For the love of the game 

At the crossroads of opportunity and hard knocks with the Missoula Raptors

The warning had been made a few days earlier: I’m a different man on the football field. I’m not the articulate community leader you’ve met before. I’m not the counselor at Missoula Youth Homes. I’m not the person who’s spent the past five months helping to organize Missoula’s first-ever semi-professional football team—the one who’s worked with Paul “The Godfather” Ryan and Chris Stratton to raise more than $25,000 to field the Missoula Raptors, the largest team of its kind in the Rocky Mountains. At practice I’m just a football player, warned Rajiem Seabrook. With the pads on, he said, you may not recognize me.

But at the end of a 90-minute practice, the 6-foot-1, 250-pound defensive lineman is hard to miss. He almost skips to the bleachers like a kid. He takes off his helmet and lets his dreadlocks unfurl. He stands among his 82 fellow players, the 10-member Lady Raptor cheerleading squad, the half-dozen coaches and the 50 or so onlookers—families, neighbors, girlfriends—who have come to catch a glimpse of this new team practice, and Seabrook starts talking to no one in particular.

“How many people do you know living a dream?” he belts out. “How many? How many people do you know that even have a chance to live a dream? This is our chance, men. This is my chance. No one can stop me. No one stands in the way. No one. Not this time.”

When it comes to football, Seabrook doesn’t like to discuss the past. In interviews, the Brooklyn native politely skips over details, but he says he played football before and the experience was a bad one. He alludes to players being used and football becoming less and less about just playing a game. He says, “I’d rather not talk about it. It’s in the past for me now. I’d much rather talk about the Raptors.”

Last Saturday, the Missoula Raptors played in front of a capacity crowd (approximately 1,000) at Loyola Rams Stadium in their first regular season game as a member of the 21-team Rocky Mountain Football League (RMFL). Seabrook played like a teenager in mud. On the very first play from scrimmage he got in a tussle with an opposing player. The entire game he was all arms and legs, in constant motion, slapping players on the pads, motivating his teammates in the huddle and up and down the sidelines, hustling on and off the field. He looked nothing like a player who was being used. For the first time in a long time, Seabrook was having fun again on the football field.

The Missoula Raptors are the epitome of the second chance. Their roster—with the youngest player age 19 and the oldest in his middle 40s—is an inspiring collection of has-beens, wanna-bes and dreamers practicing four times a week for no pay and little glory. They play for the love of football and, maybe one level deeper, for personal reasons less obvious. In sports, as in life, the opportunity to recover something fragile, something intangible—like passion for the game, like the recklessness of youth, like the acceptance of teammates, like the satisfaction of victory—is an exceptional phenomenon. Looking down the Raptors roster and across their sidelines, the personal motivations may vary but the consensus of all involved is the same: This team is an opening not to be overlooked or underappreciated.

“For a lot of these guys, this is a fresh start,” Seabrook says. “For me, it’s a chance to feel better about the sport again. For some guys, it’s about answering, ‘Do I still have the legs? Will my back hold up?’ For some guys, it’s an experience they’ve never had before, to be a part of something that’s never materialized for them…We don’t get paid. We don’t get to go to some dot com bowl [game]. This is real. We’re doing it because we love the game of football.”

“A person sets their own limitations”
Sunday morning practice less than a week before the first game is intense and hard-hitting. Attendance among the 82-man team is high. Players are competing for the chance to wear a uniform because one of the RMFL’s few rules allows only 60 to dress for each game. Although the team’s starters and key backups are receiving the majority of the playbook repetitions, the scout team—the bottom-of-the-roster players typically used as tackling dummies against the defense or road kill against the offense—are clawing just as hard for every inch of field. The expectation is that a few scout team players will be awarded the last roster spots for Saturday’s game.

On the offensive scout team, Jeff Evison and his brother Greg, both wide receivers, work on their stances while waiting to run passing routes. Jeff, a 29-year-old financial adviser, is more athletic that his older brother. Jeff ran track in college and played one year of football growing up—his senior season at Sentinel High School—and the team failed to win a single game. Jeff says football doesn’t come easy to him, and then he looks at his brother.

“No offense to Greg, but he doesn’t have much athletic ability at all,” he says. “Just being out here and not quitting when you have hurt fingers and bruises and can barely squeeze your hand to catch a football, that shows me something. I know he’s busting his ass more than anyone out here.”

Greg, 35, has difficulty with his hearing. His mother explains it as high-frequency hearing loss, where certain words such as “scissors” cannot be heard. Off the field, Greg wears hearing aids. On the field, since his helmet doesn’t fit over the hearing aids, he reads lips when he has to and acts on instinct. He hardly misses a step.

“His hearing held him back from playing sports at a young age,” explains Donna Evison. “As a mom, it breaks my heart that he couldn’t play more when he was younger. But a person sets their own limitations. Greg is a man now and he has gone after this without any hesitation. I can’t tell you how proud I am of him.”

Jeff and Greg have not missed a practice since the team started—that includes practices on Saturday and Sunday mornings, a workout session Tuesday night and a film session on Thursday night. It’s a heavy commitment for two scout players, but the Evison brothers don’t question it at all.

“The physical aspects and taking the hits is one [challenge],” Jeff says. “But being able to get over that and be a part of this, it just adds more confidence.” Greg adds, “Confidence and self-esteem. Just being out with the guys and being involved with an organization like this, it means a lot.”

The two brothers talk about personal expectations for the season in measured and humble terms. They’ll do anything it takes to help the team. Jeff hopes to dress for every game but says he’ll carry water bottles if that’s what it takes; he’s desperate for his first football victory. Greg, playing organized football for the first time in his life, would love to get into just one game. “I just want to dress,” he says.

The rest of the Sunday practice is spirited, and as players get more tired, some tempers flare. Defensive coordinator Bill Funke keeps telling his starters that he’s bringing raw meat to the next practice to keep them at bay. A few late hits during a drill are chalked up to players trying to get one last shot at impressing coaches and teammates for final spots on the game-day roster. Head coach Matt Softich finally ends practice and has the players surround him at midfield.

“I’m going to read the list of players not dressing for the first game,” Softich says. And then there is silence. The coach lets it hang in the air and slips into a huge smile. “I’m not going to put up with not dressing everybody for the game. I can’t do it. You’ve worked too hard. I called the league, and I called the coach up in Kalispell. They agreed to it. Every one of you is dressing for the game. Congratulations.”

“We have sad news”
When Softich announces the entire team is dressing, the players erupt in cheers. From the beginning, the founding members—Seabrook, Ryan and Stratton—have instilled a sense of family with this large group of men. They’ve preached team and togetherness and community. Seabrook spends time at the beginning or end of every practice reinforcing those values in speeches to the team. Softich’s gesture of dressing all 82 players has kept that spirit of family firmly intact.

“Now, take a knee, gentlemen,” says Softich after the ovation. “We have sad news. We have to be together right now. We have to help a guy.”

Buckie Brawley is the Raptors’ starting quarterback. At 28, Brawley is married and the father of four kids. By day, he works as a stonemason. He has the cut jaw of a cowboy, broad shoulders, and he looks you straight in the eyes when he answers questions with yes sirs and no sirs. He just looks like a quarterback, cut from the same mold as Brett Favre or Johnny Unitas. And that name…Coach Softich says the first time he looked at the roster, “I had to start him at quarterback just to hear the name Buckie Brawley over the loudspeaker.”

Coach Softich breaks the news: The day before, Alta Brawley, Buckie’s mother, died of an aneurysm. She was 44. It happened with no warning. She had battled cancer, but just a week prior had received a clean bill of health from doctors.

“We were driving over to the mall after practice yesterday for a community meet-and-greet and he pulls up next to me when we’re at a stop at Malfunction Junction,” recalls Softich. “And he gets out of his car and says to me, ‘Coach, I can’t make it to the mall thing. My mom just died.’ He was white as a ghost.”

Despite the tragedy less than 24 hours earlier, when Softich addresses the team Brawley is right there—pads on, football tucked under his strong right arm, sweat still on his forehead from practice. There’s a prayer and a moment of silence held in honor of Brawley’s mother. The quarterback thanks his teammates and accepts some hugs. If anyone makes it to the funeral, he says, just wear your football jersey.

“Everyone in my family said there’s nothing I could do,” says Brawley after another practice a few days later. “I figured I might as well come up and be with these guys. I have 82 teammates and coaches to support me, so…”

Brawley’s an athlete, always has been. He coaches wrestling and football. He played tight end in high school (he was also the backup quarterback) and played organized flag football before the Raptors started. When you’re an athlete, you find opportunities to compete and play the game.

“I have a love for football,” he says of why he joined the Raptors. “But I didn’t really think it was going to be like this. Semi-professional is not the word. The word is professional…It’s something I’m fully committed to. I’m not going—none of these guys are going—to let the team down.”

“Flies in the face of logic”
Semi-professional football is in its infancy in Missoula. Most of the team’s stories at this early stage are innocent and full of hope, the equivalent of a child’s first steps or words. Every element of the organization feels special because it’s never been done before.

Jared Neumeier, however, has seen what it’s like when a semi-professional football team starts to experience growing pains. Neumeier was the founder and quarterback of the Idaho Falls Mustangs in 1997, the first year of the RMFL. For the past six years, he’s been the commissioner of the league. He’s seen the number of teams dip to as few as four and overseen the expansion this season to a record 21 squads—the third largest semi-professional football league in the country.

When he hears about the family atmosphere being created in Missoula, Neumeier cracks, “A family? Hell, they’ve got a small village up there. In all my years doing this, I’ve never seen nor heard of a team this size. This is a players league. We want players to play. A roster this size flies in the face of that logic…

“They’re going to decrease in numbers,” he continues. “Someone will get unhappy. The 61st guy on the roster will realize he’s never going to see meaningful playing time and that this is too much of a commitment for little in return. I’ve suggested a second team in the area, and I think it may happen down the line. I just can’t see how they’ll keep all of those guys happy.”

By comparison, the Glacier Knights, a Kalispell-based team in its second year, faced the Raptors last Saturday with only 27 players.

Neumeier is excited about the Missoula team, but he’s equally cautious. It looks too good to be true and he’s seen a lot of teams fail over the years following promising starts. “I don’t really know what to make of them. I really don’t,” he admits. “But then again, good organization usually produces good results. And they seem to be incredibly well organized.”

A lot of the credit for the organization goes to Seabrook, Ryan and Stratton, but when those founders and other members of the team are asked about expectations that elevate the Raptors to a possible playoff team, each one points to Coach Matt Softich.

If Buckie Brawley was sent from central casting to play quarterback, Softich was handpicked by the director to play the grizzled gridiron whistle blower. He’s coached high school, college and semi-professional football. His start came right here in Missoula as a 20-year-old assistant coach under Larry Donovan at UM. Despite all his years working in the game, this is Softich’s first opportunity as a head coach.

“I’ve always had a playbook ready, always had the meetings scripted, the plays scripted and the practices scripted,” Softich says. “I showed up at the first [Raptors] meeting and I already had the first three practices ready to go. I kind of planned it in my mind that if I ever got the chance, this is how it would happen.”

Watching Softich conduct practices, you can picture him planning for this moment—he’s in complete control in front of the team, wearing athletic shorts and a beat-up brown and gold Montana Grizzlies windbreaker, commanding total silence from the players during his frequent motivational speeches.

But the Raptors are not the Griz. Is this really what Softich wanted?

“One of our wide receivers pulled his calf doing an Easter egg hunt,” Softich says. “One of my assistant coaches had to miss a practice so he could go to his prom. I’m thinking, you know, I bet Bobby [Hauck, head football coach at UM] doesn’t have this problem.

“[But] it’s very seldom you get the chance to see the opportunities unfold before us in life,” he continues. “How many times do you take the chance to look back and say, ‘Man, I wish I had asked that blonde out’? This is a place where they’re getting that second chance and they can see it. I can help them see it.”

Softich’s biggest challenge is dealing with the broad spectrum in his players’ ages, playing experience and time commitments (not everyone can make all four meetings a week). His playbook starts with the basics, such as how to line up in the huddle between every play. But when the time is right, Softich can also reach back into his years of experience and teach at a level akin to college ball.

“We’ve got lawyers, students, bankers and financial people, construction workers, guys who are out of work, guys who bleed football, guys who played college football, guys who never played Little Grizzly football, and guys who have only played that Madden video game,” he says. “The challenge from my standpoint is to teach everyone at the same level.”

So far, from the player’s perspective, he’s succeeding. The Evisons talk at length about how much they’ve learned about the game in three short months of practice. Brawley says it’s Softich who elevates the team above backyard ball perceptions of semi-professional football.

Says Seabrook: “I tease coach that he likes to hear the sound of his own voice, but what good coach doesn’t? Seriously? He’s the best coach I’ve ever been around. Ask anyone on the team and they’ll tell you the same—he’s right up there.”

Coach Softich is part of the reason that Neumeier has predicted in his annual season preview that the Raptors will win the RMFL’s four-team Montana division (the Glacier Knights, Great Falls Gladiators and Helena Titans are the other three). Despite never having seen the team play, Neumeier expects the Raptors to win five of their eight games this season.

“It’s a big town with big support, so they have big potential,” says Neumeier, breaking down the Raptors’ roster and schedule. “I’ve been doing this a long time and I’m usually pretty good [at predicting the season], but who knows? They’re a little different from what we normally see.”

“Does he look 43 to you?
” Ray Medlin sleeps three to four hours a night. The 43-year-old owner of a construction company, he wakes up every morning before sunrise and drives from his home in Florence to Gold’s Gym in Missoula, works out and then drives back home in order to get his kids to school on time. For the last three months, almost every night he’s gone from work to some sort of Raptors happening—practice, film sessions or a community event. In his spare time, he coaches his son’s baseball team.

After last Sunday’s practice, at the team’s family picnic in Bonner Park, Medlin works two grills at the same time—cooking enough hot dogs, burgers, chicken and steak to feed an 82-man roster and most of their families. He never sits down, never takes a break.

Medlin is the Raptors’ third-string fullback.

“You think he’s going through a mid-life crisis?” says Medlin’s wife, Shari, laughing and slapping her thighs. “I thought he was at first. I really did. But he loves this. Look at him. Does he look 43 to you? He’s got to do this.”

Medlin is a stout 5-foot-8, 180 pounds, smallish for the physical position of fullback. He’s also not particularly fast. But Medlin has what football people call “a good motor,” meaning he never takes a play off. Even when he pulled his hamstring a few weeks ago, he still came to every practice.

“The doctor thought it was [a major tear],” he says, pulling up his shorts and revealing a vast discolored bruise with green and purple splotches running from the top of his thigh to his calf. “I worked through it. I still came to practice and did pushups and sit-ups and stuff like that. I didn’t miss any time.”

Medlin shrugs off an injury that can sideline professional players for half a season. There are no secret remedies to keep his body in peak condition, he says. When asked why he’s so hell-bent on putting himself through so much, he just shrugs again. Medlin loves football and it’s a dream for him to be playing.

And his wife, despite some reservations, isn’t about to stand in the way. “I worry a little bit about [injuries],” she says, in a brief respite of seriousness. “He’s one of the oldest out there, you know. And he’s the breadwinner in the family. If something happens to him, that’s it. That’s our livelihood.”

Shari snaps out of the thought when her 11-year-old son, Justin, comes running up behind her, bouncing a basketball. Justin’s asked what he thinks of his dad playing football. “He’s the greeeaaaat-est out there,” he says, and then returns to bouncing the basketball. “He’s so proud of his daddy,” Shari says.

Back near the practice field, Medlin’s face perks up when he talks about his family. “We’re a pretty tight group,” he says. “They are beyond excited. And I think my 11-year-old would never let it up if I [stopped playing].”

“It looked bad
” At the Raptors’ opening game, extra bleachers were brought in to accommodate ticket demand. Community sponsors South Hills Evangelical Church sold concessions, and volunteers sold Raptors merchandise. The Lady Raptors performed a halftime routine at midfield to a Destiny’s Child song in newly purchased green and black uniforms. The Raptors, in their own brand-new all-green uniforms, took the field to music being pumped out by Todd Mackey, the same guy who runs the sound at Washington-Grizzly Stadium, where later this year the Raptors will play two home games.

On the playing field, the Raptors comfortably beat their rivals from Kalispell, 46–0. Buckie Brawley rushed for 40 yards, completed seven passes and tossed one touchdown. Jeff Evison played most of the second half at wide receiver and finally got to taste his first football victory—he planned to celebrate by taking an ice bath. His brother, Greg, also saw playing time and had one pass thrown in his direction. Ray Medlin played a single down—the play in which the Raptors scored their final touchdown. After the final whistle, coach Softich received a big kiss from his wife and was playfully tackled by his 5-year-old daughter, Emma, at midfield. The two teams shook hands, and then the Raptors mingled with the sellout crowd, soaking in the moment.

But it almost doesn’t matter that the Raptors won because the fact they were on the field at all—let alone under such celebratory circumstances—was a victory.

As recently as September the Raptors had seemed destined to fail. Paul Ryan, 20, had been trying for almost a year to organize a semi-professional football team in Missoula. His idea was sidetracked by broken promises, uneven commitments and the overwhelming task of attempting to put everything together while attending school, working full time and planning his wedding. He was ready to give up and called Neumeier, the commissioner, at his home in Idaho Falls to explain that things were not going to work.

“I told him not to quit,” says Neumeier. “I told him to get the best people he had—whoever he had—and to set a meeting. I went up there myself and gave them a pep talk at some pizza place.”

Freemos Pizza on Brooks Street was packed with families; a large birthday party produced screaming kids and forced the team to meet with Neumeier at a center table. “It was horrible,” recalls Ryan. “It was embarrassing and just kind of seemed like everything else up to that point. It looked bad.”

But it produced results. Ryan met Seabrook and Chris Stratton, and during the course of the meeting the three assumed multiple responsibilities. Ryan’s vision for the team meshed well with Seabrook’s natural leadership and organizational skills, as well as Stratton’s ties to the community. Within a week the trio was sending Neumeier e-mail updates about their progress.

In January, the RMFL held its annual induction meeting to review new applicants. The Raptors were asked to make a presentation to the league’s board, prove they’d established a home field that met minimum facility requirements (such as locker rooms and a scoreboard), submit a roster of at least 30 players, instill confidence in a long-term plan for the success of the team, and pay a $250 deposit on the team’s $600 yearly league fee. The Raptors were approved unanimously, the only one of seven new teams accepted without a dissenting vote.

As of today, the team counts 29 major sponsors and almost 50 additional community contributors. As a nonprofit, they rely on the support of local businesses; each player pays only a nominal $115 player fee to cover everything from uniforms and equipment to transportation to and from away games. Ryan admits the team is in debt and that it will take a solid season of ticket sales and more sponsors to help recover the startup costs. “This has been really tough,” says Ryan at the team picnic. “At the start, I just wasn’t getting any help. I’m 20 years old. I don’t know how to run a football team. But when [Rajiem] came on and when Chris stepped up, it just started to take off. We’re a real team now.”

Talking with Ryan, it’s easy to forget that he’s also a player. After practices he’s swarmed by fellow players asking logistical questions about ticket sales and equipment orders. He carries a notebook with administrative notes along with his shoulder pads and helmet. The team refers to him as The Godfather, but Ryan is on the front lines just like everyone else trying to gain playing time. He gets no special treatment; he’s the backup at free safety. Like some of his teammates, he’s never played football before.

“He wasn’t big enough to play in high school,” says Echo Fuller, Ryan’s fiancé, during a recent Raptors practice. “He works out all the time in the gym to get bigger. He goes running in the park across the street on nights they don’t practice. Every single day, from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., it’s all Raptors.”

Fuller doesn’t mind the commitment at all. Their wedding was purposely planned for after the season ends. It’s worth it, she says, witnessing Ryan live out something he’s always wanted.

“When he brought the uniforms home I had to take pictures right away,” she says. “He put the pads on, with his number 20, and I got him posing. He was just like a little kid.”

The Missoula Raptors are not little kids. They are fathers, students, blue-collar workers and white-collar workers. There are too many personal stories to count—the Missoula public defender who plays on the offensive line; the outspoken tight end/wide receiver who moonlights as a reggae artist; the former minor league baseball player who stars at tailback; the mammoth defensive lineman who performs with the Mike Hagan Strength Team; and the collection of former Griz players who fill out the roster.

For every player like Rajiem Seabrook, looking for a lost love of the game, there is a Jeff Evison looking for his first victory or a Greg Evison just looking to suit up. The opportunities are there for each one to use football as a platform for something greater.

Buckie Brawley has been thinking a lot about second chances. He addressed the team after his mother passed away and said, “You gotta play every play like it’s the last. You never know. Something freaky can happen. One minute you’re here, one minute you’re not. This could be our last chance.”

The Missoula Raptors play their next home game Saturday, April 30, at Washington-Grizzly Stadium against the Wasatch Wildcats at 3 PM. For more information on the Raptors, visit www.missoularaptors.com.

arts@missoulanews.com

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