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Thursday, July 17, 2014 12:01 am

For the love of the game

Springfield Foxes play semi-pro football for free

Defensive lineman Lawrence Dampeer, left with helmet up, has gone from the University of Oklahoma to the Springfield Foxes.

Lawrence “Moe” Dampeer once was one of the nation’s most-coveted high school football recruits, receiving attention from the likes of UCLA, Florida State, Miami and Ohio State while starring on the defensive line for MacArthur High School in Decatur, where he graduated in 2003.

The rare 300-pounder who could move like a cat, Dampeer ended up a University of Oklahoma Sooner. As a redshirt freshman, he had 10 tackles (five for losses), three pass deflections and even an interception in the 2004 season, which he capped by playing in the Orange Bowl against USC. The Sooners got walloped 55-19, but the Trojans forfeited the win five years after the final whistle when the NCAA determined that running back Reggie Bush had accepted gifts from agents.

That season 10 years ago proved the zenith for Dampeer, who was out of shape for practice before the next season began. There were whispers that he topped 400 pounds after enrolling in 2008 at Northwest Missouri State. Now, he doesn’t appear to be the biggest player on the Springfield Foxes, the capital city’s semi-pro football team that is a mix of former college players and high school jocks who can’t get football out of their systems.

Dampeer says that kidney failure has gotten in the way of his career, but not his enthusiasm for the game he still plays at age 29 for nothing but the joy of it. He isn’t ready to quit. He figures he can play another six or seven years, even though he undergoes dialysis three times a week. Returning to the field last year after being sidelined by illness was “really important.”

“Right now, I’m satisfied,” he says.

While Dampeer got his game face on last Saturday at Horlick Field in Racine, Wisconsin, the crowd of 1,000 or so roared as the Raiders took the field.

If there is a dynasty in semi-pro football, the Racine Raiders are it at a level of the sport where leagues come and go. The team boasts six championships in five leagues since 1988. Crowds have exceeded 6,000 in Racine, population 78,303, where semi-pro football is so popular that a second team, the Racine Threat, formed in 2002.

And then there is Springfield, where the Foxes, by virtue of lasting five years, are survivors in a town that has seen plenty of teams rise and fall. While the Raiders, a 501(c)3 nonprofit corporation, enjoy as much as $100,000 in annual revenue and draw fans with the help of beer, the Foxes play in bone-dry Sacred Heart-Griffin Stadium, sometimes in front of fewer than 100 fans.

The Raiders may be ahead of the Foxes on a financial level, but the field is a different matter. Formed in 2010, the Foxes came within a whisker of winning it all in 2012, when they lost to the Raiders in the championship game of the Mid States Football League. It was a contest for the ages, at least so far as semi-pro football goes, with the Foxes down by four touchdowns in the second quarter. They scored 29 unanswered points to take the lead in the third quarter, then it was a seesaw to the end, with Racine pulling out a 49-44 win en route to their sixth national championship.

The teams hadn’t met again until last Saturday, and the Foxes knew well what was at stake in the season’s first league game.

“It’s probably the biggest game of our regular season,” said Andy Nash, the team’s marketing director, minutes before the team huddled to recite the Lord’s Prayer while the game announcer introduced a Raiders team stacked with 300-pound-plus linemen. “We have good football in Springfield, Illinois. People just don’t know it.”

The Foxes defense stops a runner for Mid State Steel during a June 28 non-league game at Sacred Heart-Griffin Stadium.

Humble beginnings

The Foxes are thinking big this season.

Teams in Peoria and Bloomington that played last year have either folded or gone dormant, and so the Springfield roster includes players from throughout central Illinois. The closest team in the league dominated by Chicagoland squads is based in the Quad Cities, 150 miles northwest of the capital city, which gives the Foxes one of the league’s largest recruiting territories.

“I think it’s a huge advantage,” says team owner Jake Hollinshead, who runs an auto body shop on Sangamon Avenue when he isn’t on the sidelines. “You’re not fighting five other teams for guys. … This is, by far, the most talented group we’ve had.”

The team includes 10 or so players who were on the Bloomington squad last year, including Devin DeShawn Dopson, a linebacker who makes the trip from Bloomington to Springfield at least once a week for practices at Springfield High School. He is 32 years old and details cars for a living.

“I just love playing football,” he says.

More than 100 would-be players turned out this spring for tryouts for the 60-man roster, with players coming from as far away as the St. Louis area, said coach Jon Roe, who has a day job selling industrial equipment. Players must provide their own pads, cleats, insurance and helmets, which are painted and adorned with decals at Hollinshead’s shop. There is a smattering of players with Division One experience at such schools as North Carolina State and the University of Missouri, but smaller schools, such as Millikin University and Blackburn College, are more common.

“There’s a recruitment process and a scouting process,” Roe says. “Seventy-five percent played college football. … If they didn’t play at a college level, it’s hard for them to come out of high school and play.”

The team got its start, quite literally, on the football field. Roe was a fullback and linebacker at Williamsville High School, Hollinshead played behind him at tailback, and the game never left their systems after they graduated 14 years ago. The Foxes have come a long way since their inaugural season in 2011, when games were held in the afternoons instead of evenings at SHG. The first games were played at Rotary Park, often in brutal summer heat.

“We started from the ground up,” Roe says. “We had six guys at our first practice.”

Practice remains a hit-or-miss affair. Just one-third of the team, mostly receivers, linebackers and defensive backs, showed up for recent practices at Springfield High School.

“We’re starting to build a bond, becoming brothers,” said Larry Carroll, a running back from Normal who says he sees a chance for a championship in Springfield.

Quarterback Drew Fendrich plots strategy with coach Jon Roe from the sidelines against the Racine Raiders.

DaJuan Harris, a linebacker who played at Monmouth College but left school in 2012 after two years, says that he has missed just one practice. Harris, 25, understands that some players can’t make it for Wednesday evening practices.

“Some people got to work,” says Harris, who has a job as a server at Red Robin and hopes to return to college football. “I come here as much as I can.”

The lack of full-squad practices tends to favor the defense, which reacts to what the offense does, over the offense, which has to figure out plays that will work. Sometimes, that comes down to drawing up plays in the huddle – you go there, you block that guy, I’ll run this way, says quarterback Drew Fendrich, who played at Springfield High School and Millikin before graduating in 2010 and becoming a software developer for Levi, Ray and Shoup.

“It’s one of the hardest sports to just play a pick-up game,” says Fendrich, who coaches quarterbacks at Springfield High School, his alma mater. “Once you get in season, it’s tough to practice more than once a week.”

The quality of play in semi-pro ball, according to Fendrich, depends on the team.

“Some teams are as close to pro ball as you can get without paying guys,” says Fendrich, who is in his fourth season of semi-pro ball.

Nash, the marketing director, sees pro-level talent on semi-pro fields.

“Things just happened in their lives,” he says. “They don’t get paid, they just love football.”

Nash sounds like a true believer.

“After this year, we’re going to be a household name in Springfield,” he predicts before kickoff in Racine. “Guaranteed.”

A fox is neither big nor fierce, but it makes for the sort of logo, and perhaps eventually a mascot, that Hollinshead hopes will draw families to games. Nash is hoping for 501(c)3 status, like the Racine Raiders, so that sponsors can get tax deductions. The team is selling $10 raffle tickets for a 2002 Pontiac Grand Prix GT, donated by Springfield Auto Sales. In addition to selling raffle tickets and rounding up sponsors, Nash occasionally tapes ankles and otherwise tends to sideline chores.

“Whatever they need me to do, I do it,” he says.

Nash has been around semi-pro football since the 1990s and once had visions of acquiring the Springfield Bucs, formerly the Springfield Buccaneers and before that the Springfield Statesmen and now defunct.

“I’ve seen the good, bad and ugly of semi-pro football,” Nash says.

Running back Darin Utley runs for a gain against Mid State Steel.

Football traditions

There have been more than a few semi-pro football teams in the capital city over the years, and Springfield has seen its share of gridiron flash in the pan. Consider the Springfield Slayers, a much-ballyhooed indoor football team that managed to sell more than $13,000 in season tickets in 2001 but never had a season, or a single game for that matter, in the now-defunct Indoor Football League.

The tradition of less-than-NFL in Springfield dates back to at least Oct. 25, 1895, when the Little Terps defeated the Bloomington Tigers by a score of 14-6.

“The game was played at the Wesleyan athletic grounds in the presence of a large crowd of spectators who cheered lustily the good plays made by either side,” according to a newspaper account.

That same year, J.R. Fitzpatrick, a local businessman who owned both a newspaper and a lumber company, was born. As much as anyone, he sustained a tradition of semi-pro football by sponsoring the Fitzpatrick Lumberjacks, which started play in the 1920s.

Just how long the Lumberjacks played isn’t clear. Fitzpatrick, who died in 1982, also sponsored baseball teams (also called the Lumberjacks), basketball teams (also called the Lumberjacks), a soccer team (also called the Lumberjacks) and bowling teams (also called the Lumberjacks) so that the Fitzpatrick Lumberjacks would be playing something no matter the season.

In semi-pro football, the Fitzpatrick Lumberjacks were “the scourge of the Midwest” during the Great Depression, according to a 1958 remembrance published in the Illinois State Register. The team went 9-1 in 1931, thanks to such players as Doc Clark, Bud McGuire and Horizontal Hess, whose true first names are lost to the ages. The 1931 team also boasted Hoke Lock, who became the city’s street commissioner, John Hunter, later elected city utilities commissioner, Scotty Hinton, who became county schools superintendent, and Joe Hogan, who had a career as a city cop. A photo shows that Walter Wright, an African-American, played alongside them in an age when segregation was often the rule in sports.

“We didn’t draw the line at all, even on the Lumberjacks football team,” Fitzpatrick recalled in a 1980 interview for a University of Illinois Springfield oral history project. “We had Walter Wright and Slick Miller. And Walter Wright was a good football (player) with Springfield High School. And he played and he went along just with all the rest of the team. And they never saw any color line in him at all.”

Cornerback Cody Costello executes a textbook tackle before a handful of onlookers.

The season begins

After going 1-1 in the preseason, the Foxes started their 2014 regular season last Saturday beneath threatening skies in Racine.

“This ain’t 2012!” a player shouts as the team huddles just prior to kickoff. “They’re just another team!”

The Foxes make it look easy on the opening series, taking just two minutes, 30 seconds to score a touchdown in a six-play, 77-yard drive evenly divided between runs and passes. The Raiders ramble 60 yards on the ensuing kickoff but then are stopped cold by the Fox defense, with linebacker Mike Rose stuffing two runs for no gain and the Raider quarterback missing his target on a third-down pass.

The Raiders take a 10-7 lead by the end of the first quarter, but the Foxes stay close to trail 17-13 at the half. Roe’s halftime speech consists of just two sentences.

“Everybody knows we’re a second-half team. We just beat their ass.”

The locker room at Horlick Field, home to the Racine Belles of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball league during World War II, is sweltering, the air thick enough to scoop, but the mood is upbeat. The team leaves early for the field and fresh air. The Raiders dally, arriving at their sideline a half-step ahead of a penalty for delay of game.

The Foxes try an onside kick that fails, with the Raiders taking possession at their own 46. They control the ball for a staggering 8 minutes, 45 seconds before kicking a 24-yard field goal.

Running back Darin Utley makes a nine-yard run on the Foxes’ first play from scrimmage in the second half. It will be the longest gain for the Foxes for the remainder of the night. They can’t make another yard on the first series and surrender the ball on downs at their own 42. The Raiders score a touchdown. They are doing whatever they want on both sides of the ball.

“Moral! Victory!” besotted beer drinkers behind the Foxes’ bench chant as they wave a Jolly Roger flag.

The Foxes go three-and-out. The Raiders score a touchdown to make it 33-13 but miss the extra point. On first down from his own 22, Fendrich fires a pass that’s blocked near the line of scrimmage as thunder rumbles in the distance. Then it’s a penalty for 12 men in the huddle. And suddenly it is over. The game is called with 8:12 remaining in the fourth quarter on account of fast-approaching lightning that is crackling the sky.

The Foxes head toward their locker room. Looking gassed in defeat, Dampeer, who had one tackle for a loss, sits on a cooler outside the dank dressing room from Hades.

“I ain’t going back in there,” he says to no one in particular.

Two days later, Hollinshead is philosophical. He points out that Racine is in the league’s north conference while Springfield is in the south, so playoffs remain a possibility.

“We’ll be OK,” the owner says. “We knew that this was going to be a tough game coming into it. I don’t see us losing but maybe one more the rest of the season. It is what it is.”

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

Game time: The Springfield Foxes regular-season home opener is scheduled for 6 p.m. Saturday, July 19, at Sacred Heart-Griffin Stadium. Tickets are $6 for adults, $4 for students and members of the military, with free admission for children up to seven years old.

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