Miami Hosts Semipro Football Championship

Miami hosted a national football championship for the North American Football League over the weekend. Although the game didn't attract much attention, it was the biggest weekend of the year for semipro football, as the Nashville Storm faced off against St. Paul Pioneers.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

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And I'm Melissa Block.

Miami is a hotspot for some big football events. It's not just the upcoming Super Bowl. This past weekend, Miami hosted another football championship. It was the North American Football League or NAFL.

For semi-pro football, it was the biggest weekend of the year, as NPR's Greg Allen reports.

GREG ALLEN: Semi-pro football has existed since the game's beginnings in America. At its most basic, it's adult, amateur football, men who don pads and helmets and play at a level usually somewhere below college and hopefully above sandlot pickup games.

There are dozens of leagues all over the country, with maybe 700 teams. The largest league is the NAFL, and one of its top squads is the Nashville Storm.

(Soundbite of football practice)

ALLEN: The Storm arrived in Miami last week and immediately held a practice. It was at a locked city park. Players and coaches had to squeeze through a gap in the fence. They may be amateurs, but the Nashville Storm looked professional. It's a 60-man squad, and Charles Hunter is the head coach.

Mr.�CHARLES HUNTER (Head Coach, Nashville Storm): I'd say 95 percent of our players got college experience.

ALLEN: Hunter played at Tennessee State and coached high school football before coming over to the Storm. In his day job, he works at Tennessee's Department of Transportation. The players, the coaches, everyone associated with semi-pro football have to find some other way to support themselves. But Hunter says many out here have a dream.

Mr.�HUNTER: Basically, they're here to pursue a career in one of the arena leagues or CFL. They come out, get filmed. We send it out to different scouts, and they come out looking and pick up guys for their teams.

ALLEN: Although some coaches and other staff are paid, the players are not. Amateur status is especially important to athletes who still have college eligibility left. But not all the players look like they're ready for the NFL. Some would be small even on a college team, but there are some who look just a step away from the next level.

Defensive tackle Danny Roberson supports himself during the week as a maintenance supervisor, but at 6'5" and 315 pounds, he says he's out here just to play football.

Mr.�DANNY ROBERSON (Defensive Tackle, Nashville Storm): It's just a love of the game. Sometime, you know, a lot of guys don't understand that it's the love of the game. You know, it ain't about making a million dollars doing this. Sometimes, it's just, you know, coming out with your teammates, having fun, brotherhood, picking each other up, finding a way to get it done.

ALLEN: That's a phrase you hear often in semi-pro football: the love of the game. Terry Sullivan says it's what inspired him to help organize the NAFL, which he says now has 80 teams in 39 states. The league started just a decade ago, and Sullivan says he hopes to eventually grow it to nearly 200 teams. Because so few people are paid, Sullivan says the economics are simple. Getting just 100 people into the stands is usually enough to break even.

Mr.�TERRY SULLIVAN: In our organization, we have owners that are multi-millionaires and guys that are just working a daily job for 10 bucks an hour, and they own teams. So can you make money doing this? Yes. Do most of the teams make money? No, they're doing it for the fun.

Unidentified Announcer: This afternoon, the NAFL national championship game will feature the St.�Paul Pioneers and the Nashville Storm.

(Soundbite of whistle)

(Soundbite of football game)

ALLEN: On the field, the play is intense. In the stands, there are just dozens of people, nearly all family and friends. It's a smaller crowd than you'll find even at some middle school football games. But that doesn't bother Charles McGriff, coach of the DC Explosion, which had just finished winning its game in the consolation bracket.

Mr.�CHARLES McGRIFF (Coach, DC Explosion): This is our Super Bowl. We'll take it any day.

ALLEN: In the end, St.�Paul edged by Nashville on a final field goal. It was a championship marked by interceptions, fumbles, missed blocks and plenty of emotion on and off the field. In other words, semi-pro football.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

(Soundbite of cheers and applause)

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