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Glory Days: The rise of full-contact alumni football games nationwide

SCHOOLCRAFT, Mich. -- It's a clear summer night in southwest Michigan, and Brad Johnson is lined up seven yards behind the line of scrimmage, ready to reprise the role that once made him a household name in this tiny town. At the snap, Johnson, playing tailback, bolts from his stance and sprints left. He has run this play, 49 Option Dive, thousands of times. He receives the pitch from his quarterback and glides toward the home sideline and, just beyond his row of teammates, a set of bleachers packed with folks who knew his name then and still know it today.

Johnson plants his left foot in the grass and cuts upfield when he is summarily met by Keith Kellis, a hulking defensive tackle who has taken the perfect angle and closed at full throttle to quickly end this trip down memory lane. The collision is tremendous, and the crack of the men's pads reverberates across the field. The impact sends Johnson briefly airborne. It's the kind of hit that would fit seamlessly into a scene of Friday Night Lights, Any Given Sunday or The Longest Yard (the original, not the Adam Sandler fiasco).

But this tackle doesn't happen in supersonic slow motion, and it isn't set to a classic rock soundtrack. This hit is quick and violent. "A perfect hit," Johnson said after the game, blood seeping from the bridge of his nose.

After both men crash-land, Kellis quickly pops up, faces his bench and lets out a triumphant, carnal scream. Johnson lies on the grass for a few long seconds before -- somehow -- peeling his No. 22 jersey off the turf and wobbling to his sideline. He'd return to the game shortly afterward, which is a remarkable feat because Johnson is no longer in high school. He's currently 40 years old.

In the fall of 1988, Johnson was the 17-year-old star of a state-champion high school team. Today he's a 5-foot-10, 185-pound father of three with a wife and a job in construction. Kellis, the man who rocked him, is a 6-foot-3, 300-pound, 34-year-old father. Johnson hails from Schoolcraft, Mich., a cornfield community with a population of 1,500. Kellis comes from Portage, a larger city located a few miles away. Both men were representing their respective schools in the first-ever alumni football game at Schoolcraft High's field. Kellis still buzzed over his monster tackle moments after the contest was finished. "To break down and make a hit, but to also know what you're doing in life, it's a great feeling," said Kellis, who works as a tool and die operator. "It was a fun play."

"I played two years of college ball after high school," Johnson added. "But tonight was the hardest I've ever been hit."

*****

Ever wonder what it would be like to get your old high school team together for one more game? There are many ways to pull it off. You could make some phones calls. Hop on Facebook. With a little luck, you might scrape together a tackle game in a buddy's backyard. Maybe you'll end up playing two-hand touch in a stony lot. Maybe you'll play flag football. Maybe it'll be co-ed. Powder puff, perhaps.

But if you want to get serious (full disclosure, I hail from Schoolcraft, and can state with certainty that when it comes to football, my hometown is serious), there's another option: you can unite with school alumni across generations, strap on pads, and hit -- and get hit -- just like you did as a teenager. Advil sold separately.

The company making it happen is called Alumni Football USA, and every year it stages games in towns large and small, urban and rural, from coast to coast. For thousands of former high school football players, the dream of suiting up and playing a real game -- complete with helmets, pads, refs and a raucous crowd -- is becoming a reality.

"A lot of times, guys hear about us and these games, but they don't think it's possible to do it in their town," said Bob Cazet, founder and president of Alumni Football USA. "But they'll hear about this game in Schoolcraft, and other games as we keep moving around the country, and they'll realize -- it's real."

Cazet, a former Marine and schoolteacher, organized his first high school alumni game in 1984 with a group of friends in Saint Helena, Calif. His goal wasn't to start a company. It was to raise a little cash for a prep team he was coaching. "I was 24 years old and had become the head softball coach at Saint Helena High School. My budget was something like $280," Cazet said. "I figured I had to do some kind of fundraiser. I always wanted to play one more high school football game. I started talking to buddies, and we ended up with 100 guys in the game. We put in it the paper, and we had about 3,000 people show up and watch it."

That game got the attention of other former high school football players in the Bay Area, and before long, Cazet organized a game in a neighboring community. Then another. He'd take his profits from the events and invest in more pads and helmets. Soon Cazet realized that thousands of ex-jocks had a similar dream of suiting up for one more full-contact game. There was just one problem: Cazet had no idea what he was doing.

"The first game I ever did for profit, I had 21 guys walk off with my equipment. I just thought they'd give it back," Cazet said with a laugh. "I wasn't focused on hiring more people, buying trucks, getting insurance. We needed a process for everything."

Today Alumni Football USA's system is simple: Each player pays a fee (usually about $100) to join the team, while Cazet's company prints the tickets and supplies equipment, refs, security, EMTs and liability insurance. Schools pay no money up front, but must provide a field to stage the game. Alumni Football USA takes a cut of ticket sales, while schools typically open concessions and sell raffle tickets, the proceeds of which are theirs to keep.

Cazet says the model is the best way to force players to get organized and boost attendance, and the fundraising potential also ensures the games carry a purpose greater than a bunch of old, marginally out-of-shape guys attempting to relive their glory days. (Although, let's face it, that Springsteen tune would make for a solid soundtrack.) Getting that first alumni game off the ground isn't always easy, but the opportunity is there for teams to raise some cash for their schools.

"At first it was tough to convince people to sign up to play, and you've got to work your tail off to get it going and make it a good fundraiser," said Steve Sutton, 39, who captained the Schoolcraft team. "It's hard to go around town asking for money, but a lot of businesses did it. A lot of them are alumni to begin with."

To further boost interest in their games, some towns, such as Coweta, Okla., set up games against longstanding rivals. The football-crazed community located 26 miles south of Tulsa hosted its first alumni game with its arch nemesis, Wagoner, in the summer of 2011. The game turned out to be a near-sellout. This year they went to Wagoner and did it again.

"At first guys were just excited to knock heads with Wagoner again," said Jeff Holmes, superintendent of Coweta public schools. In addition to two successful fundraisers, Holmes said there was a special moment after the first game that thawed any remaining tension between the rivals.

"[Cazet] gave everyone a debriefing about how all the guys can be good influences in their communities," he said. "Our schools are known for not liking each other, but at the end we were all there in the middle of the field. It brought it all home."

In Santa Clara, Calif., an alumni football game in 2011 did more than raise money for the local high school -- it started a full-blown movement.

"I thought with all the budget cuts happening at schools that this alumni football thing might be good," said Peter Fortuna, a Santa Clara alum and 37-year-old IT consultant at Fresno State University. "We raised a couple of thousand dollars in our first game and used that money to fund some scholarships for four graduating seniors. Since then, we've used the game to launch the Santa Clara Alumni Association."

This year the group will stage another football game, in addition to alumni baseball, basketball and golf outings. Alums across generations will continue to connect.

"You get to relive old friendships and build new ones," Fortuna said. "We have alumni now that are friends with different classes, and now they're all out there helping the community. We want to show kids that health and wellness doesn't have to end when you graduate."

If the statistics are any indication, that mentality is catching on. Alumni Football USA's numbers are rising. Cazet estimates that his company to date has raised more than $1 million for schools while staging more than 1,000 games with 70,000 players. The company recently hired regional coordinators around the country, and this year it expects to stage a whopping 350 games, a single-year high.

Yet the one question remaining is perhaps the most complicated: How safe are these games? Alumni Football USA provides equipment (many of its helmets came from the TV series Friday Night Lights, while the movie The Blind Side donated another batch), and it also ensures that EMTs are on site, just in case.

But as you might expect, when a group of guys in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s -- and yes, even 60s -- play a 48-minute, full-contact game, injuries happen. Cazet says it's common for old injuries to resurface during the course of play. In fact, at the inaugural Santa Clara game, Fortuna broke his leg in three places while playing fullback.

"My brother was blocking for me, and a guy basically fell down in front of me and pinned my leg. I had like 200 pounds on one little spot -- I didn't think it was broken until I tried to walk," he said. "But I got to play with my two brothers, so it was actually worth it. I had never played with them before."

Fortuna has recovered from his injury. But will he suit up again this year?

"I am going to play -- I don't know how much I'm going to play. I can't make as many practices as I'd want to," he said. "I might take more of an admin role this year. Raising money, firing up the crowd, things like that."

To those who sign up for more than an administrative role, some advice: get in shape -- and prepare. In Schoolcraft, the new alumni team held twice-a-week practices, with no hitting, for more than two months. Brian Johnson, 44-year-old brother of the running back Brad Johnson, installed his team's offense and helped organize the new squad. To prepare, Johnson dug out old VHS tapes from his games from 1983 and studied the grainy footage, charted plays, created spreadsheets and formed a game plan. The long hours of film study and preparation were a labor of love, even if Johnson's family didn't fully comprehend his obsession.

"My wife," Johnson said, "thinks I'm an idiot."

*****

Portage won the game at Schoolcraft, 12-0, and although the communities never played each other in high school because of the towns' population differences, the alumni contest was a big local draw. The teams combined to raise nearly $4,000, and the participants created some special memories.

"I just turned 41, and I don't know how many of these I have left," said Eric Munson, who captained the Portage team and suited up alongside his 20-year-old son, Spencer. "To play with my son, it was unbelievable. This was the best football experience I've ever had."

"It was fun, but I think this might be it for me," said Dennis McNally, Schoolcraft's 63-year-old backup quarterback, who delighted the home crowd when he entered the game for a single play but fumbled his only snap. "I have a feeling next year someone might come in and take my position."

After it was over, players from both teams met at midfield for handshakes and prayers, then spilled into Bud's Bar, a Schoolcraft hangout, where they compared bruises and swapped stories. Shaun Sportel, a local schoolteacher who lasted two plays at defensive back, hopped into the bar on fresh crutches and drew applause. Brad Johnson, the running back, dropped into a chair nearby, smiled and groaned, "I'm already sore." Drinks and karaoke flowed deep into the night. Someone belted out Journey's "Don't Stop Believing," which rocked the bar, but no one got up and sang "Glory Days."

There's always next year.

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