“Smash.” “Grunt.” “Bang.” “Crunch.” Ah, yes, the familiar sounds of the all-American, modern-day gladiatorial pastime. What compels these hearty souls to hurl their bodies in the direction of a speeding locomotive, putting their necks on the line for gridiron glory? For many it’s the hope of making it with the homecoming queen. For others college scholarships and the hopes of a million-dollar NFL contract provide sufficient incentive. For others still there is a genuine love for the game. No matter how crazy, barbaric or just plain weird that love seems to some, a genuine love brews deep within a few souls.
Souls such as these can be found competing with the Detroit Downriver Diesels. The Diesels, currently in the last days of their inaugural season, have compiled a record of 3-4. The realization of a season at all is a triumph of will and dedication.
CEO, owner, head coach, general manager, player, groundskeeper, etc., 34-year-old Ray Thomas has dedicated the past two years of his life to getting his organization off the ground. A former truck driver, Thomas says he put his cross-country wanderings on the back burner and sank a heap of money into this. He doesn’t want to talk specifics, but according to the Web site of the North American Football League (NAFL), the initial franchise fee alone is $75,000. From there Thomas organized everything from concessions to field maintenance to the recruitment of players and staff.
The NAFL is a New York-based amateur league, consisting of 131 teams organized into 23 divisions. It has a national playoff system and championship game. One thing most teams don’t have is player salaries.
In a day and age when most sports fans would rather vomit than listen to multimillionaire professional athletes cry for more money, the Diesels are among those who do it for free. After working through the week at day jobs ranging from pizza delivery to “emergency response high tension electrical linemen,” players suit up in equipment and jerseys bought with their own cash in order to compete in June, July and August, when the temperatures are decidedly unfriendly to their sport. “In the end we find inspiration in the community and the fans that come to see us.” Thomas says. “We’re not just out here to drink beer and play football. Without the community we’re nothing.”
The Diesels see themselves as a community organization as much as a football team. Thomas prides himself on the fact that a family of four can attend the game — and hours of entertainment — for $20 admission.
While most NAFL players are not NFL caliber, most have played college or arena ball, and bring a considerable level of experience and ability to the field. Moreover, the players compete with an intensity and excitement that only comes from a true desire to play.
The Diesel organization provides other distractions beyond the mere game. There is the ever-popular and foxy cheer squad, the Dieselettes, in their expected midriff-baring outfits. But perhaps best of all, there are the announcers: WWJ’s Scott Ryan and his color commentator DJ Lee. In the tradition of the Ron MacLean-Don Cherry “Coach’s Corner” segments on “Hockey Night in Canada,” Ryan and Lee keep it entertaining even when there is a lull in the action. The straight-laced Ryan delivers mostly informative and positive commentary, while Lee injects witty and comical, yet sometimes irrelevant, observations.
At a recent game against the Indiana Tornadoes, Lee seemed to get most excited about the unconfirmed arrival of free pizza and the Dieselettes’ upcoming charity car wash. He then expounded upon several of his favorite bars (that double as sponsors for the Diesels) and went back to talk more about the Dieselettes upcoming charity car wash. Not to be outdone, Ryan roused the crowd with his overly exuberant “DIESELS TOOOOUUCHDOOOWN!!!” each time the Diesels crossed the goal line. Ryan also acts as the voice of optimism. Against the Tornadoes, Ryan said, “Well, the Diesels are going into halftime with only a two-touchdown deficit.”
So if it’s lazy summer Saturday nights you’re looking for, or if you’re a football nut needing to fill the void left by the NFL off-season, there’s an opportunity here. The Diesels are likely to play one more home game this summer, on Saturday, Aug. 24, at 7:30 p.m., at Creative Montessori Stadium, 15100 Northline in Southgate. Call 734-284-5339 or visit Detroitdownriverdiesels. com for more info.Adam Stanfel is an editorial intern at Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]