SALT LAKE CITY — The players moseyed in one by one as the sun started to dip behind the trees in the northwest sky. They carried their shoulder pads and cleats through the gate onto the Judge Memorial Catholic High School football field on Salt Lake City’s east side. They playfully bantered back and forth behind the north end zone as they slipped on their pieces of mismatched football gear. A lone female trainer wrapped ankles as players patiently waited in line. Others started warming up.
“Is our bus really leaving at 5 a.m.?’’ said one, referring to the next day’s 15-hour bus ride to Seattle. Another added: “You know we can’t sleep on the bus very well.’’
“Whoa, look at the beach boy,’’ razzed another to a teammate who walked in wearing light blue sunglasses.
“Hey, who’s helmet is this?’’ barked a coach, searching for a player to match the stray helmet sitting on the turf. Another player approached a coach complaining his helmet was missing one of the ear pads. “Sorry we don’t have any more,’’ replied the coach.
Welcome to the Utah Argonauts, the state’s latest professional team and only pro football team.
The Argos, as they’re more commonly called, are part of the Professional Development Football League, which was organized last year and began play in March with a handful of teams in the West.
The team has played five games since March, sometimes going weeks between games and travelling to places like Seattle, Portland and Denver. They are 3-2 with two games left later this month, both at home. The Argos have had a couple of games canceled, including one the day before its scheduled kickoff last Saturday night.
It’s a long way from the PDFL to the NFL, but it’s also the closest thing for the 40 players who have journeyed from all parts of the country to Salt Lake City for the chance to prolong their football careers. The roster includes players from Tennessee, New Jersey, Louisiana, Texas, California and places in between. It may seem like a pipe dream, but ask any of them and they’ll tell you they want to keep playing football at a higher level, whether it be in Europe, South America, Canada, or the ultimate, the National Football League.
“These are guys who are right on the cusp and for whatever reason, there’s one thing holding them back,’’ said Nate Washington, the Argonauts general manager. “This gives them a window of opportunity.’’
A few have already played in the NFL, but most are former college players who simply love football and believe they still have something left in the tank. Every college in the state of Utah is represented on the team, with most (five) coming from the University of Utah. Several never played above the junior college level; some never played college ball; and one, a 31-year-old starting cornerback, never put on a football uniform until he joined the Argos.
The head coach is JJ Fayed, who has no local connection to Utah. He was a scout for the San Diego Chargers, worked in the Canadian Football League and most recently for a semi-pro team, the Florida Lakeland Raiders.
The majority of the players don’t get paid and the total team budget is around $75,000. The team has a couple of local owners and some sponsors, and relies on volunteers to work as position coaches.
Because it is a development league, the Argos roster is always in flux. The team must put up with the constant risk of losing players who get better opportunities. As a result, the Argos have brought in several players since the season began.
Earlier this year, Lewis Walker, a former defensive back for the University of Utah, was spotted by a European League scout and now is in Sweden making 3,500 euros a month. “They got film of him after two games and he was on his way,’’ said Fayed, who is happy when any of his players get a shot at a bigger league.
“We’ve got a double-edged sword,’’ he said. “Not only do we want to help these guys get to the next level, we also want to stay competitive and win games.’’
The team is also constantly adding players. Washington scours the country for talent and in the last two weeks alone signed five new players, including former BYU cornerback Joe Sampson.
Practices are usually held Tuesday through Thursday nights, beginning anywhere from 7 to 7:45 p.m. On a given practice night, the team might have as few as 25 players and rarely are all 40 at practice together. On this particular evening there were 27 players at practice. Fayed said two were excused for a wedding, two for a funeral, one was out of town, and the rest were who knows where.
“If guys aren’t accountable, slack off and don’t show, we just cut them,’’ said Fayed, who has dismissed a half-dozen players already this year.
Because only about 10 players get paid and a few more get their housing taken care of, it’s not surprising players don't show up for every practice.
With a team like the Argos you get players of all shapes, sizes and backgrounds. You have players who started for college football powerhouses like Oregon, Tennessee and Nebraska playing alongside other guys who never played higher than the junior college level. The team’s star player, Justin Phinisee, played just under four seasons in the NFL, while starting cornerback Jacoby Shepherd played for a similar amount of time in the NFL after coming out of Oklahoma State.
Other the other hand, Tim Collins never played organized football before joining the Argos, but made it through tryouts. The team has several players with local ties, including starting quarterback Mike Affleck, who was once one of the top high school recruits in the country out of Timpview High. The team’s leading rusher is former SUU running back Deckar Alexander; the top receiver is ex-T-bird Ty West; former Ute defensive back Damilyn Tanner leads the defense with five interceptions, including one for a touchdown.
Now 28 years old and about 25 pounds over his college weight, Affleck is still living the dream of one day playing in the NFL or at a higher level.
After playing for Timpview a decade ago, local schools like BYU and Utah were dying to get him, along with many of the top schools in the country. USC coach Pete Carroll recruited Affleck hard, as did Arizona State, Oregon, Arizona and Colorado. It came down to the Trojans and Sun Devils before Affleck chose to go to Tempe. (In hindsight he wishes he’d opted for USC.)
“Out of high school I was a big recruit and figured I would be going to the NFL someday,’’ he says.
However Affleck’s college career was a bust, as he’ll be the first to tell you. He left ASU after his freshman year and wandered from one school to another, including Dixie State, BYU and Utah State, never becoming a full-time starter. He played part of a year with the Utah Blaze in 2010 and most recently was playing for an eight-man team in Utah County when the Argos called.
“I definitely thought there was a void from when I got cut from the Blaze and I wanted to get back into it,’’ he said. “It’s kind of crazy. I’m playing with guys who have never played football before and I’m saying, ‘What am I doing?’ But there’s still that thirst to play.’’
Phinisee has returned 10 kicks for an average of 34 yards, including a touchdown, and has three interceptions, including one for a touchdown. After starring for Oregon a decade ago, he was drafted by Tampa Bay and played for five teams in four seasons. He briefly played for the Utah Blaze but found the indoor league was too hard on his body. He also went to the Canadian Football League and was actually in Canada when the Argos called.
“He said, ‘It’s outdoor league ball and they’re not paying much, if they pay at all,’ and as soon as he said that, I said, ‘Hey listen, I love the game of football with a passion so I want to play,’’’ Phinisee said.
The veteran, who calls himself “29-plus” (he’s 30), says because he’s older than most of his teammates, he has taken on a leadership role. It's something he embraces. He’d love to play in the NFL again, partly because he’s a handful of games away from getting his pension, but for now he is happy playing a game he loves.
“I’m a person who enjoys life and has a passion about football,’’ he says. “I’ve had tons of job offers, but I’m holding them off because I’m still young and I can still play. You’re going to play regardless and right now I’m loving it here, enjoying myself.’’
Then there’s Collins, the 31-year-old who plays cornerback, wide receiver and gunner on special teams. He has an interception and 10 tackles this year, yet never played a down of college football. He never even played in high school, for that matter, or put on a helmet before he came to Utah. He’s one of those guys Affleck calls a “freak athlete.”
“Any football playing for me was on the street in the front yards in the neighborhoods. I guess that’s where I got my speed, running from dogs,’’ he says with a laugh.
Collins grew up going to private schools in Louisiana, but never had a chance to play organized football. At the age of 18 he went to work as a welder and came out to Utah a few years ago to work on the City Creek project. From there he got a job at Kennecott before getting laid off earlier this year.
Back in March he went to try out for a local semi-pro team. However, a man he’d just met urged him to go to the Argos’ tryout the same day instead and the rest is history.
“He never played organized football, but he does a great job for us and plays a lot of different positions,’’ says Fayed.
Washington said the future of the PDFL is bright with 10 teams scheduled to play next year, including several in the East. There is hope by some that down the line the league will develop a working relationship with the NFL, sort of like the D-League in pro basketball.
Despite the optimism the management, coaches and players express, there is no guarantee that the PDFL will be around for the long-term. Utah has seen too many professional franchises come and go through the years — remember the Utah Blitzz, Utah Golden Spikers, Utah Stars, Utah Starzz, Salt Lake Trappers, Salt Lake Golden Eagles and Salt Lake Sting?
Still, as long as there is a football team to play for with games and practices, players will still come from all corners of the country to chase their dreams, whether it’s an NFL veteran or a guy with no football experience whatsoever.
“When you love football, it’s not about getting paid if you love this game,’’ says Phinisee. “So all in all I’m living my dream right now, even with the Argos.’’
“I’m going somewhere, regardless of what anybody else says,’’ adds Collins. “In my mind, I think I’m going to the league, whether it’s the NFL or the Canadian Football League, I’m going to one of them. I may only have a year’s worth, but I’m going to get it in.’’
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company