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A Look At the Semi-Pro Leagues Providing the Strike Players

October 3, 1987 GMT

Undated (AP) _ They come from the CIFL and the NWFA, from teams like the Connecticut Giants and the Auburn Panthers.

The semi-pro players filling in for the striking regulars in NFL games this weekend usually play for free in front of small crowds. But on Sunday they will get almost $4,000 each and play on television.

″If you want to see the guys who really love the game, you look at the ones playing semi-pro,″ says John Fuoco, a wide receiver with the New York Jets who was with the Connecticut Giants, champions of the Continental Interstate Football League, until last week.

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″We don’t get paid, we don’t get much out of it except competing and keeping in football.

″And we always hope there’s a chance we’ll get a shot (at the NFL).″

Dozens of semi-pros are getting that shot thanks to the NFL strike. It might last one game or right into the playoffs. It’s an opportunity too good to pass up. It’s a chance for a weekly cut of the $62,500 minimum salary.

But it also could be detrimental to the 21 recognized semi-pro leagues across the country who are losing their best players to the strike teams.

The leagues range from the 10-team CIFL on the east coast to the six-team Northwest Football Alliance in Washington state. In between, there is the Metropolitan Football League of Chicago, the Mid-America Empire, Eastern and High Desert leagues. The latter, located in California, has been around for a half-century.

″Semi-pro sports are run as a hobby, not a business,″ says Ron Real, president of the American Semi-Pro Football Association, which acts as an organizer of games and playoff tournaments for teams throughout the nation.

″We have over 190 teams on our mailing list and, except for a few players who get some expenses, all of them get nothing but the enjoyment of the games.″

Real’s organization, which is in its eighth year, will hold a semi-pro national championship in Las Vegas on Dec. 19.

″We’re really a service organization for teams who need to schedule games, who are looking for opponents,″ Real says. ″We also were requested by the NFL to submit our mailing list to them and we’ve done it every year, not just in conjunction with the strike.

″In September, as the strike was coming, every NFL team asked for a roster list.″

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One of the teams supplying the most replacement players is the Connecticut Giants of the CIFL, a 10-team league stretching from East Haven, Conn., to Richmond, Va. Four New York Jets and four Buffalo Bills come from the Giants, while 14 members of the CIFL team tried out for the Super Bowl champion Giants last week.

″The talent we have is very good,″ says Andrew Ellison, who recruits players from the Long Island area. ″We don’t just send out bodies. The only thing these guys are lacking is the opportunity to get a good look from a pro team.

″Most of these guys wanted no part of minor league ball, but they had to be talked into it because there might be a possibility of playing in the NFL. Now, they’re getting the chance.″

Ellison touts nose tackle James Eaddy, now with the Buffalo Bills, as the best CIFL player in an NFL camp.

″James is the perfect example of a guy who will show his skills in this situation,″ Ellison says.

The Auburn (Wash.) Panthers of the NWFA, have nine players with NFL teams - five with Seattle, two with the Los Angeles Rams and two with Buffalo.

″The strike is good for those players, but what effect will it have on our team?″ asks Michael Highsmith, general manager of the Panthers.

It could have a profound effect because the Panthers are considered one of the nation’s semi-pro powerhouses. Last year, they beat the River Grove (Ill.) Cowboys of the Metro League 34-0 in what they called the Ranier Champions Bowl.

Jim Minick, commissioner of the nine-team Metro League, in which the players pay a league fee to play and cover expenses, understands Highsmith’s worries.

″The NFL situation created a lot of problems for semi-pros,″ he says. ″Teams are losing players left and right, which is nice for the players, but it can destroy the semi-pro leagues.″

Minick estimates it costs ″between $30,000 and $60,000 a year to be competitive.″

Each player in the Metro League provides his own insurance, although some team owners help get that coverage. Minick said that’s the usual procedure in semi-pro leagues.

Equipment often is donated by local colleges. Fund-raisers are held to cover expenses for road trips.

″We’ll have raffles, dances, anything we can get together to raise money,″ says John Bowker, coach of the California Wolves of the High Desert League. ″There’s so much competition in southern California for the recreational dollar, we can’t count on support at the gate.″

Teams generally play on high school fields, although two in the High Desert League - the Orange County Rhinos and Orange County Cowboys - play at Cypress College.

Then there are the Metro League’s Raiders. Or, more accurately, the Statesville (Ill.) Correctional Center Raiders.

″Obviously they don’t travel,″ Minick says. ″It’s kind of like the movie ‘The Longest Yard.’ But 97 percent of the players are murderers. These guys are the hard core.″

But they never cause any trouble on the field.

″Football is like an honor position and they don’t try to jeopardize that.″

Minick’s league normally places three or four players in NFL preseason camps. There are seven representatives of the Metro League with the Bears now.

None of them are from the Statesville Raiders.

END ADV Weekend Editions Oct. 3-4.