Goal To Go

A staggered line of men walks toward Rock Bridge High School’s football field from the adjacent parking lot carrying helmets, shoulder pads and other gear. It’s around 5:30 on an uncharacteristically moderate Thursday evening in late July. Most are wearing gym shorts and T-shirts. Some walk to the field in their work clothes.

Coach J.D. Franklin paces the sidelines, talking to his assistant coaches and the players who call for his attention. He wears a white Air Jordan T-shirt tucked into navy warm-up pants. The brim of his white baseball cap rests just above his eyes. He doesn’t use a whistle. He doesn’t have to. Franklin is a tractor-sized man with an 18-wheeler’s horn for a voice box.

“Let’s move fellas,” he bellows. Like cattle, the players herd into the stands, putting on the last of their equipment as they walk.

The Columbia Trojans are new to both mid-Missouri and the North American Football League, but the team is quickly garnering attention. Formed just last February, the team has ambushed the league with a 5-1 start this season. The Trojans have come upon an unexpected wealth of community support that has tallied up some of the league’s highest attendance numbers this season.

After playing a season for the Kansas City Shockers, Laurence Washington says he grew tired of the nearly 130-mile commute west from his home in Columbia two to three days a week. He says he knew there were enough players in town who would be interested, so he founded the team and began by recruiting people he knew. News spread quickly by word of mouth and two to three weeks later, the team was meeting at Rock Bridge’s field to practice.

One afternoon, a few months after the team had organized, Franklin showed up at a team practice. Several Trojans had previously tried recruiting him to play. His football resume included college ball at Texas A&M and a brief stint with the Kansas City Chiefs in the early ‘90s. The years he’d spent grinding it out on the gridiron left him with a pair of bad knees.

“I had some coaching experience,” Franklin says. “But I had a lot of great coaches and I’m a student of the game, so I came out and took a look at it.”

Franklin got some looks from the players as well.

“As soon as he got on the field I was like, ‘who is this big-ass dude walking toward me?’ ” says Washington, himself a 330-pound lineman. “When he shook my hand I thought he’d broke it for a minute.” He laughs and shakes his head, “Dude is strong for no reason.”

At first, Franklin just stood aside and watched the drills, though that quickly dissolved into him delving right into it and pointing out what they were doing wrong.

“Man, he was jumping down our throats,” says Washington. “But before that, we we’re doing kind of half-assed drills. By the end of it, we had an organized practice.”

“It was a little unorganized,” recalls Franklin with a grin. “But I am very structured so we put it together quickly.”

That night, Washington called and offered him the coaching job.

Structure, Franklin contends, is a keystone to operating a team successfully. The theme permeates beyond just his military-esque aura, or his coaching style on the field. It oversees the team off the field, too — because life extends well beyond the 100 yards of a football field, and Franklin and the rest of the coaching staff are there to help the players with that as well.

Players are required to call one of the coaches two to three times a week. They talk finances, family, health and job opportunities. The coaches help where they can. Franklin, who works in real estate by day, already has helped a handful of players find jobs.

If structure is what Franklin provides, professionalism and effort is what he demands. “The semipro league already has a mark on it, but we’re not treating it as semipro,” he says. “We’re treating it as pro ball. We want to be a farm. We want individuals to look here to find some athletes”.

That professionalism is perhaps one of the main contributing factors to the support the Trojans have received from the community. Attendance numbers for the Saturday night home games have even peaked at around 800.

Franklin says he truly didn’t expect such robust support but attributes it partially to the homebred background of many of the team members — guys who went to school at Rock Bridge and Hickman high schools, Mizzou and other Missouri colleges.

Aside from the attraction of competitive play and hometown players, the weekend night games also offer Columbians their only chance to see football in the summer, or any local minor league sports. After the Mid-Missouri Mavericks minor league baseball team sputtered out in 2005, Columbia was without any pro or semipro sports teams until the Trojans.

But despite how they choose to treat it, this is not the pros. Soccer goals are strewn on the southwest corner of the stadium during afternoon practice. As the team shuffles and sprints through blocking, agility and route-running drills, heats of middle school boys and girls from the Blue Thunder Track Club circle the track. They share.

On the Trojans’ budget, sharing is the only option. It costs $230 a week to rent the field for practice; home games run $1,000 per night. Players aren’t paid to play in the NAFL. They pay to play. To cover the equipment, jerseys and league fees, each player shells out around $250 just to be on the team, though being on the team doesn’t come without benefit.

“This is a chance for somebody to do something here,” says Washington, who still volunteers with the team but signed over ownership rights to Franklin in April. “Some of these kids are still 19 and 20; they have a chance to go to college still — walk-on, small school, whatever. School is school.”

For others, this is a chance to lend someone else a hand in getting there. After maturing into a standout safety and team captain on the 2005 Missouri Tigers football team, Jason Simpson is one of the more recognizable names on the Trojans roster, along with quarterback Jason Sutherland, who emerged as local fan favorite on the basketball court for his tough-nosed play as an MU guard in the late ’90s.

“So, Jason and I are supposedly the star athletes,” says Simpson. “If that gets people out to watch the other guys on the team, so be it … I play so they can get a scholarship.”

And Simpson’s own dreams of playing professionally? Anything is possible, he says, but for how he just enjoys getting out there to have fun, give his 4-year-old daughter Rylee a chance to see him play, and blow off stress and frustration from the week. When he isn’t playing football, Simpson works in sales for Quality Inn.

“I’d say that the best thing about the team is that everybody has a big football brain,” he says. “Guys on this team might not all be big or fast enough to play at the next level, but they get it mentally.”

Trojan defensive end Marvin Williams had a shot at that next level. He was scouted by the St. Louis Rams after his junior season at Central Methodist University. But right after his senior season started, the team’s coaching staff was fired and with the coaches, so went Williams’ contacts with pro scouts.

After that season ended, Williams says he realized that he would have to just do the normal thing and get a job. He currently works in accounting at the University of Missouri and is an assistant defensive line coach at Rock Bridge.

Hopes of the Trojans perhaps springboarding him to a second opportunity are kept in check; he remains humble and skeptical. “Yes we’re good athletes, and maybe we had a chance at one time,” he says, “but a lot of us are just out here to enjoy the game of football.”

“It’s not like basketball where you can go and play pickup games,” he says. “I mean, you can play tackle football but you can’t put the pads on and really do it. It’s not the same. This just gives us the opportunity to play the sport we’ve been playing since a lot of us were kids”

During games, they lead their own “DE-FENSE” cheers from the bench. Players thump their chest after big plays; they scream, and there are occasional heat-of-the-battle skirmishes between plays. This is still competitive. This is still fun. This still matters. And at the time, it’s the only thing that matters.

For DeMond Thorpe and others, that is a relief.

“It just kind of pushes away all the stuff in our real lives for a few hours — bills, work and whatever other stresses,” he says. Off the field, Thorpe works day labor jobs and is the new father of an infant son, Jason.

Before coming to play for the Trojans at the beginning of this summer, Thorpe was an All-State selection at wide receiver during his senior season with the Rock Bridge Bruins. After graduating in 2005, he traveled to Chicago where he played football for William Rainey Harper College, though financial troubles eventually brought him home to Columbia.

“This is pretty much a second opportunity for me to better my skills and possibly take my football career to the next level,” he says. “Back to school.”

But Thorpe knows it won’t come without discipline, work and structure. If there’s one thing that football teaches, it’s that success comes one yard at a time.

Game Plan

Catch the last home game of the Columbia Trojans when they host the Kansas City Shockers at 7 p.m. on Sept. 26 at Rock Bridge High School field. Admission is $5 per person; children 10 and younger admitted free. Find out more about the Trojans on the team’s Web site, www.columbiatrojans.com