photos by Josh Cook
This is where they found Keanu Reeves in The Replacements
It all feels a bit odd. It’s a spring Sunday afternoon in Rochester, Minnesota, but Mayo High School’s football stadium is buzzing. You’d expect the field to be desolate this time of year. Instead, the grandstands are almost full and there are behemoths on the turf.
The Med City Freeze are hosting the Albert Lea Grizzlies. On the field are farmers, doctors, lawyers, mechanics and firefighters; mostly from quaint small towns or quiet liberal arts colleges across the upper Midwest. But on this day, with helmets strapped up, cleats tied and jerseys pulled tightly over pads, these local boys look menacing. Their smiles shine bright. Their swagger oozes through their uniforms. They look like a pro football team.
In a roundabout way, they are. The Freeze and the Grizzlies are members of the Southern Plains Football League (SPFL), a nine-man amateur football league with teams from Truman, Minnesota, down to Carlisle, Iowa. The players sign contracts, work out in the offseason, play eight-plus week seasons and fight for their shot at a championship. But they don’t get paid. Rather, the players pay to take part. There may be a lucky few that get the chance to move up and try out for a Canadian Football League or even an NFL team. But for the rest, they play to menace.
Out of Season
We’ve all heard the story: varsity starting quarterback Joe Blow never left town and now he drinks at the local bar and talks about the “good oll days” and how he’s still got it. The SPFL gives him a chance to prove it.
With the development of amateur leagues, younger guys who believe they still can play football at a competitive level strap on the pads, close the yearbook and walk the walk in front of their community.
“It gives these guys a chance to continue their careers if they had a college career. And they still have a passion for the game,” SPFL Commissioner Jay Doyscher says. “It also gives an opportunity to those guys who quit playing after high school, but were good enough to go to college … sometimes life interferes, but they still have a passion for the game.”
That zeal is what matters most. And players in the SPFL come from different walks of life, football backgrounds and areas of the country.
Off the Beaten Path
Monte Nelson would be a matchup nightmare at most levels in football. At six foot three, the wide receiver looks like a man amongst boys. He burns defenders down the field. His hands are like magnets, bringing in the ball without breaking his stride. He leaves defenders perpetually scratching their heads trying to come up with a way to stop him.
“For myself, [I play] more to stay in shape and let myself know that, ‘Hey it’s not over for you. You can still play,’” Nelson says. “It’s letting myself know that I can still do this and, if I want to try to pursue that NFL dream again, anywhere is a good start in this league.”
During the week, Nelson works as a patient appointment coordinator at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. On the weekend, he plays wideout for the Med City Freeze. Nelson, who is in his mid-20s, is the poster child for how the league is intertwined with communities. But being from Buford, Georgia, he comes from a less local background than most.
Nelson was an all-around athlete in high school. He was also a standout in track and field, excelling in the high jump — remember: matchup nightmare. His high school football team won multiple state championships during his time there. After not getting the exposure he probably deserved, he moved to Minnesota to play football at Rochester Community and Technical College .
Storm Soto — the founder, president and a player for the Freeze — contacted Nelson after his two years at RCTC. Soto asked him to play for the South Central Hawgs, another SPFL team, where they spent three years as teammates.
In 2015, Soto branched out to form the Freeze, and he made sure to bring Nelson with to build a goliath team in Rochester. Nelson, now in his mid-20s, is about to finish his second season for the Freeze.
What the Future Holds
The league has been through growing pains of its own. Teams have come and gone, some are better than others. Recently, Doyscher and the league made the decision to change the classification from ‘semi-pro’ to ‘amateur’ because of problems they ran into with college eligibility.
“Fortunately, one of the colleges that we’ve gotten a lot of guys from reached out to us,” Doyscher says. “No one was ever getting paid, but because there’s so many 11-man leagues that call themselves semi-pro, we ran into some issues.”
A few years ago, SPFL playoff games began to draw large crowds — regularly upwards of 500 people — so the league looked for another way to extend the season. This came by way of an all-star game, played the same day as the SPFL championship game: the Pigskin Classic. In 2017, an interleague matchup — the Mid-USA Gridiron Classic — was added, with the SPFL champion playing the champion from the Elite Eight-Man Football League based out of Texas.
For Doyscher, this is another chance to improve the league and its audience. The wider the audience, the more players want to play in the league. But growing an amateur league where no one gets paid can be tough. Doyscher says that the league has its struggles — just like most everything else in life or business.
“Communication [is our biggest challenge],” says Doyscher. “Making sure that everyone is on the same page, communicating and understanding the direction we’re trying to head and why we’re doing what we’re doing.”
When it Rains it Pours
Coach Tyler Graff never sees it coming, but everyone else does, including running back Tim Nela. Nela has the awareness to come over and distract Graff while teammates approach with a drum of Gatorade hoisted between them. Nela swiftly gets out of the way just as his teammates hurl the container at Graff.
There’s good cause for the festivities. The Freeze just won their home opener in a blowout: 77-6. At times, SPFL games get a little lopsided, moreso than at the professional level. That’s one of the drawbacks of the league: The teams aren’t all on the same playing field, figuratively speaking.
But Doyscher has high hopes and a plan. The 2017 and 2018 Pigskin Classic games are going to be held in U.S. Bank Stadium, the brand-new home of the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings. With attention growing, the SPFL could be on the up-and-up in the Midwest.
“We also are looking to rent the stadium to host another day of games with teams from other leagues,” Doyscher says.
This postseason gives the SPFL a lot to look forward to. If they’re able to keep this momentum for a number of years, the SPFL could turn some menacing weekend-warriors into professional Raiders, Cowboys or Vikings who battle on astroturf, not on reclaimed high school fields they nearly left behind.