Glory Days: The rise of full-contact alumni football games nationwide
Full-contact alumni football games -- with helmets and pads -- have spread in U.S.
Alumni Football USA organizes the contests; expects to stage 350 games this year
Participants are able to relive in their playing days, but injuries are not uncommon
SCHOOLCRAFT, Mich. -- It's a clear summer night in southwest Michigan, and Brad Johnson is lined up seven yards behind the line of scrimmage, ready to reprise the role that once made him a household name in this tiny town. At the snap, Johnson, playing tailback, bolts from his stance and sprints left. He has run this play, 49 Option Dive, thousands of times. He receives the pitch from his quarterback and glides toward the home sideline and, just beyond his row of teammates, a set of bleachers packed with folks who knew his name then and still know it today.
Johnson plants his left foot in the grass and cuts upfield when he is summarily met by Keith Kellis, a hulking defensive tackle who has taken the perfect angle and closed at full throttle to quickly end this trip down memory lane. The collision is tremendous, and the crack of the men's pads reverberates across the field. The impact sends Johnson briefly airborne. It's the kind of hit that would fit seamlessly into a scene of Friday Night Lights, Any Given Sunday or The Longest Yard (the original, not the Adam Sandler fiasco).
But this tackle doesn't happen in supersonic slow motion, and it isn't set to a classic rock soundtrack. This hit is quick and violent. "A perfect hit," Johnson said after the game, blood seeping from the bridge of his nose.
After both men crash-land, Kellis quickly pops up, faces his bench and lets out a triumphant, carnal scream. Johnson lies on the grass for a few long seconds before -- somehow -- peeling his No. 22 jersey off the turf and wobbling to his sideline. He'd return to the game shortly afterward, which is a remarkable feat because Johnson is no longer in high school. He's currently 40 years old.
In the fall of 1988, Johnson was the 17-year-old star of a state-champion high school team. Today he's a 5-foot-10, 185-pound father of three with a wife and a job in construction. Kellis, the man who rocked him, is a 6-foot-3, 300-pound, 34-year-old father. Johnson hails from Schoolcraft, Mich., a cornfield community with a population of 1,500. Kellis comes from Portage, a larger city located a few miles away. Both men were representing their respective schools in the first-ever alumni football game at Schoolcraft High's field. Kellis still buzzed over his monster tackle moments after the contest was finished. "To break down and make a hit, but to also know what you're doing in life, it's a great feeling," said Kellis, who works as a tool and die operator. "It was a fun play."
"I played two years of college ball after high school," Johnson added. "But tonight was the hardest I've ever been hit."
Ever wonder what it would be like to get your old high school team together for one more game? There are many ways to pull it off. You could make some phones calls. Hop on Facebook. With a little luck, you might scrape together a tackle game in a buddy's backyard. Maybe you'll end up playing two-hand touch in a stony lot. Maybe you'll play flag football. Maybe it'll be co-ed. Powder puff, perhaps.
But if you want to get serious (full disclosure, I hail from Schoolcraft, and can state with certainty that when it comes to football, my hometown is serious), there's another option: you can unite with school alumni across generations, strap on pads, and hit -- and get hit -- just like you did as a teenager. Advil sold separately.
The company making it happen is called Alumni Football USA, and every year it stages games in towns large and small, urban and rural, from coast to coast. For thousands of former high school football players, the dream of suiting up and playing a real game -- complete with helmets, pads, refs and a raucous crowd -- is becoming a reality.
"A lot of times, guys hear about us and these games, but they don't think it's possible to do it in their town," said Bob Cazet, founder and president of Alumni Football USA. "But they'll hear about this game in Schoolcraft, and other games as we keep moving around the country, and they'll realize -- it's real."
Cazet, a former Marine and schoolteacher, organized his first high school alumni game in 1984 with a group of friends in Saint Helena, Calif. His goal wasn't to start a company. It was to raise a little cash for a prep team he was coaching. "I was 24 years old and had become the head softball coach at Saint Helena High School. My budget was something like $280," Cazet said. "I figured I had to do some kind of fundraiser. I always wanted to play one more high school football game. I started talking to buddies, and we ended up with 100 guys in the game. We put in it the paper, and we had about 3,000 people show up and watch it."
That game got the attention of other former high school football players in the Bay Area, and before long, Cazet organized a game in a neighboring community. Then another. He'd take his profits from the events and invest in more pads and helmets. Soon Cazet realized that thousands of ex-jocks had a similar dream of suiting up for one more full-contact game. There was just one problem: Cazet had no idea what he was doing.
"The first game I ever did for profit, I had 21 guys walk off with my equipment. I just thought they'd give it back," Cazet said with a laugh. "I wasn't focused on hiring more people, buying trucks, getting insurance. We needed a process for everything."
Today Alumni Football USA's system is simple: Each player pays a fee (usually about $100) to join the team, while Cazet's company prints the tickets and supplies equipment, refs, security, EMTs and liability insurance. Schools pay no money up front, but must provide a field to stage the game. Alumni Football USA takes a cut of ticket sales, while schools typically open concessions and sell raffle tickets, the proceeds of which are theirs to keep.
Cazet says the model is the best way to force players to get organized and boost attendance, and the fundraising potential also ensures the games carry a purpose greater than a bunch of old, marginally out-of-shape guys attempting to relive their glory days. (Although, let's face it, that Springsteen tune would make for a solid soundtrack.) Getting that first alumni game off the ground isn't always easy, but the opportunity is there for teams to raise some cash for their schools.