Battle Creek football players risk it all in amateur league
BATTLE CREEK, Mich. (AP) — Demetrius Byrd picked up a used football helmet and strapped it on.
The helmet was once all black, but now resembled a marble, with streaks of paint left from collisions on the gridiron.
It was the first time in nearly a decade the 27-year-old had suited up for a football practice.
“It’s always something I’ve wanted to do,” Byrd, who showed up for a mid-season practice of the Battle Creek Assassins, part of the adult amateur Great Lakes Football League, told the Battle Creek Enquirer. “Just a love of the game. To play, that’s all I want to do, I just want to play.”
Unlike in high school or college, Byrd didn’t need to take a physical, try out or sign a waiver. He showed up and played, holding his own during full-contact drills with the seven other players who made it to practice.
“I can’t play Saturday,” he told his new teammates as he caught his breath. “I have a baby on the way Saturday.”
His daughter arrived at 3:20 p.m. on June 22. By 5 p.m., he was on the road to play defensive tackle and center in the game, a 61-0 loss to the Toledo Thunder.
“It was kind of brutal,” he admitted. “Them boys hit. Football isn’t nothing to play with. They are for real out there.”
Joining the gritty world of adult amateur football isn’t a decision to be taken lightly.
Players aren’t paid. They are responsible for their own insurance, and some take the field without it. Emergency personnel are not a requirement at games.
Leagues like the GLFL have rules and bylaws that mimic the college and pro game, but adult amateur football has no umbrella regulating body in Michigan like high school has with the MHSAA or college has with the NCAA.
“Minor league football is a very scary endeavor,” said Robbie Hattan, who spent seven years in adult football as a coach and later as co-owner of the Battle Creek Coyotes. “These guys have to go to work Monday, and I saw some very devastating injuries.”
It’s up to the players to protect themselves. And some play against their better judgement.
Injuries are understood to be part of the sport. But they can be catastrophic, such as when a player died as the result of injuries sustained in a 2012 preseason game of the Crossroads Football League.
“The teams in the league have them sign waivers. Is that going to hold up in court? They don’t get notarized or signed by a lawyer,” said Hattan, now the head football coach at Colon High School. “Most teams didn’t even carry insurance. We had some if anybody came up, it was secondary insurance. Most teams did not offer it.”
Hattan injured his shoulder after being thrust into action as an emergency quarterback while coaching the Battle Creek Blaze.
“Our starting QB had to do something and our backup, 30 minutes before the game, messaged and said, ‘I don’t feel like playing.’” Hattan said. “I had to suit up because I’m the only one that knows the offense. We won and I threw three touchdowns, but I tore my shoulder.”
The Blaze was co-founded by Jason Doubleday in 2008 in memory of his best friend, who had died from cancer the previous year. The organization used football to raise money for local cancer victims.
At Doubleday’s request and with Hattan as owner, the team re-branded and became the Battle Creek Coyotes in 2014, the year they joined the Crossroads Football League.
Hoping to legitimize the sport, Hattan and his business partner, John Jackson, began running the Minor League Football Alliance. It absorbed three existing leagues, including the Crossroads Football League, and had 20 teams at its peak.
Hattan said his team had EMTs and police at every game, and their home fields at Athens High School and Harper Creek High School were insured.
The Coyotes were more organized than most, and Hattan said he struggled to get other Minor League Football Alliance teams to hold themselves to the same standard.
Like many football minor leagues, it wasn’t fated to survive.
“John and I had a vision for this league, for our teams to benefit the communities, record stats, have good websites and a marketing campaign and do the things that make it legit, minor league football,” Hattan said. “It was met with resistance. We called it, ‘Just strap up and play ball,’ and you can’t do that. We folded the MLFA, and John and I both got out of pro football.”
Battle Creek has a long history with semi-pro and adult amateur football.
The Battle Creek Area Braves launched in 1980, followed by the Springfield Bullets in 1982 as members of the Michigan Charity Football League. A women’s team, the Battle Creek Rainbows, started in 1981. The Michigan Griffins/Rattlers and Battle Creek Rage arrived in 2001. The Battle Creek Crunch played one season of indoor football at Kellogg Arena in 2006. Then came the Blaze (2008) and the Coyotes (2014).
Save for the Braves, which operated until 1990, each team struggled to garner enough community support to have staying power.
Battle Creek’s Chris Gillette entered the world of semi-pro football following an injury-shortened career as an offensive tackle at the University of Toledo. He says doctors told him a dislocated elbow would keep him from ever playing football again, and he used that as a chip on his shoulder when he joined the now defunct Kalamazoo Tornadoes in 1998.
“With the Tornadoes, our pregame routine was two shots of Jack (Daniels) and Vicodin, and you go out and play the game,” Gillette said. “Our motivation was to get two big full barrel kegs and put them on our bus. We didn’t tap that keg unless you win that game.”
In 2001, Gillette started his own team, the Michigan Griffins. After a dispute over the name with the Battle Creek Griffins Rugby Football Club, he re-branded it the Michigan Rattlers. That same year, players dissatisfied with the direction of the team branched off and started their own franchise, the Battle Creek Rage.
Each folded after a year.
Gillette said he had good financial backing and estimates he invested around $5,000 of his own money in the venture, which lasted one season. He shut it down and focused on raising his two sons and starting a confection business in Battle Creek.
But Gillette wasn’t done with the game. And when Battle Creek announced it would have an indoor team playing home games at Kellogg Arena, he came back to suit up for the Crunch at a salary of $250 per game.
The team fetched some noteworthy talent, including former Michigan State star Herb Haygood, a 2002 fifth-round draft pick by the Denver Broncos.
The Crunch also had some national publicity, as freelance writer Ted A. Kluck joined the team as a long snapper and chronicled his time through columns written for ESPN, which were compiled in his book, “Paper Tiger: One Athlete’s Journey to the Underbelly of Pro Football.”
The Crunch arrived just as interest in arena football was waning and the overall economy was in decline. They had the lowest attendance of the six teams in the Great Lakes Indoor Football League, and the league took over ownership for the final few games of the franchise’s only season.
“The greatest thing about semi-pro football is that I still have those brothers,” said Gillette, now a certified sleep technologist and high school football coach. “But if you look at the arthritis in my fingers, I probably shouldn’t played those extra years. When you are getting paid, it’s a whole other monster.”
A shoulder injury sidelined Gillette for much of his time with the Crunch, but he still considered returning to the gridiron with another semi-pro franchise.
Until his wife, Marcie Gillette, put her foot down.
“She loves the game, but one thing she didn’t love was me coming home with a torn ACL or torn rotator cuff,” he said. “At one point, I said I’d like to go back to football, and she said, ‘I’ve got divorce papers in the drawer if you do.’”
Despite the struggles of past adult football teams, the Assassins and Calhoun County Panthers hope to carve out their own niche in the city.
The Panthers were formed by former Assassins players who were dissatisfied with the direction of the team.
“I didn’t like a lot of the structure at the Assassins,” said Dionshon Starling, owner, player and coach for the Panthers. “So when there is something you don’t like, walk away and do something else, start your own.”
Starling started playing adult amateur football in 2008 as a way to set an example for his sons, he says. Now 54-years-old, he said he’ll likely play his last game this season, and wants to focus on laying the foundation for a franchise he envisions growing in the future.
“You have children who can’t afford to play football or have a way,” Starling said. “I want to have a traveling team among the league teams. Give some of that energy back to the kids. We can start our own youth team, a traveling team, and turn some of these players into coaches.”
The Panthers are coached by Corey Middaugh, a 27-year-old Athens native who has never been a head coach before this year.
“The biggest challenge is me being 27 and trying to coach men older than me,” he said. “It’s hard to get respect and the vision from other grown men when you are even younger than some of them.”
Unlike at the high school, college or NFL level, there are few repercussions for insubordinate players in adult amateur football short of a benching or getting kicked off the team.
Though the Panthers’ roster consists mainly of players with college or adult amateur experience, they also have teenage players who would like more recruiting exposure. But even high school playing experience is not a requirement.
Thirty-year-old Tyran Burgess of Battle Creek said he hasn’t played organized football since junior high. But that didn’t stop him from joining the Panthers mid-season as a defensive back.
“I was still in shape at my age, just wanted to try it out,” he said. “I heard about it, figured I would join the team and see if I could produce. Got to work out some kinks. Haven’t played in 15 years.”
James Kelly Jr. played at Olivet College and then had a stint playing semi-pro football in Virginia. He returned to the area to play for the Coyotes and then co-founded the Assassins along with Connor Evans and Bobby Owens.
The 29-year-old said he started playing football as a freshman at Westland John Glenn and hasn’t taken a year off since. When not representing the Assassins on the field, he has served as a team ambassador of sorts, volunteering as a reading buddy at local schools.
“I was at the Cereal Festival and a kid came up and said, ‘I know you. You play football. Can I have an autograph?’” Kelly said. “That really touched me and felt good. These kids are really looking up to us. We want to give them something to look up towards.”
Kelly added that setting an example isn’t easy while playing a highly-emotional and violent sport.
“We scruffle. I’m not going to lie. In past years, we’ve had where guys are fighting against guys on the sideline,” he said. “Or a fight with other teams. It’s gotten gritty to the point where we had to shut the whole game down. We, as men, we know it’s hard because we have our pride, we’re caught up in that moment. We got the testosterone going, but we have to remember the eyes that are watching.”
“We’re representing the city. That’s what brothers do. If you haven’t ever been in a fight with your brother over some nonsense, that’s not real family. It gets gritty in semi-pro.”
Kelly, who works in an auto parts plant, added that he’s experienced his share of injuries over the years, though he’s never been hospitalized.
“I play at my own risk. I have no insurance,” he said. “My body has been banged up a lot. But I got so much love for the game, I don’t want to stop playing.”