Long recognized as a haven for both basketball and baseball, Eastern North Carolina has become a hotbed for another sport.
Quietly, semi-pro football has proliferated in the region during the past few years. The game has its strongholds in the familiar outposts: Texas, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, California. Other than those states, only Georgia has more semi-pro teams than North Carolina, in which 17 teams play in the Triangle or east of it alone.
The Rocky Mount-based Carolina Stallions were among the first of their kind, and heading into their 12th season this month, the Stallions have one of the longer tenures in the state for a semi-pro football team. The Tarboro-based East Carolina Raiders, who play their games in Greenville, completed their first season in May and hope to become part of a long-term sustainability in the state.
Though the two local teams differ in their purposes and their methods, both ultimately have a similar goal: Changing the perception of semi-pro football.
Semi-pro football has not been without its share of scoff-worthy stories. Some teams have let on that they were just goons with helmets and shoulder pads, with games that were fight-plagued embarrassments, both on the field and in the stands. There have been coaches who collected a team fee from players and then skipped town. Poor organization and little fanfare has been a common occurrence in the game.
Many high schools have denied use of their fields to semi-pro teams as a result. The high schools just didn’t want the trouble of semi-pro teams.
“Some teams had gotten bad raps and some of it was deserved,” Stallions coach Michael Wright said. “They had no structure and no discipline, and we had to fight that problem.”
Both the Stallions and Raiders hope to add a legitimacy to semi-pro football by operating in a professional manner. The Stallions, for their part, have survived this long, and merely keeping afloat is often the most difficult part for semi-pro teams. Football doesn’t come cheap. Helmets alone for an entire team often run into five figures, and the use of local fields can be upwards of $5,000 per game.
With that type of cost, it just hasn’t been worth the product on the field for many semi-pro outfits.
“I told myself I would never get involved with semi-pro football,” said Raiders coach and vice president Marty Pittman, who operates the team alongside his son, Michael. “After doing it for a year, I don’t regret it at all. There’s 60 guys on that team that are my sons.”
Both Wright and the Pittmans believed there was an undeserved portion of the football world. For the Stallions, that means high-school players who didn’t have a chance to play at the next level. For many high-school players who had poor grades or who suffered an injury while being recruited or who simply were overlooked, there often isn’t anywhere to go.
Wright wanted to give them a place, and he wanted to do so in a sustainable way. Becoming a part of the local community was one of the ways to establish itself, Wright said.
The Stallions put on an annual free preseason game at the Rocky Mount Sports Complex, replete with child-friendly activities and the city’s backing. His players talk to school students, hold a camp and make community outreach a point of pride.
“Those are the type of kids we’re looking for, the ones who have character and can be a positive in their communities,” Wright said. “At the end of the day when everyone goes home, we want positive things to be on their mind.”
The Raiders have a higher number of former college players looking for a crack at a professional league. Former East Carolina University players Durwin Lamb and Jarrett Wiggins and former St. Augustine’s star Tyron Laughinghouse, among others, line the roster.
For many 20-something former players who didn’t know their next move, the Raiders have been a haven.
Devaris Jenkins went to college on a track scholarship but didn’t enjoy his experience, so he went back to football. After playing football at a junior college, he planned to walk on at ECU before a 2008 car accident seriously injured him a few months before tryouts. When he returned to health, he wanted to find a place at which he could take another shot at a college team, but his options were limited.
“I had the urge still, and I knew I had something left in me,” Jenkins said. “I was young, athletic, still working out. I knew I could do it, but I was out of football for a few years, and I needed new, updated film.”
A couple teams at which Jenkins looked folded, but eventually the game picked up in more spots in Eastern North Carolina. The college scholarship didn’t materialize for Jenkins, who suffered a career-ending ankle injury this season for the Raiders.
But he has liked playing so much that he plans to stick around as a coach. In a few short years, Jenkins said, the system has gone from one in which teams begged prospective players to come out for the team to one in which prospective players no longer can be guaranteed a spot.
The quality has improved drastically, Jenkins said.
“A lot of people think semi-pro football was very mediocre and wasn’t worth the time,” Jenkins said. “The best way to change that perception is to find a group of guys on the same page as you.”
He found that in the Pittmans, who spent $10,000 to buy the team its helmets – an uncommon practice in semi-pro football. Marty Pittman said his concerns about concussions led him to spend money on his players’ well-being, a move he doesn’t regret.
Semi-pro also has its recreational players. Nathan Carter, a part-owner of the Surf City Sharks, a team in East Coast Football Association alongside the Raiders, didn’t pick up the game again until he was 30. A full-time barber, Carter plays just to crack the pads. He said his semi-pro experience has been great.
“The relationships you build, that’s what you miss after high school,” Carter said. “That’s what you miss. Riding bus, going to meals, being in the locker room. You miss the football, yes, but you miss the brotherhood more.”
All of those with an interest in semi pro football want people to understand it isn’t “some bush-league,” outfit, as Wright put it. The Stallions and Raiders both said their fanfare has been good, to the point where they have more fans than their opponent in some away games.
As semi-pro football continues to gain its foothold in the region, owners and coaches of semi-pro teams believe they can appeal to anybody who likes football.
And in Eastern North Carolina, Carter said, there should be plenty of people like that.
“There’s something about football, man,” Carter said. “There’s just no other game like it.”
Nick Piotrowicz can be reached at 407-9952 or firstname.lastname@example.org