St. Paul Pioneers sign Spicer to one-week contract [with Video]

Categories: Sports

Pioneers Powell 2.jpg
Image courtesy of Rebecca Allen
Can these men mold Spicer into a football player?
​Note to self: despite repeat attempts, the sensation of fried hamstrings cannot be quelled with a cocktail mesh of Stoli, rest, and 15 Advil.  Really, the only true cure for such discomfort is the knowing that this is not pain without cause.

Last month, I had the pleasure of practicing with the semi-pro St. Paul Pioneers football squad, defending champions of the coast-to-coast Northern American Football League. The objective: to get me game-ready for some action in their June 5 matchup against the U.P. Arctic Blast.

Now a member of the regionally-located Northern Elite Football League (with a dozen teams spread across Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the U.P. of Michigan), the Pioneers are comprised namely of former college ballers who played at varied strata of the sport.

And as I was soon to learn: this level of play isn't a makeup of dudes looking for the low charge of slow pitch softball.  Rather, the vast wealth of these guys (ranging the age spectrum from early 20's to early 40's) remain in exceptional shape.  As a mirror of their myriad ages and levels of past experience, the Pioneers' shared devotion to football is pieced together with a mosaic of vastly different personal backgrounds and livelihoods.

"We've got some schoolteachers, some personal trainers, guys that sell cars, several guys that have played Arena League pro ball," says d-coordinator Jim Walsh, a former semi-pro player whose own daytime responsibilities come as a federal courts and agencies reporter for the Star Tribune.  Thumbing down the roster, Walsh adds:  

"We've got Kym Trueblood, our 40-year-old defensive tackle who played at Clemson and used to be in the military.  There's Ukee Dozier who started for the Gophers.  At quarterback we've got Alex Neist, who played in the Arena League."

Per the Pioneers' new league environs, Walsh adds:

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Image courtesy of Rebecca Allen
​"The league we were in had 70-something teams from coast-to-coast, and now we're in a 12-team league with teams in Minnesota, Wisconsin and one team in Michigan.  The biggest difference hasn't been in the regular season.  I think the regular season quality is the same -- the difference will be in the playoffs.  For the National Championship run last year we were playing teams from Iowa, South Dakota, Washington (state), and Tennessee.  Last year, we rented six minivans for the trip out to Bellingham, Washington, which was a 25-hour drive."

To compete, these guys are pocketing passion in lieu of paychecks.  There's no compensation at the semi-pro level; actually, there's a per player fee of $100 to play.  Walsh estimates that it costs about $18,000 annually to keep the squad running, with cash flow derived from the afore-noted fees, combined with ticket sales and numerous fundraising activities.

But at their regular Tuesday night practice, the business of sport is washed out by the entertaining (and at times intense) lexicon of smack talk, a splash of some rah-rah, and an immediately-evident flavor of unity and purpose.

"It's the same type of stuff that's happening through Pop Warner, through high school, through college -- it's football," says d-lineman Guillaume Paek, a former Augsburg player whose been with the Pioneers since their inaugural season of 2002.   "One of our assistant coaches in a prison guard, we've got some guys who do construction, some who work in finance.  One of the guys I brought over from Augsburg is a day trader at RBC Wealth Management.  There are quite a wide range of professions here.  It's all about getting a group of guys together from diverse backgrounds, but all with the same common goal in mind."

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Image courtesy of Rebecca Allen
​Peak's intellect is as well-evident as his devotion to the Pioneers.  He's as quick to reference George Plimpton's Paper Lion as he is to lend me a jersey and immerse me in defensive drills.  When not bruising minds on a game day Saturday, Paek spends his time molding them.

 "I teach at Anwatin Middle School, teaching Seventh Grade social studies," Paek says. "There are actually a few people on our team that work in the Minneapolis School District.  I get razzed by the other teachers: 'Why are you doing this?'  I tell them it's my cheap therapy.  I get go out and hit something and feel good about it afterwards."

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