A Professor Joins America's Oldest Semi-Pro Football Team
by Bob Cowser Jr.
Atlantic Monthly Press, 240 pages, $25
professional \pra-fesh-a-nal\ adj. A person who, having great skill or experience in a particular activity, engages in that activity as a principal source of livelihood.
Simple, isn't it? And because the meaning of professional is so clear, the meaning of semiprofessional ought to be just as obvious: A semipro is somebody who plays much better than, say, Keanu Reeves in The Replacements but not nearly as well as Jake Plummer of the Denver Broncos and gets paid for it, though not enough to make a living.
Bob Cowser Jr. should know his definitions better than most people, for he teaches English at Saint Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y. His book tells the tale of a 30-year-old English professor (Cowser himself) who enters the mysterious world of semipro ball, a world that even the most rabid football fans rarely glimpse but about which they might harbor romantic notions.
Well, there is nothing romantic about the Watertown Red and Black of the Empire Football League, a team that includes a few prison guards because it plays not far from several state pens. All Cowser has to do to qualify as a lineman is show up for practice. Nor is anyone on the Red and Black paid for playing. This isn't semipro football; it's Pop Warner for grownups. The Red and Black call themselves "the world's oldest semi-pro football team" because, at the turn of the 20th century, a paid team of the same name competed for football's "world championship."
Once you get past Cowser's false advertising, his book has much to offer. Pop Warner for grownups is actually a great idea. Cowser tries it because, like many men past their athletic prime, he senses that his masculinity is on the wane. Not only has this former high school linebacker become an academic, but he has also married a sharp-tongued beautician who brings with her a resentful teenage son named Jake. One day, as father and stepson are arguing over the Tennessee Titans, Jake zings him: "You only watch football. I actually play." It's the ultimate put-down, because Cowser grew up "believing the game was the only route to manhood," he writes. And so, at 5'9" and 220 pounds, he goes out for the Red and Black.
The team is made up of "guys who'd had Division II or III football scholarships [sic] but had flunked out of college ... and ended up at a plant or a paper mill," Cowser writes. They are the sorts who back in high school insulted you in front of the girl you had a crush on and made you think--accurately, it turns out--Someday I'll be happy and successful and this guy will wind up in a plant or a paper mill, bitterly reliving the glory days of high school. The Red and Black locker room is a wasteland of lame macho put-downs. On top of that, the quarterback is a racist, and one of the few nice guys on the team is humiliated until he quits.
But a large part of football, and of being a man, is standing up to these jerks. Cowser is at his best when a loathsome teammate--who sneers that Cowser has come out for the team only "to watch us shower"--makes it his personal project to force Cowser to quit. Cowser instead knocks the guy on his butt out on the field and, of course, is accepted by his teammates. Then it becomes clear that they are all pretty much the same as Cowser--guys who love football and the company of other guys and want to hang on to both for as long as possible. "This camaraderie was not the best feeling I have ever had, not by a long shot," Cowser writes. "But it was not something I was liable to find back in the department of English."
Cowser quits after the season to start his own team, the more humane--but woefully inept--Saint Lawrence Valley Trailblazers. As the football-playing professor, he becomes a hero of sorts among Saint Lawrence students. As his wife puts it, "You're like that squirrel on America's Funniest Home Videos that water-skis."
But that's the point: Football is a game, and anyone who loves playing the game owes it to himself (or herself) to play it for as long as it's fun.