It's love that is writing this column, because the man (Mike Walker, my husband) who usually does this (along with Cody Howard, who was too busy at his other job to fill in) is flat on his back with a 101-degree temperature. So this woman will regale you with her knowledge of sports, sports technique, sports jargon ... whatever. That "whatever" this week is minor league football.
Imagine a short, blonde, round woman standing on a football field surrounded by 50 guys, suited up in pads and helmets and screaming like banshees. "Duh" becomes my utterance of choice, and the phrase "Roman gladiators" -- big, sweaty, determined -- comes to mind.
For all intents and purposes, minor league football is just like pro football, without the million-dollar salaries (these guys don't get paid), without the temperamental owners/general managers who think they know more than the coaches (e.g. Jerry Jones), and without the criminal record (about 10 percent of NFL players). What we have are a bunch guys who love the game so much they come out four times a week to run drills, scrimmage, and get the crap punched out of them. This is after working normal eight-hour jobs, from fast food to teaching kids.
John Howell is past owner and current head coach of the Kansas Plainsmen, a minor league team that practices at the National Guard Armory near 18th Street Expressway in Kansas City, Kan.
Howell, a large man, played semipro ball in Virginia before transferring to "Soonerville" (University of Oklahoma in Norman), where he majored in economics. There, he played both sides of the line and ended his football career as a center, after obtaining a business degree. After he attended OU, his thoughts turned to coaching. Years later, his job for the Missouri Division of Family Services gave Howell a schedule flexible enough to allow him to return to his favorite pastime.
"I started the team in 1997, and I was doing everything, the business side and the coaching side, and I took all last summer to decide to sell," Howell says. "It's all fun, but it's a lot of responsibility to make sure these guys don't have to worry about (anything)."
Howell says the team runs a balanced offense. For me, the food pyramid comes to mind: grains, vegetables, and proteins, with a bit of fat for good measure. In football, it means running, passing, and a balance of both.
Plainsman Mark Walker works at Scott Greening Youth Dependency Center near downtown KC. He is an ex-Marine who says "Yes, ma'am" a lot, which makes me feel like my mother. At 36 years old, well over 6 feet tall, and big (a lady never asks anyone's weight!), Walker is soft-spoken off the field, but on it's a different story. Having played minor league for five years, he is the veteran defensive tackle on the team and easily takes charge.
Phil Caldwell reminds me of the Flea, the Gnat, Super Fly? -- that little guy who played for KU back in the '60s, and maybe for the Chiefs. Caldwell is compact, with legs like tree stumps. He too graduated from OU, playing on the special teams squad. He was invited to a "combine" out of college, something that has nothing to do with farming or wheat. It's like a talent search; pro teams invite top college prospects to work out with them. Caldwell has worked out with the Atlanta Falcons, New York Jets, and the New York Giants. "The NFL (guys) were a lot bigger than I was expecting," he says.
Still, he's kept his dream of making the pros, but it's one tempered with reality. Caldwell had a stint with the KC Bulldogs in Independence, when that minor league team won the 1995 national championship. When he's not hitting the ground as a running back, Caldwell is a program director for the YMCA.
The extremely un-Jerry Jones-like owner of the Plainsmen is Jason Pyle, a computer consultant in real life, who played one year for the Plainsmen. Besides owning the team, he and his wife, Dorinda, are cheerleaders and business managers. Pyle takes a decidedly hands-off approach.
"The coaches know what they have to do and the team knows what they have to do," he says. A micromanager he is not.
Pyle knows the name of just about every guy on the team, but only by nickname. Take John Holland, or Spidey. A wiry guy, probably a receiver (I forgot to ask), Holland thinks smoking relieves stress. This from a guy who just came off the field from running more than an hour of sprints.
In watching the Plainsmen work out, I'm hit with the enthusiasm, pride, and camaraderie of this team. Almost makes an observer want to go pat somebody on the butt. (Did the gladiators do that?) Just like the boys who play softball after work; just like the guys who go bowling -- maybe not bowling -- these minor leaguers involve beer as they play. It's a way to extend youth and dreams, and a way to garner pride.
The Plainsmen's first game is July 8 at a field yet to be determined.