BELLFLOWER — Behind a pickup truck that was his locker, a football player named Don Murray, his muscles inflated from weightlifting, exchanged overalls for gold pants, shoulder pads and a bright blue jersey with a white 58.
"Time to get crazy," Murray said.
Murray, 24, is the center for the Bellflower Bears, who will never be mistaken for the Chicago Bears. The mirrored sunglasses Murray wore reflected his fellow offensive linemen, who were having their jersey sleeves taped to their beefy arms so the defense of the Los Angeles Outlaws would have less to grab.
An hour remained before kickoff of another High Desert League game at the Bellflower High School stadium. This was semipro tackle football, sometimes called sandlot, often called ragtag, but the Bears cling to it because it is all they have to satisfy an addiction to a sport that batters their bodies but never their souls and keeps alive the dream that somehow there is a future for them in the pros.
Dream Jolted by Reality
"The possibility of playing with the big boys" is how Murray, a big boy himself at 260 pounds, put it.
The dream is recurring and delicious, and then, every Sunday, reality jolts it.
Wives and girlfriends were there to cheer the Bears and so were a few sons and daughters. That was all. There would be no scoreboard, no programs, no announcer heralding the Bears' arrival on a gridiron of dry grass, no hint of tension in the hot air.
The players would be paid only in pain, but they wouldn't complain as long as they could drag themselves to their jobs in the morning.
"We all just love the game," said Murray, who played at Long Beach City College.
The team's coach and owner, Bob Schremp of Bellflower, a bear of a man at 290 pounds with hair and a beard as unkempt as jungle growth, was miffed that only 40 of his 50 players showed up, but 40 was a lot more than the Outlaws had, so Schremp was confident. He decided to start his reserves.
The 5-year-old team, which competes with 12 others from Los Angeles and Orange counties, used to be the Los Alamitos Vikings. Schremp, who played with the San Diego Chargers in 1960, took over the team last year because he was hungry to get back into football. He named himself coach, changed the nickname, found a place to practice and play and demanded that his players respect him and one another.
'A Well-Oiled Machine'
"I've seen us go from 13 players--everyone with different pants and helmets--to a well-oiled machine," said wide receiver Reggie Stover. "We don't fuss and fight like the other teams."
Stover, 30, who played at USC, has been with the team all five seasons and wonders if he will ever get the game out of his system. Three times a week, he drives to practice from his West Los Angeles home.
Schremp, 48, who refers to his players as kids, although most aren't anymore, will take only those who enjoy playing football. "I tell the kids, 'If you don't have fun, I want you to quit and go home,' " Schremp said. "The satisfaction I get is seeing the kids enjoy themselves."
The team practices at Caruthers Park in Bellflower, where Schremp sometimes has to turn from observing his linemen battering each other silly to yell things to a player such as: "Hey, Brenston, is that your car behind the catering truck? Move it."
The uniforms are furnished by the team's sponsors, the Bellflower Jaycees, but each player has to pay up to $300 for helmets, pads and shoes and $70 to cover the cost of officials and footballs.
As the teams line up for the kickoff, John McFadyen, a 275-pound offensive tackle, looks over the Outlaws, who wear black jerseys in various stages of fading, and yells, "New meat."
McFadyen, 23, was an all-CIF player at St. Anthony's High School and also played at Long Beach City College, "but I still wanted to play." He achieved some of his incredible bulk by throwing telephone poles, a test of strength in his native Scotland. He said it is hard to get out of bed on Monday mornings and go to his job as a plumber at St. Mary Medical Center in Long Beach.
'I've Got Full Coverage at the Hospital'
But the constant danger of being hurt doesn't worry him. "I've got full coverage at the hospital," he said.
On the field, the Outlaws quickly become bear meat. Bellflower's defense swarms all over them, but the offense sputters until Bill Willard throws a touchdown pass to Jimmy Clinton for a 7-0 lead.
Schremp puts in his No. 1 quarterback, Tom Nordee, and his flashiest player, wide receiver and punt returner Troy Hunter.
Two years ago, Hunter was a star at the University of Arizona. He wants to play in the NFL and is tuning himself toward that. At practice last Thursday night, Hunter dismissed the league as unchallenging and a brushup, but said he would approach the Outlaws game as if it were an NFL game. "I'm going to try to get a good showing on film (the Bears tape their games)," he said. "Film don't lie."