From a distance you could hear them laughing and shouting -- a bunch of kids playing football in the park. But with every step closer to Hamilton Square it becomes readily apparent that these are not kids.
They're too big and too strong; wide receiver Chris King's biceps bulge as the pass from Dion Pickett hits him in the hands. They're too fast; King and his colleagues shoot up and down the truncated field with bursts of speed befitting the Road Runner. And, finally, they're too polite. When asked just what team this is, the squad's running back hustles back to his car, retrieves a handful of fliers, and hands us one. They're the Bay Area Buccaneers
of the Northern California Football League
-- and he's the team's owner, Charles Lindsey.
Nine months ago, Lindsey -- a 24-year-old former star running back for McAteer High School and a driver for Arrowhead Water -- coughed up $17,900 to become the Buccaneers' sole owner (and one of the team's six running backs). The money, which the former Montana State player amassed over the years through hard work and by living at home with his family in Bayview -- a stone's throw from the 49ers' digs at Candlestick Park -- represented a healthy chunk of his life savings. Considering tickets for NCFL games cost around the same as beers at a Niners game, it's not remotely likely Lindsey will ever see a return on his investment. In fact, calling it an "investment" at all is something of a misnomer. But he's okay with that. This isn't about the money. In a way, it's not even about the football.
"It's not really a return thing for me. I lost a lot of my friends to violence growing up over here and I'm trying to make it a peaceful thing," says Lindsey, whose team kicks off its 2009 campaign at its home field of Burton High School (at 400 Mansell Street in the shadow of McLaren Park) at 1 p.m. on Saturday vs. the Pacifica Islanders.
"I have a lot of guys on my team from different areas in San Francisco who don't usually get along with each other. But now everyone gets along fine."
The notion that a bunch of young men whose rooting squad at practice consists of kids eyeballing them through the window of the Western Addition Branch Library could one day crack the rosters of a pro football squad is a bit outlandish. But hope springs eternal for the Bay Area Buccaneers. Gus Lopez, the NCFL's commissioner, says that a number of his former players have managed to land scholarships to Division-II colleges, and others have landed in the Arena Football League and its offshoot, Arena Football 2.
Scores of "minor league" football organizations are scattered throughout the nation. Last year, the Bucs' opening day opponent, Pacifica, trounced the El Paso Brawlers, 55-0, to win the national title. That game was played at City College of San Francisco -- and if you didn't know the city hosted a national championship game, Lopez notes "don't feel bad -- nobody else did, either."
Attendance usually tops out at 600 or so souls -- and the commish says that's a shame, because his teams are playing good football. Every Saturday, he claims, he's witnessed a play rivaling David Tyree's scintillating "helmet catch" in Super Bowl XLII; since that may be the most amazing catch in the history of catches, Lopez is likely romanticizing things a bit. But, he emphasizes, NCFL players are athletic (and full-sized; the Bucs' O-line averages around 280 pounds and Pacifica's tips the scales at 310), talented, and play with a passion. "They're not playing for big notariety or a championship -- though we do have a very nice trophy at the end," he notes.
Each of Lindsey's players ponied up $355 to cover a uniform and league dues -- though the O-linemen paid less. When asked why, Lindsey replied "Because they're linemen." When asked to explain, he laughed and said, "You know, you can't win without linemen." Spoken like a true running back.
After he bought his franchise, he began making some calls. Almost every one of the players on Lindsey's roster hails from San Francisco; most of them played with -- or against -- him at McAteer and College of San Mateo. the oldest Buc is just 26, the youngest a mere 18. When they're not on the gridiron they work at the airport, operate forklifts, or go to school.
The owner is anticipating big things for his fledgling squad -- he poached the starting secondary away from the champion Pacifica squad and a number of his old pals around the league joined him to play their home games at Burton in the city. The Bucs won both their preseason contests, razing the Alameda Knights, 77-0, and clipping the Santa Rosa Rattlers, 21-14.
"New teams usually get beat up on. But we've got a pretty good team," assesses the young owner. "This is keeping everyone together -- a lot of us played together in high school and junior college. It's keeping everyone on the same page and not just heading off in different directions. So it's bigger than just football to me."