- They say it’s actually safer than the NFL, but for the New Jersey Chiefs of the A7FL—a seven-on-seven helmetless, padless football league—bodily risk isn’t the issue. Rather, it’s the bond among teammates, and the validation, personal and collective, that would come with a championship, even this far down the ladder from the big-time
POMONA, N.Y. — Andrew Pallotto stands on a wooden step looking out at the amateur football team he helped start nearly two decades ago in a New Jersey park, eleven men without pads or helmets, driving from town to town searching for a game, any game. The tattoo of the team’s logo inked onto his right forearm is warmed by streaks of midday sun. A light wind blows.
“Shut the f--- up!” the Chiefs’ captain screams. “Everyone shut the f--- up!”
It’s halftime of the A7FL championship game, on a humid July afternoon in a minor league ballpark about 40 miles up the Hudson from New York City. Two dozen Chiefs are spread out in the dugout. Some players are standing, some sitting, some lying on the ground and stretching. Each one is screaming his opinion about went wrong in the first half. They are losing, and that is bad enough. Worse is that the Chiefs are splintered.
“What the f--- are we doing?” Pallotto asks. “You’re worried about the f---ing cameras!”
Today was supposed to be a celebration. A coronation. All season, the Chiefs have been telling each other and anyone who would listen that they were going to win it all, that they were not going to lose, not again. Their last defeat was in the previous year’s championship, 12 months earlier, when they went up by three touchdowns in the first half and crumbled in the second. The last game they lost before that was the championship game a year earlier. Now the Chiefs are on the verge of losing in the title game for the third straight season.
“You’re not playing angry!” Robert Massa yells from his perch beside Pallotto. “You’re not playing Chiefs football!”
This was supposed to be the their revenge season, their redemption tour. Undefeated in the spring league, undefeated in the regular season, stormed through the playoffs. This was the Chiefs’ year to be on top. They had waited so long to win their first championship, waited patiently and then not so patiently. This was their time.
Right now, all of that is slipping away.
It was simpler then, when Pallotto and Massa first met. They didn’t have cell phones, didn’t have to respond to Facebook invitations. The same group of men would just show up at the same park in Union City, at the same time every Sunday, pile into a couple of cars and drive around Hudson County—from Hoboken to Jersey City to North Bergen to West New York—looking for another park where other men were playing football. Once found, they’d challenge them to a game—our town against yours, to see who was better.
Then 10 years ago Massa found a league, a real league that played with the same rules that they did—full-contact football, no helmets, no pads. At the time the league was called Town Beef, and it provided Massa and his players with a somewhat more organized way to battle for city supremacy. It was still street football, helmets and pads banned, contact encouraged, a bit brutish, a bit crazy. But now there was a real season, a true championship—and with that came veritable bragging rights.
Today, the rules of the game remain mostly the same, as does the ethos, but the league is expanding, legitimizing. In 2014 it rebranded, becoming the A7FL—the American 7s Football League. There are now 16 teams and two conferences, playing seven-on-seven football, with paid referees and high-definition cameras and slow-motion instant replays to settle close calls. The league maintains a slick website and Facebook page, with high-end video and graphics. Highlights of big, crushing hits have gone viral online, racking up hundreds of thousands of views. Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor recently posted an A7FL clip on Instagram, saying, “This is exactly how backyard football was where I came up.” And for the first time, the league secured a television partner for the 2017 championship game, broadcast live on ELEVEN Sports Network, which is available in 70 million homes. The 2018 season starts on April 8.
While the on-field play in the A7FL is not smooth or exceptional in quality, it is competitive and visceral, equal parts violence and chaos. Most of the players have at least low-level college experience. Some have gone on to play in the AFL or CFL or have had NFL tryouts. But most are simply weekend warriors, reliving their glory days. They’re not paid—actually they pay to join the league, and for their uniforms, and for their own travel to games. And despite efforts, the league is still not as legitimized as its owners would like it to be. Some players smoke cigarettes or blunts before games and drink Hennessy on the sidelines after them. Fights are expected, if not encouraged, and if the players were ever mic’d up, the audio would just be one long bleep.
Counterintuitively, the A7FL touts itself as being safer than regular football—the belief being that without helmets, players instinctively will be less likely to use their heads as weapon. (The league is currently in a two-year joint study with the New Jersey Institute of Technology to study those claims, having provided about a dozen players with mouth guards that measure the force of hits.) League rules allow only wrap-up style tackling: “To make a safe tackle keep your eyes to the sky get your butt low, hit and wrap up. Players tackling with their heads down or throwing their body at ball carriers legs with no attempt to wrap up will be flagged 15 yards.” Runners are forbidden from lowering their head into a tackler. The rule is rarely enforced, but players do appear conscious of it. You don’t see head shots, launching or other dangerous tackling styles.
But the A7FL is not really about safety, just like it’s not about money or fame. It’s about giving men, with families and jobs and real-life obligations, one more opportunity to put on a football uniform and bond with teammates, to go out on Sundays and be a part of something, be proud about something, something that is theirs and that no one can take away.
Massa and Pallotto often say that the Chiefs are not a team but a family. They are grown men who smash into each other without any protection, the most masculine of activities, then vacation together with their wives and their children, go whitewater rafting together after every season, attend weddings and BBQs and family picnics together. They have intimately learned each other’s life stories over the years—who they are, how they became Chiefs, why they are still playing football, what this league, this championship, means to them. They’ve been triumphant together and devastated together. Have celebrated and cried together.
When Pallotto and Massa stumbled upon the league a decade ago, they decided to consolidate two separate Union City teams into one. Then they renamed them the Chiefs. “We decided we were going to [only take players] from one city, Union City,” Palloto says. The team and the city are embedded in his identity. When the Chiefs lost the title last year, Pallotto describes a heartbreak akin to the death of a loved one. “It broke me,” he says. “It broke me into pieces.” A championship, in a way, would substantiate the last two decades of his life, the recompense in return for his steadfast devotion.
Recently, though, the Chiefs have changed. As the league expanded and became more popular, Massa got tired of losing. He told Pallotto that it was enough already with his “cocky Union City-only attitude,” that if they wanted to win a championship they’d have to open up the gates and bring in more players, more talent. That meant guys from other towns. Pallotto was hesitant. He told his old friend that if he was going to look outside Union City, he needed to find players who fit the culture he had created. He wouldn’t accept just anybody, no matter how good they were. They had to be a Chief.
Pallotto is 33 now, has two kids, and has run the Pop Warner program in Union City for the last decade. But he is still lining up as the Chiefs’ center every game—even today, despite a torn biceps that has rendered his right arm relatively useless. Massa, however, was relegated to the sideline five years ago, his body finally telling him it was time to retire. Yet he couldn’t leave the Chiefs, not before they won a title. So he took on a second job, in addition to the overnight shift he works at Walmart. He became the Chiefs’ coach.
The players are all getting older, starting careers, families. Moving on. They don’t know how much longer the Chiefs will be in existence, how many more opportunities they will get. This should be the culmination of the past two decades of their lives. This could be their last chance to finish what they started.
“This is bigger than football,” Pallotto says. “It’s life.”
Alex Vargas sits on the far end of the bench, back straight, eyes forward, a black skull cap on his head, a black brace sheathing his left leg. The Chiefs quarterback is Union City born and raised.
Single-mother home, grandmother raised him. He didn’t start playing football until his freshman year in high school, when his sister suggested he try a sport. Vargas found that he was naturally good at the game, garnering all-conference accolades as a linebacker and safety. He had always wanted to go to college to further his education, and he wanted to continue playing football at the next level as well. But he knew he’d never be able to without a scholarship. His family needed money.
“When I realized I couldn’t make it to the big time, I gave up,” Vargas says. “And when I gave up, I had to pay some bills.”
He worked at Shop Rite in high school, then as a truck driver once he graduated. Now 24, he’s a manager of a liquor store and co-owner of a beauty supply company. Vargas’s dreams today are simpler: a Chiefs championship. He hopes that one day the league takes off, that popularity spikes and money comes in. He knows it won’t be big-time, but maybe some pocket change on the side, maybe some sponsorships? That’d be nice. Winning the title on national TV? That’s his chance.
He closes his eyes, memories flicking through his mind like slides on a projector. He remembers the scrimmage Pallotto invited him to in 2010, a sort of Chiefs tryout. He started that day as a linebacker, but when the team’s incumbent QB broke his leg in the scrimmage, Vargas volunteered to take over. He remembers his first six seasons with the team, when the Chiefs made the postseason every year, only to continually lose their first playoff game. There was the miracle 2015 season, when he won league MVP, and the last-second, 70-yard Hail Mary he threw that year to earn the Chiefs their first berth in the championship game—where they lost by 33 points. Vargas was devastated.
In the 2016 season the Chiefs went undefeated and returned to the title game. They thought they were ready to take over the league. But Vargas cracked a rib in early in the championship game and struggled mightily, four consecutive turnovers in the second half causing the Chiefs’ lead to slowly dwindle away. After the game, the quarterback cried. He grappled with the idea that he been too stubborn, that he was hurt and should have taken himself out. Some Chiefs blamed him for the loss. Several teammates, men who he had battled alongside for years, openly debated not coming back for another season. The pain of losing would be too much to bear again. But eventually they decided as a team—it had to be as a team—that they’d give themselves one more shot to finish what they started. What’s the worst that could happen? they asked each other.
Now as Vargas sits and listens to Pallotto plead with the Chiefs at halftime, he realizes that the worst that could happen is 30 minutes away. “I felt this pain two f—ing years in a row,” he tells his teammates. “I ain’t feeling that again.”
But again he is injured. He sprained his left knee in the team’s quarterfinal game three weeks earlier and has limped through the playoffs. All week he has been telling teammates that the leg was fine, but it’s been throbbing. Still, despite regrets about what happened the previous season, he never considered not playing, and he isn’t thinking about coming out of the game now. A week earlier he’d found out that his girlfriend is pregnant; he wants one day to be able to share the story of a Chiefs championship win with his child.
But when the game began, everything immediately felt wrong. On the Chiefs’ first drive, Vargas was constantly under duress, his offensive line powerless; it was immediately clear that his center was playing with one arm rendered useless. On their third offensive play, retreating backward into his own end zone because of pressure, Vargas floated a ball into the middle of the field as he was slammed to the ground. The pass was intercepted. The opponent, the Pennsylvania Immortalz, scored on the next play to take an early lead. The energy on the Chiefs’ sideline abruptly shifted, the feeling palpable, like the cabin pressure dropping on a plane after turbulence. On the sideline, Vargas limped to the bench, readjusted his knee brace and grimaced.
The Chiefs’ ensuing offensive possession ended quickly, with a lost fumble on a pitch. A couple of plays later the Immortalz scored again, taking a 14-0 lead almost immediately. The typically rowdy Chiefs were uncharacteristically silent. Then Debray Tavarez started to scream.
“D-$” is what it says on the back of his jersey, but they call Debray Tavarez the mouth of the Chiefs. One of the best cornerbacks in the league, Tavarez is also the team’s resident trash talker. He’s rarely at a loss for words and has never faced a situation that he didn’t escalate or a fight that he avoided.
“Fourteen-zip, but we good!” Tavarez yelled on the sideline to no one in particular. “We f---ing good. They bums. We good.”
Tavarez, 23, was born in the Dominican Republic and was always one of the smaller kids in his neighborhood. He was bullied constantly and found himself getting into fights on the street, beat up, bloodied. This led to anger, a proclivity for violence, which stayed with him even when he moved to the United States, moving into a one-bedroom apartment in Union City with his mom, aunt, two cousins, grandmother and great-grandmother. “I had not just anger in me, but this force that wanted to come out,” Tavarez says. “I found my way through that with football.”
He joined the Pop Warner league in Union City, where he was coached by Pallotto. He learned to harness his anger. He now calls Pallotto the father figure he never had. “The way I live my life now, the mentality that I have,” Tavarez says, “it’s all because of Drew.”
Tavarez has bounced around to different colleges over the past few years, struggling to keep his grades up. He has gotten kicked out of his house. He has had to go to work as an air duct technician at 6 a.m., head straight to night class afterwards, then, to stay in football shape, toil in the gym until 1 in the morning. Many days he has had to eat only bread and soda. He has fought his whole life to survive. Now he’s hoping to do more that that.
Last year, Tavarez enrolled in ASA College in Brooklyn and joined the football team. Still, even as he was playing spring ball with his college team, he refused to leave the Chiefs. So he played for both. He loves the contact that is allowed in this league, the feeling, the pain, the trash talking and scuffles. So he seeks it out. He’s no longer the kid being bullied on the Dominican streets. Now he’s doing the bullying.
“I feel like a sniper,” he says. “I’m on a mission to knock heads off.”
Tavarez plans to join the ASA football team full-time after the season ends. But right now he’s a Chief, and all year long he has been guaranteeing that the Chiefs were going to win it all. In his mind it’s an inevitability. The Chiefs are different, he says, and that’s not because of skill. “Other teams play for individuals,” he says. “We play for each other.”
So on the sideline, down 14 points, his team and teammates in peril, Tavarez was yelling. On the team’s next defensive possession Tavarez recovered a fumble, setting the offense up with their best field position of the game. A few plays later, a wild, only-in-the-A7FL play—in which the Chiefs tight end caught a pass down the sideline and then, while being dragged down, flipped the ball behind him to an offensive lineman who rumbled and stumbled into the end zone—gave the team its first points of the game. The Chiefs were alive, if only momentarily.
Just minutes later, the Immortalz scored again, widening their lead to 20-7 with a minute left in the first half. The Chiefs offense retook the field. Vargas limped to the line. Pallotto stood with his right arm limp by his side, his biceps searing, unable to flex the muscle, attempting to block ongoing rushers with one hand. Then Vargas stiff-armed one defender and threw a pass 50 yards down the field off of one leg. Touchdown.
“We don’t give up!” he screamed as he hobbled off the field.
Michael “Hershall” Walker stands beside Andrew Pallotto and Robert Massa at halftime, listening to both men speak. His left foot is raised onto the wooden step in the dugout, a white t-shirt balled up in his right hand.
The 53-year-old running back, one of the original Chiefs players, is known as Hershall because a decade ago, when he was the team’s top back, he was told he ran like Herschel Walker. And so that’s what he put on the back of his jersey, and the spelling was close enough. Hershall grew up in Memphis before moving to New Jersey, and graduated high school in 1978. He was kicked out of the school at one point, he says, for shooting a gun in the hallway, which he says he didn’t know you couldn’t do. (When asked if he shot someone in school, he replies, no, he shot at someone.)
Hershall is no longer a starter, no longer even a rotation player, lucky to get in for a snap. He says he was a lot faster in his younger years, yet his thick, barrel chest has remained from a lifetime of inveterately being in the gym at 5 every morning. He has recently moved back to Tennessee and lives now in Nashville; he drove 14 hours after the semifinal game last week to get home. Then he flew back yesterday just for the championship, the one Hershall says he needs to win before he can retire.
Now he steps onto the dugout step and displays the t-shirt that he had hidden, balled up in his hand. It reads “Chiefs,” with the team’s logo emblazoned on the front. On the back it says “2017 A7FL Champions.” Hershall bought 25 of the shirts earlier in the week. He had been planning to surprise the team with them post-game, but realized he may never get the chance.
“I spent $400 on this s---,” Hershall says, holding the shirt up. “Earn it.”
The Chiefs circle together in the middle of the dugout. Two dozen hands clench into a fist, their arms raise. Massa places his palm on on shoulder of Pallotto, who bows his head.
“It’s now or never,” Pallotto says. “Do it for yourself, do it for your state, do it for this team.”
Pallotto and “Big” Mo Ramadan walk out onto the field side by side, the unlikeliest and most fitting of friendships. The run-stuffing defensive tackle is from Clifton, N.J., the first player not from Union City to be allowed on the Chiefs. That’s what changed everything, the entire trajectory of the team.
In 2013 Big Mo joined a team called ESG, based in Paterson, N.J., and his first game was against the Chiefs. In that era—the Town Beef era—the league had conference calls between the two teams in the lead-up to games, pretty much a trash-talking exposition that they’d live-stream online. And Big Mo pissed some people off on those calls. So on the first play of his first game in the league, he lined up at noseguard across from the Chiefs’ center and captain, and right at the snap, Pallotto punched Big Mo straight in the mouth.
Big Mo looked at the ref incredulously and asked how he didn’t see the punch. The ref looked back—Welcome to the league, rookie. So on the next play, right at the snap, Big Mo cocked back and punched Pallotto straight in the mouth. He was expecting a fight to ensue. Instead, Pallotto reached his hand out and told Big Mo he loved him. Pallotto had found what he’d been looking for, a Chief who was not from Union City.
The following season Big Mo was brought onto the team. He came promising a championship. Pallotto promised one back. A friendship, and a new era of Chiefs football, was born. More would soon follow—but every time they had a prospective new Chief, the core members of the team would gather to debate if he was worthy of inclusion or not.
“We built something that was known for being tough football,” Big Mo says, “to, holy s---, they are a contender.”
For the past week, Big Mo, 25, has been calling Pallotto at 11 o’clock every night, and then again at 7 o’clock every morning to discuss the championship game. He hasn’t been able to sleep well in days; he just lay in his bed, restless, tossing and turning throughout the night. He began watching tape of the Immortalz when he was driving home after the semifinal win last week, his phone propped up on his dashboard, his eyes darting back and forth between the road and the screen. When he got home, he moved the video to his television.
Big Mo often mentions a prevailing sentiment around the league, that his reputation is outsized compared to his impact on the field. He is his own biggest hype-man and, because of that, he has garnered attention. And he loves attention, even negative. The defensive tackle often scrolls through the league’s Facebook pages, reading negative comments about him and responding in kind. In the week leading up to the championship, it has been a daily activity as he has been consumed with the idea of validation. That’s what this championship game affords him.
“Everybody got their opinions on me,” he says. “They say I don’t deserve to win this championship. That I’m mediocre. We’ll see.”
Today his wife watches from the stands, three months pregnant. She is a licensed cosmetologist and has taken off work the past two weekends to watch her husband, Mohamed, the childcare manager who works with developmentally disabled children, turn into Big Mo, the trash-talking nosetackle. Originally he wasn’t going to come back to the Chiefs this season. He had his mind made up after their championship loss. He put too much of himself into this game to bear that pain again. Then Pallotto called and said he couldn’t do it without him, that he was a Chief and they needed him. “Let’s just give it one more run,” he said. So he did. And before the playoffs began, Big Mo told his teammates that if they won it all this year, he was renting a camel.
The Chiefs sideline resembles a hospital ward as the second half begins. Massa tapes elbows, checks on knee and biceps injuries, wipes blood off cuts, stretches out players with cramps. He consoles some, berates others, knowing what each responds to from years of being together.
As play resumes, Vargas still finds himself under constant pressure, Immortalz defenders bearing down on him every play. The hobbled quarterback can’t find a rhythm, and struggles to escape the fusillade of pass rushers on his one good leg. Pallotto cradles his right arm to his side, his biceps tender, unable to lift it much higher than his waist. Teammates plead with Massa to take Pallotto out of the game, believing that the injury has made him a liability as a blocker.
“If he’s not touching anyone he’s not helping us,” Tavarez says to Massa. Then he screams to Pallotto from the sideline. “If you’re hurt you can’t be out there!”
“Ain’t nobody f---ing hurt!” Pallotto hollers back.
Massa sticks with his old friend, keeping Pallotto in the game. They wouldn’t be the Chiefs without him, and if they’re going to lose, they’ll lose together. And if they are going to win, it had to be together, or it wouldn’t mean anything anyway. Besides, Massa knows he’d have to physically fight Pallotto if he tried to take him off the field right now
Conflict is avoided as Tavarez soon returns an interception all the way down to the goal line. Two plays later the Chiefs take their first lead of the game.
As the clock strikes zero on the third quarter, the entire Chiefs team raises four fingers in the air. They are 15 minutes away, but their cooler on the sideline is out of water. A family member finds a sink and fills it up. Cups and water bottles are in short supply, too, so Massa goes from player to player, lifting the cooler high in the air, pouring water into the players’ mouths directly from the nozzle.
Soon Vargas throws for another score, giving the Chiefs a 28-20 lead. Seven minutes remain. But the Immortalz march down the field again, scoring a touchdown with three minutes left. A successful two-point conversion would tie it. The teams line up across from each other. Players wipe sweat and blood from their faces.
The ball is snapped. The Immortalz quarterback starts off rolling to his left, faking a sneak. Then he turns back and drops to his right. With three rushers bearing down on him, he abruptly stops and lofts a ball high up into the end zone. A receiver settles underneath it. Tavarez and another Chiefs defender leap into the air and bat the ball down harmlessly to the ground.
The Chiefs are now two first downs away from their first championship. Players start to take little hops on the sideline, up and down, up and down, burning off nervous energy.
A quick pass on second down moves the chains. A minute is drained from the clock. With 1:48 remaining and the Immortalz having already used all of their timeouts, the Chiefs face a third-and-4. A first down will let them bleed the clock and end the game. If they’re stopped short, they’ll have to punt and defend, giving the Immortalz time to score and win. Breathing is momentarily halted on the Chiefs sideline as teammates hold hands and link arms.
Vargas drops back. He takes five steps, shuffles his feet. A pass rusher closes in and lurches towards him, arms raised. The quarterback lofts the ball inches over the defender’s outstretched grasp. First down.
A wave of realization brushes over the sideline. Arms are held overhead in triumph. Vargas launches the ball high up into the air and screams. Massa sends Hershall onto the field. The 53-year-old running back gets his first snap of the game. He takes a knee, and the clock ticks down to zero. The game is over, the Chiefs have won, but Hershall still holds onto the ball with one hand like a talisman as he goes around hugging his teammates. “I’m too old to cry,” he says.
The box of championship t-shirts is dragged onto the field, and the Chiefs pass them around and pull them on over their jerseys. Tavarez yells “that’s a long ride home to Pennsylvania, you b-----” at the desolate Immortalz across the field, looking for a fight until the very end. Family members come onto the field, hugging their husbands, brothers, sons. We’re so proud of you, they say in unison. Vargas thinks of his unborn child, and how he’ll share this story one day. Big Mo notes that he has a list of people who have talked s--- for the past three years and invites teammates to come by his house later because he’s going to call them out online, one after the other. “I’m ripping everybody,” he says. “Put some respect on my name.” Then he reaffirms that he is, indeed, renting that camel.
Pallotto says he can’t feel his arm and needs to go to the hospital. But that will come after the party. Soon, beers will be enjoyed in the outfield. A blunt will be passed around in the dugout.
The Chiefs’ captain and founder, beer in hand, will embrace Massa, his coach and old friend. He’ll ask him, “How long have we been chasing that?” He won’t be looking for an answer. Both men know all too well. Then he’ll pull out his cell phone and go live on Facebook, thanking all the Chiefs fans who have stuck with the team and laughing at all the haters who doubted them.
“I remember us playing in a f---ing parking lot,” he will say. “Look at us now.”
Some Chiefs will claim they’re retiring. They won. They finally won. What else was there to play for? Other Chiefs will respond that they both know that isn’t true. You’ll be back, they’ll say, because I’ll be back. The Chiefs now have to defend their championship. More importantly, they have to stay together.
But right now, on the field, moments after the game has ended, no one is thinking about the future. Each player embraces every one of his teammates, one after the other, like a procession. They kiss each other on the cheek. The words I love you are repeated like a mantra. Tears are shed. Eventually the cooler is brought onto the field, its contents dumped onto Massa’s head. “We f---ing did it,” Vargas whispers into his coach’s ear. “This is for you.”
Then the Chiefs lift their coach onto their shoulders, as an open-mouthed, full-face smile washes over him, and they all walk off the field, together.
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