you’ll keep coming back, every Tuesday and Thursday this summer. You didn’t join the King County Jaguars because you wanted a break. You joined because you love football, whatever the circumstances.

The life of a semi-pro football player isn’t easy, but it is admirable in a half-crazed sort of way. Twice a week, 55 local men from 20 to 38 years old scrape together enough time and energy to attend football practice. Unfortunately, the Jaguars toil in relative obscurity.

Even this year, when head coach Jeff Scott’s 8-0 squad looks poised to capture the Northwest Football League title and compete for a semi-pro national crown. Less than 500 fans showed up for Jaguars’ 44-0 home win over the Oregon Thunderbolts July 23.

Scott’s players aren’t paid or pampered. Semi-pro is nothing like the National Football League, somewhere a handful of Jaguars once thought they were headed.

Still, rookie middle linebacker Keaka “K.O.” Frank of Federal Way says he and his teammates live for game day. However unglamorous, it’s the highlight of their week.

“The games are the best,” Frank said. “I love going against other people and just getting a hit.”

Frank graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School in 2001 and spent a couple years at Green River Community College playing baseball. Like many Jaguars, Plan A just didn’t pan out. Now he works full time at a Kent-area warehouse. This winter a high school friend who played with the Jaguars last year convinced Frank to give football another try. He joined the team in April. Already, the 21-year-old has earned a starting spot and a reputation for intimidating tackles.

“It’s been a lot of fun,” Frank said.

Semi-pro football isn’t the only adult sport around. Soccer and softball are both popular with athletes of all ages. Adult leagues and pick-up games help working men and women stay in shape. But football is different. It requires so much more physical punishment, time, equipment and organization. Unlike soccer or softball, football is more than a sport — it’s a spectacle.

“I play football to stay busy,” said Dion Alexander, a 29-year-old graduate of Federal Way High School. “But it isn’t basketball. You can’t just grab 11 guys, put pads on and play on a Saturday.”

The NWFL is a good fit for Alexander. According to the Jaguars’ website, the Pacific Northwest has been home to adult amateur football since 1961 and the NWFL starting in 1974. A non-profit entity, the NWFL exists to “give athletes the chance to showcase their talents and earn an opportunity to play at the next level.”

Alexander has played in the league off and on for the last six years after four years at Eastern Washington University, a one-year stint in the Canadian Football League in 1998 and one season on the Yakima Shockwaves of the National Indoor Football League in 2001. Alexander is a six-time NWFL all-leaguer, a four-time semi-pro All-American and was named NWFL Defensive Most Valuable Player last year.

Alexander is the Jaguars most dominant player both on and off the field. Imposing with his shaved head and bulging muscles, the 6-foot-2, 235-pound outside linebacker makes sure his teammates know he’s taking this season seriously. So far, that commitment has paid off. In eight games, the Jaguars have outscored their opponents 302 to 37.

“It’s really fun when you’re winning,” Alexander said.

Of course, Alexander is a semi-pro veteran. He’s no longer “earning a chance to play at the next level.” It’s not so simple for all his teammates. Many Jaguars are still young enough to dream. King County’s roster includes high school stars with sub-par grades, college standouts from unheralded programs and promising players with persistent injuries. They scan the stands for scouts and hope. In a sense, the Jaguars are like any other semi-pro team.

But 36-year-old offensive center Ron Livingston believes this squad is special.

“I’ve been on teams where everybody’s a superstar,” he said. “This one is kind of unique. We have one goal and one mission — winning games.”

The TJ graduate knows semi-pro football as well as anyone. Livingston has played in the NWFL off and on for the last 10 years, with five different teams. He’s still a valuable part of the Jaguars’ offensive line, but the 6-foot-8, 375-pound giant has decided to call it quits after this season. Livingston doesn’t want to jinx the Jaguars, but says a career-capping national championship is perfectly possible.

King County assistant coach Deke Devers isn’t convinced — yet.

At 31, the Jaguars’ defensive coordinator is younger than at least one of his players, but his experience sets him apart. Devers played for the University of Washington from 1991-1995 and helped the Huskies to a national championship as a true freshman. He admits the Jaguars are talented, but is more concerned with building relationships than winning titles.

“When I was a player I just loved to dominate,” Devers said. “But as a coach I like to take the one player everyone has given up on and see him succeed. When push comes to shove, this team is like family.”

Considering his coaching philosophy, it isn’t surprising that Devers brings his real family to football practice. He isn’t alone. Many King County players and coaches let their children tag along. While their fathers drill, the little Jaguars squeal with delight and play together on the sidelines.

However, that gentle attitude disappears on game days. The Jaguars’ defense is quick, aggressive and swarms to the ball. King County has only allowed three touchdowns all year. Nonetheless, Devers says his players’ most disarming quality is their sense of humor.

“We’ve got a bunch of jokers,” he said. “My players come from a lot of different backgrounds, both economic and social. But they swallow their individual issues. It’s just a fun team to be around. If I had a mike to record them I’d be making some real money.”

Devers doesn’t seem too worried though. He’s didn’t sign on because he thought he’d make a lot of money. None of the Jaguars did. Many, like Livingston, will never walk away from football. The Jaguars’ elder statesman plans to rejoin the team next year as an assistant coach. Two decades in the trenches have taken their toll and Livingston has bad knees and chronic back pain. The time commitment has never been a problem.

“I can’t get away from football,” he said. “I’ve been playing since I was 8 years old. If I could, I’d keep playing forever.”

News intern Dan Beekman: 925-5565, sports@fedwaymirror.com

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