For Redskins kicker Mark Moseley and others, the Fredericksburg Generals offered a second chance on the football field

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Jamie King's minor league football team--the 1996 Fredericksburg Generals--won the national championship after going 31-6 in three years. In a search for redemption, these young men followed the lead of a rookie coach and former Washington Redskins star Mark Moseley all the way to glory. (Feb. 3) (Eli Sinkus for Synthesis/Koubaroulis LLC./The Washington Post)

His stepfather was laying into him that night something awful. Hurtful words. Head slaps. The usual. What made Frank King so mean? the boy had asked himself over the years. Now, Jamie King just wanted to watch the end of a great football game.

The 17-year-old moved closer to the television, toward the players in burgundy and gold on the 15-inch Magnavox, these athletic gods of his adolescence: John Riggins, Joe Theismann and one of the NFL’s greatest kickers.

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“This is it,” CBS announcer Jack Buck bellowed. “The Redskins trail the Giants 14-12, and it’s up to Mark Moseley. The ball is spotted at the 41-yard line, right in the middle of a snowstorm. Here’s the kick. It’s up. … It’s … good! The Redskins are going to the playoffs for the first time in six years! And Mark Moseley becomes the first man to successfully make 21 straight field goals in NFL history. Holy Toledo, they’re goin’ crazy at RFK.”

“Awwright, get your butt to bed,” Frank King said, flicking off the living room TV.

Jamie started toward the hallway, he says, when Frank hit him on the back of his head with an open-hand slap. Fighting back tears, clenching his fist, refusing to let the old man know he was hurting, he kept walking down the hall, hearing a familiar refrain from his childhood:

“You’re never goin’ to amount to nothin’.”

***

For the next 12 years, Jamie’s worst fear was that Frank might be right. After playing backup quarterback at North Stafford High School, he took a few courses at Northern Virginia Community College, then dropped out. He played quarterback in a semi-pro league for three years. When that dream died, he wanted to become a nationally known sportscaster. But co-hosting “The Mark Rypien Show” on local cable during the Redskins’ last Super Bowl run in 1992 became the pinnacle of his broadcasting career. He paid the rent by substitute teaching, running a summer football camp in Fredericksburg featuring Redskins players, and working in a call center that sold student-loan consolidations.

Then, in 1994, Jamie King got the break he was looking for, in the form of a phone call.

“Would you like to coach my football team?” the man on the other end of the line asked.

Open tryouts for a semi-pro team had been announced in the Free Lance-Star of Fredericksburg that April. Paying homage to the town’s Civil War roots, the team would be called the Fredericksburg Generals. It would compete in the Mason-Dixon Football League, a still relatively unknown minor league association founded in 1978. The league had featured a revolving door of teams along the Eastern Seaboard over the years, only one of which — the Arbutus Big Red of Baltimore — had entered a team every season. More often, a franchise would spring up one year and, buried in debt and expenses a year later, disappear just as easily.

Of the eight candidates interviewed, King was the youngest, at 29. Besides the summer football camps for kids he organized, he had no coaching experience.

“But he had heart, I remember that — he just sparkled in that interview,” says Hal James, now 74, the owner and co-founder who spent about $10,000 in 1994 to purchase a Mason-Dixon charter for Fredericksburg. “He’d been wantin’ to be a good coach all his life. He seemed to know a couple of Redskins players from his days as a broadcaster, and he knew the league, having played quarterback in it. I knew he wanted the job more than all of ’em, so I gave it to him. He sold us on him; he sold us hard.”

King also sold his future players on the prospect of playing for him. He knew if he could make the first group he recruited feel as if they were pros, feel as if he were giving them one last opportunity to right all misgivings about their athletic pasts, they would come out of “retirement” and play for him.

From his experience playing quarterback for the Mason-Dixon League’s Virginia Storm in Lynchburg — he liked to boast about throwing for three touchdowns against the New Jersey Bears in 1985 — and his knowledge of area high school stars and state champions, he compiled a list of must-have players.

He watched old footage of players till late in the night. Then, he visited nearly 40 homes of prospective players — in a coat and tie, as if he were about to offer a full-ride athletic scholarship to a big college.

He had a curiosity in his eyes and a disarming smile that belied the full brown moustache and the husky 6-foot-1, 230-pound exterior that oozed gruff and uncompromising.

“Hi, I’m Jamie King,” he would say to each candidate. “I want you to seriously consider playing for the Fredericksburg Generals. We’re going to win a national championship. I mean it. And I’m here to tell you where you fit in.”

Or, “I think we go from good to great with you. You’re a difference maker. We need you.”

***

After rushing formore yards in one season (3,039) than anyone in the history of Virginia prep football at James Monroe High School in Fredericksburg, Eric Bates believed he was bound for either USC or Penn State, which were both courting him. But he opted to play at Division I-AA Western Kentucky after his SAT score scared away the premier schools. By the next January, he left Kentucky to help care for the infant son he had fathered before he left.

He eventually went back to school and played at Ferrum College, in southwestern Virginia. Afterward, he was ready to move on from football when he became one of many King managed to pull back in.

A former Marine named Russ Helton, who had never played organized football, also showed up that first day of practice. Helton was there because of Lance Thompson, his onetime bully. When he was just 10, Helton remembered, a big kid a few years older shoved him aside, took his quarter off the top of a video game machine and used it to play. Years later, after Helton graduated from Marine basic training, he confronted Thompson in a field where neighborhood kids met to play football. Said he wanted his quarter back. Threatened to take on the whole playground. Thompson didn’t remember taking his coin but gave him back a quarter, anyway. The two became close friends. When Thompson was asked to play for the Generals, his first call was to Helton to play with him. “I guess he figured I wouldn’t back down to no one,” Helton says.

Veins bulging from his neck, eyes fixed in a trance-like state, on game days Helton was known for chanting, “Toe tags and body bags!”

Jason Lee was an Army photographer working in the Clinton White House when he saw the newspaper announcement about tryouts. He had last played defensive back in high school in Allen Park, Mich., and afterward tried to walk on at Eastern Michigan, but ruefully became a “practice dummy.”

Mark Ryhanych, the quarterback who started ahead of King at North Stafford High, in Stafford, Va., felt the same emotional tug as Levi Frye, a beefcake of a fullback who played with Bates at Ferrum College. He had a full-ride scholarship rescinded by West Virginia when he couldn’t pass his SAT in his first two tries.

“I remember being on the field with Eric our last game at Ferrum — on a losing team,” Frye says, “not playing much because they were going with young guys — we just looked at each other and said, ‘That’s a wrap. That’s it.’

“And then Jamie shows up and starts making me feel like I could be a special player again. I knew this was my chance for closure to a career that didn’t end the way I wanted. I knew it might be my only chance. I know most us felt the same way.”

Everyone who paid his $175 team fee and showed up was trying to reconcile an unfulfilled athletic past with a 9-to-5, monotonous present. But what no one on the ragtag Generals would have believed was that an NFL legend would join them — a player who had the most to lose, and the most to gain.

Millions around the world will watch the Super Bowl this Sunday in Indianapolis. Millions more will bet on it. An annual rite of America’s self-indulgent sporting excess, it’s a big story. But this is a better one.

“It was one hell of a run,” owner Hal James says.

***

Many of the Generals began with calisthenics and jumping jacks in cutoff jeans that first day of practice at St. Clair Brooks Park on the banks of the Rappahannock River. There were fights those first days. There was aggression and anger. A lot of the players had chips on their shoulders after years of feeling passed over.

They worked out in spartan conditions befitting most burgeoning minor league football teams. They had no genuine football pants. No stadium. No bleachers. King loved to say the Generals’ first games were played before “standing-room-only crowds,” because “there was nowhere to sit.”

The away games were no grander. The low-rent bus trips to Arbutus; Dover, Del.; and through the backwoods of Virginia sometimes took seven hours round trip and were populated with perspiring men of up to 350 pounds. But within weeks, the team bonded over one more chance to play the game.

The goals that first season were modest: to establish a core group of players to build on, develop the right individuals to win with and, most important, not fold the franchise before the last game of the first season.

The Generals finished a respectable 7-6 in 1994. King had to play quarterback in one loss, and it was clear they needed depth at several positions to contend for the league title the following season. But business wasn’t as bad as everyone had feared. Hal James, his wife and Jamie began getting sponsors more interested around town.

When the Generals struck a deal with the city to use old Maury Stadium, the home field of James Monroe High School, a buzz began. They got a team dentist and a team chiropractor. On Wednesday nights, King had talked Damon’s the Place for Ribs into hosting a coach’s show on a community-access cable channel.

By the second season, the Generals had a real place to play, new uniforms and a year of experience.

In photos with accompanying graphics, the Free Lance-Star soon declared the Generals’ offensive front “The Biggest Line in Football. Averaging almost 325 pounds per man.”

With a stingy, improved defense under the direction of new defensive coordinator Lonnie Messick, and with Mark Ryhanych rifling passes to David Hughes, the Generals jumped out to a 3-0 start their second season.

Then came a moment of real concern. The Richmond Ravens had knocked Hughes, the Generals’ best wide receiver, out of the game. And with a former high school kicker struggling with his confidence and missing extra points and field goals, the Generals lost 27-26. They had a bye week to regroup and address their holes.

From his broadcasting days, King had struck up a peripheral friendship with Mark Moseley, one of his athletic heroes as a child. In the two weeks before the next game, he asked Moseley to come out to practice and give the potential kickers pointers. Five minutes into Moseley’s instruction, the salesman in King began percolating.

“Hey, you know you could still kick,” he told Moseley.

Moseley wasn’t sure if King was joking “or if he was trying to feel me out to see whether he knew I was seriously considering it, because he knew that would be a draw to the team if I did come out and play.”

Moseley started attending practices, where he watched field-goal attempts sail wide left and right of the goal post. King kept pressing him. In the same way he had spun wondrous tales of a return to football glory in the players’ living rooms, he started telling the team he believed Moseley would play.

“Yeah, Mark Moseley, a former NFL MVP, is going to play for a minor league football team in Fredericksburg,” Hughes recalls thinking. “We all looked at each other, like, ‘Sure, Jamie, he’ll probably suit up next week for us.’ ”

***

The American Football Association, which now oversees more than 500 semi-pro teams, lists several NFL players as having played minor league football at one point in their life. It does not list the only player who competed after his NFL career had ended.

“Once I set the record [for consecutive field goals in 1982] and did what I did, everyone after that expected me to do that every year,” says Moseley, now 63. “I hit 97 percent of my kicks that year. There was never a kicker nominated for MVP finalist ever before until that time, and for me to get nominated and to end up winning it was unbelievable.

“So after I retired I wanted — I needed — to get back.”

Days before the next Generals game, Moseley made up his mind. He would be the team’s place kicker. On one condition: that he be allowed to use the same, single-bar face mask helmet he wore with the Redskins.

But that posed a problem. The Generals’ colors were blue and gray, in homage to both sides in the Civil War, with silver stars on the helmets.

“Cowboys colors?” he says, shaking his head at the idea of looking like the Redskins’ arch rivals. So the single-bar face mask was left gold, and Moseley became a crowd draw. At a high school stadium in Hampton Roads, Va., nearly 5,000 fans showed up; many brought their Redskins jerseys and paraphernalia to be signed. “Mark would get off the bus and sign autographs, and we would just marvel at how many people still cared and came to see him kick,” King says.

The one real concern everyone had for Moseley was what would happen if he were the last line of defense between a kickoff return man and the goal line. Could the old man of 47 deliver a tackle if he had to? “We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it,” Moseley would say.

Some of his teammates worried that he wouldn’t fit in. They had no idea that Moseley, like them, was once discarded, too.

After being cut by Philadelphia after his first season and rejected in New Orleans going into his second training camp, Moseley showed up at the Houston Oilers training facilities in 1971 for a week straight at 7 a.m. until the coach finally noticed him sitting in the lobby. “It was Saturday morning, the day before the game, and the coach calls me on the phone and says, ‘Mark, you think you can kick tomorrow?’ I said, ‘You mean in the game tomorrow?’ And he says yes. I didn’t have an agent. I signed my contract for $12,000. I would’ve signed for nothing. But here’s the kicker: As I’m signing a contract, the trainer is running along behind me putting tape on the back of my jersey with a marker writing ‘Moseley’ on the back. That’s how secure my job was. All they had to do was rip the tape off, and I’m out of there.”

He kicked a game-tying, 47-yard field goal in Houston that day, on the last play of the game. But after 1972, Moseley was without a kicking job for two seasons before Redskins Coach George Allen signed him and rejuvenated his career.

Now, nearly 25 years later, as much as the Generals needed him, he needed them more. Moseley was going through a painful separation from his wife of 20 years. The travel business he had started after he retired from the NFL in 1986 was tanking. “I was just doing a lot of different things at the time to make ends meet and pay some bills,” he says. “I thought this would be a good avenue for me to let some steam out and do some things and maybe get back.”

Beyond his still-remarkable kicking talent, Moseley offered another valuable contribution. He had firsthand, definitive accounts of Coach Joe Gibbs, and of John Riggins, Dexter Manley and Art Monk, players the Generals considered their heroes.

Moseley had a unique way of inspiring, too.

Says Lee, the photographer turned defensive back: “He would tell us, ‘Get your [expletive] together. You guys are living a dream.’

“Most of us lived for moments when he would start a speech with, ‘Back in the Super Bowl, when we were down by 10, we had to strap it up.’ ”

In his first season with the Generals, Moseley ignited a bench-clearing brawl against the Richmond Ravens. After a return kick, a Raven gave him a forearm to the back of his head.

“I went after him, and I hit him,” Moseley recalls. “Boy, I knocked him right under the chin. Their whole team came on the field and started coming, and our team came.”

Moseley laughs now, the idea of a 47-year-old upper-cutting a man half his age, then following him back to his own bench.

“It was a midlife crisis for me,” he says. “I wasn’t myself, and I knew it. I promised myself earlier in my life that I wouldn’t fall into this [post-NFL] trap. But I was still disillusioned because I didn’t feel like I finished my career enjoying the game. And when I came back and started playing for Fredericksburg, immediately I started having fun again. I was like a kid again. I started doing the things you do to get your life back in order.”

***

Jamie King had been trying to get his life in order, too.

The Generals finished 11-1 and won the league title that second season. Moseley and the key players returned in 1996, reeling off victory after victory. But despite the validation this brought King, the painful memories of his childhood kept resurfacing.

Though his stepfather came to all the games, he barely acknowledged Jamie and made it clear he was there to support Jamie’s mom. Jamie was married by now and raising two children with his wife, Denise, whom he had met after she dropped off her son at one of his summer football camps. But in many ways he was still trying to find himself.

“I was driven by fear of failure,” he says. “When you’re told you’re a loser — that that’s all you’ll be — when you get called that all your life, you want to be considered a winner.”

Frank King was a World War II veteran who came home from Germany battered psychologically. He took up with Jamie’s mother, June, after Jamie’s biological father left her alone to raise four boys. They had one son together.

Frank was an accomplished cabinet-maker, building designer kitchens in his work shed and selling them for a pittance. June King says he may have resented Jamie because he didn’t take to the manual labor Frank lived his life by.

“Frank had his innings with all the boys,” says June, now 84.

“I just think he always resented that we came with my mom,” Jamie says. “I don’t think she ever knew the extent of what was really going on at home.”

By the summer of 1996, Jamie began to notice Frank was looking gaunt. His mother told him his stepfather had pancreatic cancer.

Jamie was numb at first; he had no relationship with Frank at that point. And for the first time in his life, he was feeling genuinely grateful for what he had: his family, his coaching job on an unbeaten team that featured one of his boyhood heroes. “I didn’t want to live my life full of hate,” he says. “I wanted to let go of some of it.”

For much of the final season, June pulled her red Mazda hatchback into the stadium gates and parked next to the bleachers across from the home team’s bench, since Frank was too weak to sit in the stands. Each time the Generals scored, June would honk the horn.

The Generals players knew Frank was dying, but Jamie never told them of their nonexistent relationship or what happened to him as a child. To the players, Frank was the ailing father of their coach and deserved the proper respect in his last days.

On Oct. 26, 1996, the Generals pounded the Richmond Ravens, 36-14, in their last regular-season game. Afterward, Moseley walked over to the car with the game ball. Frank rose, steadying himself against the passenger-side door. Most of the Generals players encircled Frank and cheered.

Frank King began weeping. He looked toward his stepson and said, “This is the nicest thing anyone has ever done for me.”

Three days later, Jamie brought Frank a reclining chair. He walked into the back bedroom to find his stepfather lying listlessly in bed.

“My mom wasn’t home, and so this was my chance,” he says.

“I hate you for everything you have ever done to me,” Jamie began, choking up. “But I respect you for providing for my mother and brother at times. I don’t want you leaving this world not knowing that. But everything else, there is no excuse for it,” he said.

Frank said he was sorry. “The way I was taught, things were harder, different,” he said.

“I forgive you,” Jamie said. “I want you to know that. I forgive you.”

Deep down, though, he wondered if that was true.

Less than two weeks later, Frank King died. Many of the Generals players came to his funeral. The ball they had signed was laid on his chest before the casket was closed.

***

The Generals rolled over the Lynchburg Storm, 35-13, in the Mason-Dixon semifinals. A week later, in one of their finest moments, the Generals beat the Hampton Road Sharks, 35-30, for their second straight league crown.

They won the Eastern Regional championship, 10-0, a week later. And the next month, the American Football Association declared a team from the Mason-Dixon League its national champion for the first time — just like Jamie King had promised in the players’ living rooms.

King was the recipient of the American Football Association’s Gold Ball Award, given annually to the national coach of the year.

Few outside the semi-pro community had heard of the Generals. But on Dec. 22, 1996, during the final Redskins game at rickety RFK Stadium, Moseley was welcomed into the booth by Pat Summerall and John Madden, who had seen the video clip of Moseley starting a melee. “So, you guys do get tougher with age?” Madden said as Moseley laughed. “Tougher or dumber, one or the other,” Moseley said. At the sound of “Fredericksburg Generals” on national TV, Generals players watching the game at Damon’s let out a guttural roar.

The Generals had shut out six of their 13 opponents and outscored teams 374-129 that year. And once Moseley signed on, they never lost a game. In fact, the only notable casualty over the 20 games Moseley played was his famed helmet with the single-bar face mask.

During the 1995 Mason-Dixon league championship, the Hampton Roads Sharks’ return man bolted up the middle of the field and left his pursuers behind. All that stood between the player and a 40-yard jaunt to the end zone was the Generals’ kicker. Moseley sprang toward the runner, wrapping him up and dropping the return man in a heap — a perfect-form tackle.

When he got up, Moseley realized his face mask had snapped in half and his helmet, indestructible all those years in the NFL, had cracked. Coming back to the sideline, he looked at King and said, “I’m getting too old for this [expletive].”

***

The Fredericksburg Generals disbanded a year after that championship season. The city of Fredericksburg kicked them out of Maury Stadium because the field was suffering too much damage. The Generals moved to nearby Spotsylvania for their fourth season, and though King stayed on, Moseley retired for good, and neither the crowd nor their core players followed. The Generals folded altogether after that season, and King hasn’t coached since.

On a recent trip back to Maury Stadium in mid-January, several of the Generals players stood in the half-light underneath the oak and pines that ring the stadium. They posed for pictures with their championship trophies, rehashed stories and somehow lifted Moseley onto their shoulders.

“What a time that was,” says Moseley. “If I didn’t have Jamie and that team at that place in my life, I don’t know where I’d be.”

To this day, many of the Generals remember a speech Moseley gave them before a playoff game in 1996.

“I told them, ‘I played with John Riggins. Joe Theismann. Dexter Manley. Art Monk. Hell, I played for the greatest damn coach of all time in my opinion, Joe Jackson Gibbs. All of ’em. And you know what? As I stand before you now, every one of them would have been proud as hell to call you guys their teammates. I’m damn proud I’m yours.’ ”

Mike Wise is a Washington Post staff writer. He can be reached at wisem@washpost.com.

 
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