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Tuesday, April 11, 2006
Dreaming of the big leagues

By Ted Kluck
Special to Page 2

Ted Kluck is living his dream of being a professional football player -- he's the the long snapper for the minor league Battle Creek Crunch (www.battlecreekcrunch.com) of the Great Lakes Indoor Football League (www.glifl.com). Here, he chronicles the team's first game and his first as a pro.

What does it feel like when a dream dies? Not so much the dream of winning, or even playing well, but the dream of being a part of a team based on your ability to perform.

Our team, the Battle Creek Crunch, ran out of the tunnel for our first game through smoke and strobe lights with music pounding through our helmets, just like the football games we had seen on TV and played a million times in our own minds. I truly am buzzed by the adrenaline and understand why this is such a hard drug for men to kick.

Indoor football
Battle Creek Crunch teammates play like pros on the turf.
You don't get the same excitement sitting in a cubicle or working on the assembly line. There is real electricity among the 2,500 fans in the small arena. With the team lined up for the national anthem, helmets under our right arms, I look down the row and realize how long most of my teammates have waited for this. Many of them have played several years of semipro football -- some had small stints in big leagues and are working their way back.

At the game's start, Crunch wide receiver Eric Gardner (who bears a striking resemblance to Apollo Creed) rips up the field for a 50-yard kickoff return for a touchdown -- after which I skip my first snap back to holder Donnie Lonsway, who thankfully gets it down for a good PAT. After another score, my second snap nearly kills Crunch kicker Chuck Selinger, for which I will feel horrible the rest of the night. I bounced the snap back and right into Selinger's arms. He was quickly swarmed to the turf by a pack of defenders.

I feel like hiding, so I take a place at the end of the bench with some of the injured players. My wife gives an encouraging wave, but all I can do is shake my head and look down.

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After a series of miscues, Port Huron goes on a scoring spree. One of our most versatile athletes, LJ Parker, a wide receiver/defensive back from Indiana who brings his kids to every practice, sprained his knee but battled on for the rest of the night. Our defensive backfield suffered injuries to some of its starters. Darryl Johnson, who plucked an interception out of the sky early in the game, later would be hobbled with a sprained ankle. Wide receiver Chesaurae Rhodes, running around catching passes and hammering opponents, tried to keep the team together.

The game was best captured by Port Huron's highly touted running back, Rayshawn Askew, who caught a long touchdown pass and proceeded to dance in our end zone and leap up on our boards. At that time, I had an unhealthy and almost uncontrollable desire to knock him off the boards and drive him into the concrete floor. Losing will do that to you.

Needless to say, the Port Huron Pirates beat us soundly in the Great Lakes Indoor Football League opener -- 62-22. And on a personal note, I sucked -- two bad long snaps after a promising performance in warm-ups.


Indoor football
Ted Kluck is living a dream, even if it's only for a short game.
That game night happened at all is, in fact, a small miracle brought about by the efforts of reserve fullback Jacob Hoxie's construction company and the Crunch front office. Team owner Mike Powell had to scramble to buy turf at the last minute (after our source, another indoor team in Wisconsin, pulled out three days before opening night). He was up until 3:30 a.m. the day of the game sawing and hammering dasher boards into existence with Hoxie -- surrounded on all sides by lag bolts and plywood. These are the realities of the minor league owner, who has to be either eternally optimistic or completely insane.

The night before the game, we received our game jerseys. "If you wake up tomorrow wearing your Crunch jersey, you have a problem," starting linebacker Carmell Dennis said. At 36 years old, after collegiate stints that included camp at Oklahoma and awards at Carson-Newman College, he is now a professional athlete. His comments got laughs from team members, but quite honestly, getting jerseys before the game is still as exciting now as when I was a kid.

Quarterback Ken Kubiak and I checked ourselves out in the the mirror. Kubiak, 39, is wearing a uniform for the first time in several years, and this is clearly a meaningful moment for him. I laid my jersey out on the floor while listening to music to try to conjure up some old vibes.

Wide receivers Rhodes (nicknamed Che, after another small-statured rebel who was bold and courageous) and Johnson spatted their shoes with orange tape and coordinated the color of their bandanas to accent the colors of the jerseys. Wide receivers are shameless in their vanity, but I only wish I could look so cool.

Of course, there were other details to worry about as game day approached. I flubbed my first long snap in practice, unfortunately in one of the last walk-throughs before the game.

"If you do that in a game, I'll cut your balls off," said defensive coordinator Scott Ashe, who is perhaps the most intense human being I've ever met. I think he was kidding.


Ted Kluck
Signing autographs is just part of the job.
After the game, there is the surreal experience of signing autographs for children who mostly have no idea that I am, at best, a marginal athlete. I strongly considered fleeing this scene completely, feeling that it would be too much to explain. But I just smiled and signed T-shirts, footballs, programs and water bottles for the kids. They mercifully don't see bad performances in the box score; they just see a friendly face in a uniform.

On the field, Chris Gillette and I chat about how you really "can't go back." When he's not trying to punish opposing quarterbacks, Gillette is a 290-pound confectioner who owns and operates his own chocolate shop in Battle Creek. In our high school football memories, the stands were always full -- we always played great, looked great in our uniforms, and the team always won. That's the forgiving thing about memories and years that pass. To trifle with those things, in the interest of curiosity or just ego is feeling more and more like a bad idea.

But as I look around -- at Gillette, who tore his rotator cuff (a painful shoulder injury) making a tackle during this game, Parker, Lonsway, Brian Dolph, Harry Pettaway and the other guys -- I realize what a privilege it was to battle with them and watch them play through pain in pursuit of their dreams. Many of them have to get up early Saturday morning for their normal day jobs.

Some of the guys, stung by the loss, showered and left quickly, but most of us hung around in our uniforms until the last of the fans left the field -- cognizant of the fact that this won't last forever.

After the game, I thought about the bad snaps on the way home and for another couple of sleepless hours. The thoughts probably will ruin the potentially good interactions I could have with my family, who care very little about the team's defeat.

And the next day, I'll go back to practice and relive the agony by watching the films, then try to win my job back -- because that's what a professional would do.

Because for the first time in 30 years, after watching professional teams run out of tunnels, warm up under bright lights and sign autographs, I am one of them.

Ted Kluck will chronicle his professional football experience in a forthcoming book. His first book, "Facing Tyson," will be released in the fall by the Lyons Press. Sound off to Page 2 here.