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IN A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN : A Love of Football Is the Sole Prerequisite for a Place on the Roster of Ventura County's Semipro Team

September 28, 1989|JEFF RILEY | Special to The Times

The victim is lying on his side, hands quivering and legs stiff. He struggles as he rises, falls, then returns to his feet and stumbles toward the sidelines. His state is the result of a jarring blow delivered by a Ventura County Cardinal.

"That dude was bacon, man," one player says. "He was a piece of Sizzlean, just lying there shaking in the frying pan."

Another player is talking with his young daughter on the sidelines. "I know you're hungry, honey. How does pizza sound after the game?"

One player is lying on his stomach with a cramp in his calf. A trainer is applying ointment and massaging the muscle.

"Ouch!" the player screams. "Why do I do this?"

Late in the fourth quarter, the game is delayed five minutes so officials can determine the score, and when the Cardinals' starting quarterback is injured, the team's 34-year-old coach grabs a uniform, collects various pieces of protective gear from his teammates and begins tossing footballs along the sidelines to warm up.

Welcome to High Desert League football.

The Ventura County Cardinals are a first-year team that has returned to Ventura County after a seven-year absence. The Ventura County Americans folded after the 1981 season and the closest teams to Ventura County thereafter were from the San Fernando Valley.

Now the Cardinals have emerged. They have their share of players with waistlines as large as their egos, but they also have added some quality junior college players and become a contender in the seven-team High Desert League.

"There are some outstanding athletes here," said Curtis "Bo" Brooks, the team's player-president. "You've got excellent, excellent football players who might be an inch short or a half-a-step too slow for the NFL, but they're still great football players."

They're good, but not that good. The players range in age from 21 to 53. Some are former high school stars, some have competed at the Division I level in college. Others have had professional tryouts.

The Cardinals picked up John Guerrero, a second-team Pacific 10 Conference selection last season at USC, after he was released by the Cincinnati Bengals this summer. The team's quarterback, Kevin Hicks, was a punter at Oregon who was released by the Dallas Cowboys in 1984. Thurman Beard, a wide receiver released by the Atlanta Falcons last year, is also listed on Ventura County's roster.

Guerrero and Beard want NFL tryouts next summer. Hicks, before suffering a season-ending injury, consistently boomed punts of 40-plus yards and Tim Fahringer, from the University of Utah, also has a good leg--he kicked field goals of 42 and 51 yards during a 27-21 victory over Burbank on Sept. 9.

But they are the exception, not the rule. Most of the players are known for their talents off the field, where they are lawyers, physical education teachers, industrial designers, and parole officers. And it results in a quality of football somewhere between high school and an average junior college team.

"It's all about how many beer stories they can tell after the game," said Mark Anderson, who played semipro football in 1977 for the Glendale Bears. Anderson is a "football nut who will watch anything," which explains why he is in the stands for a Burbank versus Ventura County game at Oxnard High.

There is Korey Stephens, a former Cal State Northridge standout who looks impressive with five catches for 51 yards. His 75-yard punt return accounts for the winning score in a sudden-death overtime period as Ventura County remains unbeaten. And Hicks completes 13 of 20 passes for 176 yards and two touchdowns.

And there are players such as Shannon Curtis, a 43-year-old who looks more like an usher than a player. Curtis should be helping the 100 or so fans find their seats, but he isn't. He is standing along the sidelines in a Cardinal uniform and pads, his helmet dangling from his hand.

Curtis won't play a down in this game, but he doesn't seem to mind. He is sidelined because of an ankle injury but appears to be satisfied with reading his name on the roster. He calls himself the team's prankster, "like Howie Long with the Raiders," and asks defensive end Miller Aupiu for an order of french fries and a cheeseburger as Aupiu passes by.

"I enjoy the competitiveness," Curtis said. "I don't want to think I'm getting older, but I realize there comes a time to hang it up."

Some might look at him and say that time has arrived. But that's where semipro football comes to the rescue. Only in the High Desert League can Curtis continue--or begin--his football career.

"Some of these guys might be a little bit too old, but they haven't lost the spirit," said Stephens, who played at CSUN in 1987. "These are the true lovers of football. They aren't getting paid for this."

The love brings them to the field, but doesn't help them make a tackle or a block.

It was a friend of Curtis', Bob Blechen, the Cardinals' 53-year-old starting center, who invited Curtis to practice. And Curtis surprised his fiancee when he accepted.

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