They are trash collectors, sewer workers, program analysts, teachers and law students, and several are unemployed. A few are high-school dropouts; others have college degrees. Three formerly were involved heavily in 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 that is ranked 10th in the nation by Pro-Football Weekly. Most of them are District residents, but some of the key players live in Prince George's or Montgomery County.
The Buccaneers don't have a playing field of their own. They play for free, seldom draw more than 200 spectators, and buy their uniforms and equipment out of a shoestring budget that comes from donations, benefit disco dances and raffles.
For some team members -- whose ages range from 21 to 38 -- the Buccaneers' 7-1 record is the only winning streak they've seen in years.
"I never played football before, but I always wanted to," said nose tackle Eddie Crumble, who lives in Seat Pleasant. "I was too heavy to play weight divisions when I was younger and I didn't have my academics together when I was in high school.
"It's really funny how I got involved with the Buccaneers. I was working for a trash company and a guy that worked with me saw me chase down some kids who threw something at the truck one day. He suggested that with with the quickness I had for my size 6-0, 265 , I should try out for a semipro team called the Buccaneers. I followed his advice and tried out for the team. I didn't have a lot of the basics of football down, but the coaches were impressed with my ability to learn fast, so I made the team and I'm now starting. It goes to show that it's never too late if you really want to do something."
Conway Herriott travels from his Silver Spring apartment daily to his job with Southern Railways in Alexandria. After work he goes home, changes clothes and drives to Kelly Miller Field in Northeast Washington for football practice, which sometimes lasts three hours.
"I know some people wonder why I do it," said Herriott, 33, who plays wide receiver for the Buccaneers. "But football really helps me relieve some of the anxiety and tension that sometimes comes from work. Besides, I really love the game."
The professional Washington Redskins are still looking for their first victory this year, but the Buccaneers are quietly enjoying success. And the 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," said 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."
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 shows up at 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 Buccanettes were cheering when the Buccaneers played the Montgomery County Cardinals at Roosevelt High recently. Eleven players formed a line like gladiators before the opening kickoff, tense, almost combat-ready in their burgundy-and-orange uniforms stretched taut 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 forceful 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 plays later. The Buccaneers won, 34-6.
Other than the thrill of victory, in minor-league football the 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 in 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 a steak dinner. For the Buccaneers, who sometimes travel in cramped cars, dinner is often cold fried chicken and a soda from the cooler in a teammate's trunk.
There are other sacrifices. Some of their equipment is handed down 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 last year helped to defray some of the costs, but most operational money comes from 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. 24 against the Chambersburg Cardinals at Fredericksburg.
The Buccaneers had a 7-3 record last year, in spite of defense problems that have since subsided with the addition of the Coates brothers, who are important in the team's drive for the championship. Keith is unemployed; Kevin is a counselor at Waxman Correctional Center in Maryland. The 24-year-old twins 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 defensive backs. The NFL's loss is the Buccaneers' gain.
A vital factor in the success of any football team is the play of the center. In Dan Amrose, the Buccaneers have an all-league performer. He played offensive center at Howard University for four years and was selected all-conference four times.
"I've played against guys in college like Harry Carson (New York Giants) and Phil Murphy (Los Angeles Rams) and I did well against them," said Ambrose, who lives in Mount Rainier. "I know that I can play pro ball. All I need is the chance. I figure if I do well on the minor-league level with the Buccaneers, someone might see me and give me a shot."
Harvey Dorsey knows how Ambrose feels. Dorsey was good enough at Norfolk State to get a tryout with the Rams in 1970. He was switched from quarterback to defensive back by the Rams, and was later cut. Dorsey returned to Norfolk State and earned a degree in recreation. After college he turned to minor-league football, and joined the Buccaneers last year.
"I faced the reality that I would not be playing pro ball once I was cut," said Dorsey, who lives in Greenbelt and is assistant director at Takoma-Langley Recreation Center. "The Buccaneers are not the big leagues, but it's an opportunity to play and be a part of a positive experience. Besides, playing for an organization like the Buccaneers has its rewards."