Making the cut 

The lure of gridiron glory, past and present

Practicing indoors means players for the Missoula Phoenix semiprofessional football team can’t tackle each other. But that doesn’t mean they get to avoid pain during the team’s twice weekly practices. The coaches see to that.

“We’ve got to get these guys conditioned,” coach Willie Beaman says.

The majority of the two-hour Saturday morning practice—held at the Montana Basketball Academy, a small, linoleum tiled court maintained by an evangelical church—puts the players through a rotating workout of everything from jump rope and running drills, to push-ups and long jumping.

Minutes after the drills begin, the gymnasium fills with the musky stench of 50 sweaty men–some weighing in at nearly 300 pounds. There is nary an unflushed face in the room as each player pushes his body to its peak. After all, a bad showing here means losing an opportunity to play football competitively.

“Some of you haven’t been working on your conditioning outside of practice time I see,” Beaman says. “You gotta do that guys. We don’t practice enough for you to get in shape just here. You gotta do some on your own time.

“You got to work out and get yourself fit so you can avoid injuries out there on the field.”

With only a few months before the Rocky Mountain Football League season begins in April, and with an as of yet incomplete roster, conditioning is the primary focus during Phoenix practices.

“We want these guys to be able to compete at their best,” the team’s chiropractor Chris Duffy says. “Things happen though. They roll an ankle, or hurt their knee. With the conditioning hopefully these things can be avoided.”

As the players get into playing shape over the next few months, Beaman will decide whom he wants wearing the team’s orange and black jerseys. So far over 80 prospects have attended at least one practice or team meeting since pre-season preparation began earlier this month, Beaman says. Of those, 55 will survive to make the final roster.

For some players, making the team, which finished as the runner-up for the RMFL championship last year, means more than just a weekend hobby. For some, the Phoenix team offers a chance to regain a measure of glory before father time intervenes, or for others, an opportunity to play football for the first time. The hurting muscles, or the occasional floor burn from the basketball court, come as part of the experience, and the players gladly accept it, for the most part.

“You look like you’re having a hard time with this,” returning player Nick True shouts at his teammate Jeff Hecht.

“Of course I am,” Hecht says, and then after a breath he adds, “I’m 280 pounds…Jesus…I don’t need to hear your mouth…I’ll knock you out.” Both guys laugh, though the threat carries weight. Last year Hecht knocked three guys out cold by tackling them.

One new player showing up for his first practice was University of Montana freshman Eric White, who has never played an actual game of football in his life.

“I ran track in high school and played basketball, but not football. I didn’t get into it until junior year and by then it was too late to make varsity,” he says.

What he lacks in experience however, he makes up with blistering speed.

“If we could cover that kid’s hands with glue, he’d be perfect,” Beaman says.

If not, well, there’s always next year.

Greg Misner, a 28-year-old physical education teacher and varsity football coach from Noxon, fills out various forms of paperwork. Working out with the Phoenix for just the second time, he hasn’t made the roster yet.

At just five-foot-eight, Misner doesn’t possess a dominating physique, but he played four seasons at Olivet College, a Division III school in Michigan, where he was named an Academic All-American as a fullback and long snapper.

After college, Misner took a shot at the big time, trying out with the Indianapolis Colts for a spot as a long snapper in the NFL.

“I was close. I missed making the longer snapper position by one spot so there’s always been this kind of question in my mind,” he says. “I thought I might as well give this a year.”

For the last two weeks, every Saturday he and his wife have traveled the 130 miles from Noxon to Missoula so he can make practice.

Coach Beaman understands the desire to hang on to good feelings from past days. A former special teams player for the UCLA he still wears his championship ring from the 1976 Rose Bowl, a huge chunk of gold encrusted with diamonds and the final score of the game: UCLA 23 OSU 10.

“That was something. It was at the Rose Bowl back in the day when that was mainly the only game they played there,” he says. “That field was so green and new, and there was all the roses. And the stadium had over 100,000 people screaming and yelling. I know guys in the pros who never played in front of that many people.”

Of course, a crowd that size would exceed the entire population of Missoula and would never fit in Washington Grizzly Stadium, where the Phoenix play, but Beaman has high hopes for the squad.

“We got a good bunch of guys coming down here and wanting to play,” he says. “I think we’re gonna have a good year.”

Tryouts for the Missoula Phoenix will continue through February every Saturday at 11 a.m. at the SHEC Community Center at the corner of North Ave. and Johnson Street.
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