The men dress in a high school locker room that is foreign to them but at the same time familiar - with small benches, small lockers, no names and no numbers - the very sort of lockers they used when they were stars at their own high schools. Some players have their injuries taped by coaches, each other or themselves, and some bring their own tools to repair their helmets and other football gear. Scratchy music from a portable tape player plays in the background, and the room reeks of ointment and sweat.
Outside, two maintenance workers line the field at Theodore Roosevelt High School in the District, getting it ready for play.
One elderly man walking around the track at the school asks, "Are they going to play a game here tonight?"
Damn right they are. Washington Chiefs football - providing, of course, the other team shows up, which is just one of the hazards of minor-league football.
In August, Chiefs owner Richard Myles had a game lined up for his team at Richard Montgomery High School in Montgomery County and the opponent showed up several hours late, too late to play.
"I had the Montgomery County executive there for this game," Myles said, "a color guard, all these Montgomery County dignitaries supporting me, and the [other] team's bus broke down. I had to give all the money back. That's how it is sometimes in minor-league football." On this night, the Durham Bulls do show up, though not in a team bus. The players drive the six hours from North Carolina in their own cars. So tonight, Myles won't have to give any money back. With about 100 people in the stands, there wouldn't be much to return anyway. Again, that's just how it is sometimes in minor-league football.
For Myles, a physical education teacher, these trials of owning a minor-league football team don't detract from his enthusiasm and optimism. "I'm still like a sleeping giant," Myles said. "No one knows I'm here. But I know this will catch on. We've got something good here." Semipro football has been around since the days of the first game in Canton, Ohio, long before the National Football League became a powerhouse. But unlike minor-league baseball, these small-scale football operations - while sometimes solid, popular teams - are often ragtag ventures, sometimes nothing more than glorified sandlot football.
Several semipro teams dot the Washington area, including the Washington Stonewalls and the Fredericksburg Generals, among others.
Myles and the league his Chiefs belong to - the Minor Football League - are seeking to change the image of minor-league football. The MFL is a league formed a few years back with several goals: to bring more of a sense of professionalism to minor-league football and to support community services. Like the Chiefs - who won the MFL championship last year with a record of 10-2 and who play tonight in this season's championship game - all teams must be nonprofit organizations.
"This is not sandlot football," Myles said. "We provide everything for the guys except pay them. And we are a community-based organization that specializes in youth and community services."
The Chiefs provide players with equipment and uniforms - and insurance - Myles said. These are luxuries not often offered by many semipro teams.
"If it looks professional, then people will come to see it," he said. "We offer family entertainment. The Chiefs help organizations raise money by selling tickets. I try to get local bands to play at the games. The money came from me, my job. Every spare moment, I'm out there trying. I just need a little help."
Myles has gotten help for his venture from some familiar sources. Former Washington Redskins defensive tackle Bobby Wilson is one of the Chiefs' backers and one of Myles' biggest supporters. Myles met Wilson several years ago when he visited the Redskins camp to try to get some players interested in his venture. Wilson said he would come to see the Chiefs play and was impressed with the commitment of the players.
"I saw a desire in the eyes of the guys," Wilson said. "I came out to a practice once after I met Mr. Myles. I watched them practice and found out they weren't getting paid, and I thought that I wouldn't do that. That takes some serious courage, and I want to be a part of it. That's initially how I got into it."
Wilson, a Redskins' former top draft choice who had to retire after five seasons because of back problems and other injuries, helped Myles get some professional equipment, got involved with coaching and set up the Chiefs in an office above his record shop on Georgia Avenue NW.
"I try to help bring a professional look to it," Wilson said. "I think the guys get a kick out of me being out there trying to show them some things that I've experienced at the pros. It's good for them. I'm trying to get guys at the next level. I tell Richard and the other minor-league teams if you got a guy who is an exceptional athlete, let me know and I will try to get him a shot."
Wilson is not the only former Redskin who has become involved with the Chiefs. Last year, former running back Ricky Ervins helped with coaching, as has former safety Clarence Vaughn and former running back Reggie Branch. Former Redskin receiver Calvin Muhammad played several games for the Chiefs last season and this year, and will play in the MFL title game tonight at Theodore Roosevelt High School against the Rochester Renegades. Former Redskin defensive back Rickie Harris is the commissioner of the MFL.
David Lawrence wants his shot. The 20-year-old wide receiver thought he had it when he was a star at Spingarn High School in the District his senior year. But he wound up getting shot, and that ended his plans of playing college football.
The bullet is still near the base of his spine. "They tried to get it out, but if they went in, I could have been paralyzed from the waist down," he said. "I wasn't supposed to play anymore, but I couldn't stay away from the game."
Like nearly every minor-league player, Lawrence has a full-time job, working at Hechinger's Mall in the District in Northeast. But he will pay someone to work his shift so he can make the Chiefs' weekly practice. "I've got to make a couple of sacrifices, but it will pay off," Lawrence said. "I've got a little boy I'm trying to support and be a role model for." Lawrence is hoping that he will get an NFL tryout, but he said he would play even without that chance. "Even if I'm not able to go to the next level, I would still play the game that I love until my body says it's time to quit."
They may be players with NFL dreams or those who have no such illusions, but they all share something in common: football - in their blood, running so deep that they will put their full-time jobs at risk just to play. On this fall Saturday night, they prepare to throw themselves into battle for the Chiefs.
While players finish dressing in the locker room, Myles gives a pitch for professionalism. "When we go out there, I don't want any hats on anyone, only helmets," he said. "And put your shirts in your pants."
John Smith, a running back from Silver Spring, added a personal touch to his game outfit. He has written on the tape on one wrist, "I love you, Mom," and "Jesus is Lord" on the tape on the other wrist. "My mother just got out of the hospital, and I'm dedicating this game to her," he said.
Smith, 29, is a security guard at the National Archives and also is studying to be a preacher. He is in his first year with the Chiefs. In fact, he hadn't played competitive football for 10 years, since he played at Sherwood High School in Olney. "I never went to college, but I always still wanted to play football," he said. "Last year, I decided to try it again. I love the game, and I'm glad to get a chance to do it again."
After going over some plays on a blackboard, Myles yells, "Let's go!" But there is no mad dash for the door. Players straggle in and out, some still arriving, as most of the team heads for the field for pre-game warmups.
"Ladies and gentleman, your Washington Chiefs!"
The public-address announcer introduces the team as it runs onto the dimly lit field as darkness falls. The tiny crowd in the high school stands cheers.
But the kickoff is delayed for about 10 minutes while a worker slowly pushes a wheelbarrow full of dirt out to midfield to fill a hole.
Special teams line up, and Durham receives the kickoff of what turns out to be a pretty good football game - at least what can be seen of it in the cloud of dust that stays stirred up in the middle of the field.
The Chiefs quickly fall behind to the Bulls in the first quarter 16-0, and frustration mounts on the field. Players yell at the offense from the sidelines, some complain about not getting the ball, and there is a lot of finger pointing and confusion. Myles, who is helping to coach the team (their head coach, Gerald Grant, suffered a stroke), spends half of his time on the sidelines keeping his players off the field.
The Chiefs are able to rally, though, and take a 28-16 lead in the third quarter. But the Bulls mount a comeback, playing "exciting MFL football" as the P.A. announcer puts it, to regain the lead 30-28 with about two minutes to go.
The Chiefs try to mount a drive, but with about a minute left, quarterback Ed Torrence is sacked on a fourth-down play. The Chiefs argue among themselves and with the Bulls, and as the sounds of sirens echo through the nearby streets and a police helicopter hovers overhead, Washington falls to Durham.
After the game, players on both teams and coaches meet in the middle of the field, kneel down and pray.
As the players head back into the locker room, one Chiefs lineman sits on a hill around the corner, talking to himself in frustration.
Myles might have joined him. It has been a frustrating season for the owner, who was thrown for a loss right from the start because of the D.C. schools shutdown. He had used the field at Cardozo High last year, but, because of the school closing in the District, was only able to hold just one home game this season - this one against the Bulls.
But only about 100 people showed for the game, and at $7 a ticket it's too much of a losing proposition for Myles to stay in the District, though he holds out a slim hope of making a deal to use RFK Stadium next year.
If that doesn't happen, Washington will lose yet another football team, though with much less fanfare than the Redskins made when they moved to the suburbs.
"There is too much red tape in the District," Myles said. "Everyone wants to make it hard for you. I am so disgusted that I am going to have to move the team, because I can't make it here. At least in the county, you get people to come and support you. I will play at Richard Montgomery, right on Rockville Pike, next year. I will still keep it the Washington Chiefs and represent the whole Washington metropolitan area. But I can't afford to stay in the District.”