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Semi-Pro Football Players Have Little Glory, High Hopes : Rhinos: Some play for love of the game, and others admit they want to be spotted by NFL scouts.

July 25, 1990|ADAM STEINHAUER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ANAHEIM — It is a strange mix of players running through drills at a recent tryout for the Orange County Rhinos, one of three semi-professional football teams in Orange County.

"Some of these guys have never played high school ball," Rhinos' co-owner/defensive coach Carl Babb said as he watched them go through drills at Brookhurst Park in Anaheim. "And if you get into it with them, you'll find that some who have (played in high school) never got on the field. But there's nothing here we can't work with."

The Rhinos, who are scheduled to play six home games, beginning Aug. 11, at La Habra High School, play in the shadows of professional, collegiate and prep teams. They play for no money and little glory. For most of those involved the game itself is its only reward, although some harbor the slim hope of playing in the NFL.

"Scouts will show up and look at the guys," Babb said. "That's not to say they will ever contact them but they will show up."

Rick Tedford has played semi-pro football on and off for the past 13 years, the past four as the Rhinos' starting quarterback. He has been through unsuccessful tryouts with the Rams and several Canadian teams.

"There are guys out here who realistically could compete in an NFL camp," Tedford said. "There are some guys here who can seriously play the game but will never get the opportunity."

But, still, many of the players continue to hope. Mike Cunningham, a contractor from Fullerton, is a leader on the Rhinos' offensive line. "I'd like to try to get into the NFL," Cunningham said. "I'm going to try to bring a new kind of aggressiveness to the offensive line. Maybe that means I'll have to start smashing helmets or something."

But in the meantime, they also play just to play.

Tom Montez and his brother Paul own and coach the Orange County Cowboys, who play at Buena Park High School's field.

Tom Montez, a former high school and semi-pro offensive guard, began coaching when injuries to both of his hamstrings prevented him from playing any longer.

"I coached the first few games in my football pants with my pads near by," Montez said. "I just hoped that somehow I could get into the game. After a while, some of my players told me that I could either be a player or a coach--one or the other.

"One of the reasons a lot of us do this is we love the sport. We can't give it up."

For some of the players, love of the sport is the only motivation. Tom Turner, 28, played outside linebacker for UNLV during the early 1980s. His friend Jim Anmus, 31, was a receiver for the University of Hawaii. "This (semi-pro) is to know that we can still play ball," Turner said at the Rhinos' tryout.

Semi-pro football certainly offers few fringe benefits for the players to love.

The Rhinos receive no salary and in fact have to pay a fee of $106 a season to cover the costs of referees' fees, group insurance and other expenses. Cowboys' rookie players pay $150; veterans pay $125.

Babb and Barry Robinson, who also co-owns the Rhinos and coaches their offense, bought the team in 1987 with no money up front and a handshake agreement to take over expenses. Babb and Robinson together lost $2,800 on the Rhinos last year.

The Cowboys and the Rhinos play in the High Desert League. Jim Lott, 85, founded the league 54 years ago and still serves as its commissioner.

Lott owns 28 semi-professional teams throughout California and Mexico, but chooses not to take an active role with his teams.

"To me, owning a semi-pro team means you own second-hand suits and somebody wears them," Lott said. "I gave them the suits and I can hire and fire anybody I want to . . . to me there's no ownership."

Babb is a supervisor at a meat-packing plant in Southgate. Robinson is a circulation manager for the Orange County Register. The Montez brothers are contractors.

And all of their players also do something else besides play football to earn a living.

"That's why all the teams play fairly clean," Tom Montez said. "Everybody's got to work the next day."

"I would like to see some of the pro guys work a 40-hour week and then come out and play football."

Last season, off-the-field responsibilities hurt the Rhinos defense.

"For some reason a lot of the boys had conflicts with their jobs," Babb said. "We had trouble getting the same guys out every weekend."

As a result, the 1989 Rhino defense gave up 54 points--20 more than it did during the 1988 season and the most it ever has in its four years under Babb.

This season, a group of ex-Rhinos, led by Gil Harris, started the Orange Coast Dolphins, the third semi-pro football team in Orange County.

Harris, a stockbroker from Fountain Valley, played free safety for the Rhinos for five years. He left in frustration with the High Desert League for what he called a lack of organization and an inability to promote itself.

The Rhinos' and Cowboys' owners conceded that most of the fans in attendence at their games are their players' families and friends. Harris explained why: "For the fans, they have a million and a half things to go out and do here in Southern California . . . You name it, it's out here."

It is why Robinson and Babb have hired professional promoters for the Rhinos this season.

It is also why Harris is not expecting a quick return on his investment. But he retains the hope of many of those connected with semi-pro football:

"It's kind of a hobby, but hopefully it will blossom into something a little bit more than that."

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