They are trash collectors, sewer workers, program analysts, teachers, and law school students, and several are unemployed. A few are highschool dropouts; others have college degrees. Three formerly were involved heavily in either alcohol or drug abuse.
They are the Metro Buccaneers, a group of 40 men who practice three times a week. Purely for the love of the game, they have forged a little-known minor-league football team ranked 10th in the nation by Pro-Football Weekly. Most of them District residents, but some from the suburbs as well, the Buccaneers don't have a playing field of their own. They play for free, seldom draw more than 200 people to their games, and pay for uniforms and equipment from a donated shoestring budget, benefit discos and raffles.
For some of the team members -- ranging in age from 21 to 38 -- the Buccaneers' 7-1 record is the only winning streak they've had in years.
"Since I'm not employed, playing for the Buccaneers makes me feel good about myself," said Fleming Carey, 32, the team's quarterback, who recently lost his job as a bus driver and patrol supervisor for the D.C. Department of Recreation following the city's budget cuts last year.
"By playing for the Buccaneers I'm involved in something successful -- because we are winning," said Carey, a Northwest resident who never played high school football. "I do various jobs here and there to try to keep my four sons fed. But in the meantime, I play for the Buccaneers to keep from being too idle."
While the professional Washington Redskins are still looking for their first victory this year, the Buccaneers are quietly enjoying success.* And their Buccaneers' team spirit runs deep. It's the camaraderie of men playing a sport they love, without the trappings of big crowds, artificial turf, post-game interviews or autograph hounds.
Prayers, led by head coach and team cofounder John Vaughn, precede the opening kickoffs. Many of the players are close friends who help one another through adversity. And in several instances, team members said the support from the coach and other team members helped free them from a life of drug dependency.
"We treat our players like men," said Vaughn, a division chief for the Bureau of Drug Treatment Services."They come from different walks of life and have different problems. We've had one guy on the team who was over at St. Elizabeth's [Hospital] because of his dealing with hallucinogenic drugs. We took him in and told him that he had to straighten up if he wanted to play with us. Another player had problems with drinking and we encouraged him get his life in order. Both players are now playing and doing well."
"I had a lot of problems last year and eventually got into drugs," and a player who asked not to be identified. "I was playing with the team but I wasn't really into it like I should. My wife went to Coach Vaughn because she knew of his expertise in that area. He suggested I . . . work hard to kick my habit. They [the team] stuck by my side and we eventually licked the problem."
"I used to drink very heavily," said another player. "But when I got invovled with Coach Vaughn and the Buccaneers, things began to change. First of all, I love the game and there was no way I could play effectively and continue to hit the bottle. The second and most important thing was that I realized that the people on the team really cared. We are really like a family."
The close-knit team spirit is not limited to the players. A group of players' wives and mothers who wanted to show their support have formed the Buccanettes, a fan club that follows the team to all games.
"There are other things we could be doing on Saturday nights, like partying or socializing," said Gloria Thomas, the Buccanettes' founder and mother of running back and punter Jerome Thomas. "But we love football and we love our Buccaneers. That's why we travel to all the games. We feel like we are a part of the family."
The Bucannettes were cheering when the Buccaneers played the Montgomery County and Cardinals at Roosevelt High recently. Eleven players formed a line like gladiators before the opening kickoff, tense, almost combat-ready in their burgandy-and-orange uniforms stretched taunt over shoulderpads.
Suddenly, the referee's whistle broke the silence. Buccaneer Tyrone Anthony kicked off, and his teammates charged down the field. Linebacker Keith Coates dipped his shoulder and gave the Montgomery County ball carrier a wicked blow, doubling him up and forcing a fumble. Coates' twin brother and fellow linebacker Kevin recovered the ball, setting the stage for the Buccaneers' first touchdown three players later. The Buccaneers won 34-6.
Other than the thrill of victory, in minor league football, rewards are few and the sacrifices many. For three hours three nights a week after work, the Buccaneers -- members of the eight-team Interstate Football Conference -- practice at the dusty Kelly Miller Junior High School field in Northeast.
They have no regular home turf, and split home games this year between Roosevelt High School stadium in Northwest Washington and the Washington High School stadium in Alexandria. Last year, "home" games were played at Chambersburg, Pa.
When traveling to away contests against teams at Chambersburg, Baltimore, Frederick or Manassas, they don't have the comfort of a team bus or the luxury of steak dinner with all the trappings. For the Buccaneers, who sometimes travel in cramped cars, dinner is often a sack of cold fried chicken and a soda from the cooler in a team member's trunk.
There are other sacrifices. Some of their equipment is used -- hand-me-downs from the old sandlot D.C. Bears and Stonewalls semi-pro teams that merged two years ago to become the Buccaneers. The team has to pay a league fee of $1,300 a year. New uniforms alone cost the team $1,800. A benefit disco and a raffle were held last year to defray some of te costs, but essentially, the money comes out of the pockets of the coaches and players.
"We have to nickel and dime our way because we have no sponsors," said Vaughn. "Whenever we get in a crunch, we just pull together and come up with what we need. For instance, we are trying to get together $1,200 (still owed on this year's league fees). . . . If we don't come up with it, we can't play in the championship" game Oct. 31 against the Chambersburg Cardinals at Fredericksburg.
Assuming the Buccaneers do raise the $1,200, one man they will depend upon to help win the league championship is Carey.
Bearded and lean, Carey walks with the confidence of a leader. In eight games, he has accounted for more than 1,300 yards, throwing for eight touchdowns and running for five more.
The Buccaneers posted a 7-3 record last year, but had troubles defensively. That has improved drastically this year with the addition of the Coastes twins, who are also important in the team's drive towards the championship. Keith is unemployed, while Kevin wors as a counselor at Waxman Correctional Center in Maryland. The 24-year-old look-alikes starred at Bowie State College where they earned All-NAIA (National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics) honors. They were not courted by National Football League scouts, however, because they were considered too small for linebackers and not fast enough to be defensive backs. The NFL's loss is the Buccaneers' gain.
"Realistically, I knew that my prospects of playing pro ball weren't that good," said Keith, who along with Kevin was selected All-Interhigh during their senior year at the District's Woordrow Wilson High.
"So I figured if I couldn't play in the big time, I'd do the next best thing and that's play semi-pro ball," Keith said. "I have had a lot of individual accomplishments while competing in ahtletics, but I have never been in a winning situation either in high school or college. Now I have a change to win a championship, something I've always wanted."