For the love of the game

Tris Wykes

It’s a big step down from the days of roaring crowds, charter flights to games and scholarships, but for a handful of former Gophers football players, the gridiron continues to call in the form of the Mid-America Football League.
The MFL is a six-team “semi-pro” circuit in the Twin Cities where players from ages 18 to 39 pay fees of up to $300 per season. Few of its players have high-level football backgrounds, meaning that men who were once backups for NCAA Division I teams such as the Gophers can now be stars.
This summer three former Gophers have played and three others have coached in the league. The teams in the league play a five-game round robin schedule primarily at Spring Lake Park High School.
National Football League rules are used by the MFL, which sells adult tickets for $5 and concludes its second season July 14th with a championship game at Macalester College.
“I would like to get a lot more University guys involved in the league and on our team,” said Leo Collins, coach of the Dakota Ruffians. “They’re used to playing at a higher level, and even if they didn’t play much with the Gophers they’re still real good players for us.”
Participation and reaction from ex-University players has varied. Former Gophers reserve linebacker Michael “Doobie” Kurus is among the most enthusiastic of the league’s 225 active players. Conversely, Frank Jackson, a four-year letterwinner and a Minnesota co-captain in 1990, played the first two games of this season and quit in disgust.
Drinon Mays, a Gophers cornerback from 1990-93, broke his foot during a game in early June and will miss the rest of the season.
Three former Gophers are MFL assistant coaches. Bruce Holmes, a Minnesota linebacker from 1983-86 and a 1986 first team All-Big Ten selection, is the Minneapolis Lumberjacks’ defensive end coach.
Jon Melander, a standout Gophers offensive tackle from 1986-89, is helping coach the Maulers’ offensive line and Chip Mosely, a reserve defensive back for Minnesota in 1992 and ’93, is an assistant with the Twin Cities Talons.
Chad Ostlund, the MFL’s Director of Football Operations, said the league wanted to sign several University players who had completed their college eligibility last fall. However, the MFL opened its season the first week of June, when those players were preparing for final exams and graduation.
Nonetheless, Ostlund said he is grateful for the one-time Gophers who are participating. He understands why others have been reluctant to play in a league where equipment is sometimes in short supply and crowds number in the hundreds.
“Any time we get Division I players and especially from the University it’s a boost for us,” said Ostlund, who estimates that a dozen players with Division I experience are in the league.
“But guys who have played Division I are used to being catered to. I think a lot of them are waiting to see how the league does and whether fund raising and sponsorships will let us pay our players something in the future. The (Division I) guys who are with us now, I don’t know why they do it except for a love of the game.”
Kurus, 23, is a prime example of that. The Hillside, N.J., native was a Gophers reserve from 1991-94, and entered games for only about 75 plays on special teams during his Minnesota career.
In the MFL however, where play is estimated to be at the level of a Division II league, Kurus is an impact player for the dominant Minnesota Maulers. He is a starting linebacker, a captain and second on the team in tackles. The experience he gained at the University has become a valuable resource for both his teammates and coaches.
“(Kurus) is a leader in practice and he shares a lot of the drills he’s been through before,” Maulers defensive coordinator Rob McCarthy said. “We only practice twice a week so we don’t have a lot of time to teach guys things. Doobie’s seen a lot of different formations and styles and he’s soaked them up.”
Holmes, 30, also tries to impart his knowledge, much of it gained during a seven-year career with teams in the National and Canadian Football Leagues.
Now an account executive for a phone company, Holmes said coaching with the Lumberjacks the past two seasons has been fulfilling.
“It’s fun to be around football and guys who love to play no matter their age,” Holmes said. “I have a white-collar job now so it’s good to get out and be around a little sweat and a little pain every now and then.”
Holmes said he began last season with low expectations. Despite having to teach some players basics such as stances and tackling, he has enjoyed the experience.
“Once I saw that the guys were there to win and not just to put on a uniform, then I got motivated with them,” Holmes said.
Jackson, the former Gophers co-captain, played for Holmes and the Lumberjacks earlier this season but soon soured on the league.
“It just wasn’t me,” said Jackson, who hopes to break into the Arena Football League next season. “You had some good players and some guys who shouldn’t have been out there. There was no way I was going to pay to play at that level of competition.”
Jackson wasn’t the first former Division I player to walk away from the league in frustration. Ostlund said others failed to return after the circuit’s initial season, when its acronym could have stood for Muddled Football League.
Early last season, the Maulers showed up for a game against the Lumberjacks with only enough white jerseys to outfit half their team. So the Maulers’ offense wore white, their defense wore green and the Lumberjacks wore red, creating an odd tableau.
“You didn’t notice it too much until our special teams units were on the field and the offensive and defensive players were mixed together,” Kurus said. “But the fans were still like, `What the heck’s going on?'”
Players and coaches sometimes had similar thoughts. An hour before the league’s first-ever game last July, some players had not yet been issued helmets and shoulder pads. Once, players about to begin a game had to borrow thigh pads from others who had just finished. Several times, teams weren’t told of the sites for their games until the day they took place.
“I think some of the players were really pissed last year,” Ostlund said. “I know some guys who had played at the [NCAA Division II] level, let alone the guys with Division I experience, said ‘Screw it, this is a joke’ and didn’t come back this year.”
But with better organization and an influx of recruits, league administrators and many participants feel the MFL is headed in the right direction.
Kurus, who works as a preschool teacher, is doing his best to help. He has hosted a pool tournament featuring league players, ridden in parades in sub-zero weather and gone from table to table in local bars giving away tickets and talking up the MFL.
“After my senior year at the University, I thought I was done playing football so this is great,” Kurus said. “If I want this league to succeed I have to do promotional stuff now. If it takes riding in parades, I’ll do it. I just want to play.”