The physical beating Victor Horne takes playing semi-professional football on Saturdays can feel like a full-body massage compared to the bruising his ego takes the rest of the week as a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman.
The wide receiver would like to think his peddling days -- 10 machines in one! -- are numbered. He would choose a crisp pass route over his meandering West Virginia-to-North Carolina sales route any day.
"Toughest job in the world," says Horne, 28, who tries to sell 15 vacuum cleaners a month. "You wanna buy one?"
Horne, a Gar-Field High School graduate, should not give up his day job just yet. Nor should the other men on the Prince William-based Virginia Monarchs semi-pro team, whose 62 unpaid players, ranging in age from 20 to 37, come from all across the metropolitan area.
Coach Ray Scott says in the five-year history of his team, no Monarch has advanced into any professional league. Yet, ask just about any player why he is still laboring at a game most of his pals gave up years ago, and the answer almost assuredly will include the phrase "to get to the next level" -- meaning one of the many professional leagues worldwide.
"The way the Monarchs were in the past, no one looked at them because they weren't serious contenders for anything," said Scott, 52, who played semi-pro ball until he was 47. "Last year was the first year the Monarchs got the recognition they deserved as being one of the marquee teams. The only way the scouts are going to follow your organization is if you have something to look at. We have so much talent this year. . . . "
The Monarchs went 13-2 last season as an Atlantic Football League member and were one of several regional winners to lay claim to the title of "national" champion. Now in the United Football League, they will play an 18-game schedule this season, opening Saturday on the road against the Washington Chiefs.
The team will play its home games at Gar-Field -- the home opener is July 17 -- before moving to Pfitzner Stadium in October.
Center Tyrell Chatman, who works school security in Arlington County, would like to think he won't be available to the team come late July. Through a friend of a friend, he has scored a tryout with the Philadelphia Eagles, his first NFL training camp. Chatman is auditioning at center, guard, even long snapper. If he doesn't latch on with the Eagles or some other pro team, he'll return to the Monarchs. But he won't give up football.
"Before our biological clocks stop ticking, we're going to try to make it to that next level," said Chatman, 24, a Woodbridge resident who played college ball at Fayetteville (N.C.) State.
Free safety Russell Williams Jr., 26, has no delusions of playing professional football, even though he might be more qualified than most of his teammates. The Gar-Field graduate is the only consensus all-American football player to come out of Frostburg State (Md.) University, according to an assistant coach at the school.
"I did everything I could possibly do in college to make it to the next level," said Williams, a Booz-Allen & Hamilton consultant. "Right now, I'm just playing for the love of the sport. I'm just doing it for me and the Monarchs. It's hard some days after work to come out here. You have to really dig deep. Go from 9-to-5 to being a maniac."
Fullback Charles Carter is 27 years old, but as a football player, he's much more youthful. The father of three joined the Monarchs last year after not playing football since 1990, his senior season at Woodbridge High School.
Despite Carter's sculpted physique -- he's general manager at an area gym -- it was a rough return. He suffered shoulder and thumb injuries and also underwent knee surgery.
"People always ask me, `You crazy? What's wrong with you?' " Carter said, gasping to catch his breath during a break at a recent practice. "Every Sunday you wake up and feel like a freight train ran over you. But to me it's like going to play golf or going for a stroll in the park or going fishing.
"It's an addiction, and there's a cure for it," Carter added, surveying his 40 practicing teammates. "This is it. It's a game these guys truly love, and you can't take it away from them."
CAPTION: Quarterback DaWayne Wilson, behind center Tyrell Chatman, practices with the team as the Virginia Monarchs prepare for their upcoming season, which begins today against the Washington Chiefs. The Monarchs, a semi-pro team, were 13-2 last season.
CAPTION: Center Tyrell Chatman, who is also trying out for a spot with the Philadelphia Eagles, does some stretches during the Virginia Monarchs' practice.