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Area police squad lines up for glory, honor and charity

Fans who have endured 14 straight losing seasons by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers might want to catch a gridiron winner: the Tampa Bay Guardians, an amateur team of law enforcement officials who play for charity.

The defending Southeast Police Football League champions take on the West Palm Bandits in Badge Bowl IV on Saturday.

"I'm ready. Let's play now," said 6-foot-2, 275-pound center Gary Herman, a Hillsborough sheriff's deputy, between Monday and Wednesday practices at Tampa Bay Tech.

Other players who work for law enforcement agencies in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Manatee, Sarasota, Pasco, and Polk counties are just as eager to strap on the pads. They train year-round and take their tackle football very seriously.

"It's a good brand of football. It's not sissy," said coach Jim Gaczewski, a detective with the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office and a former coach for several years in the Tampa Bay Youth Football League. "We're in-your-face football. There's definitely a lot of pride."

Many on the 58-player roster played high school, college, and even professional football before beginning law enforcement careers.

"The hitting is like college," said Tim Kelley, 26, who played for Gaither High's district championship team in 1987 and in college. "I'm sure we could give Troy State, my old college, a run for the money.'

"It's serious in a certain aspect, but we also like to have a good time," said Herman, 33. "I love football. Being able to continue to play is just great."

Founded in 1992 by Tampa Police Department officers, the team expanded to include players from the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, Florida Highway Patrol and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

The Guardians were shelled in their first game, a 42-0 loss to Metro-Dade Magnum Force in front of 30,000 spectators at Miami's Orange Bowl that raised $160,000 for Dade County charities. But the Guardians have improved steadily.

"We got our butts kicked and I said, "If we're going to play, we're going to be competitive,' " Gaczewski said.

The Guardians' first win came in 1993 when they traveled to England and defeated the London Metropolitan Police Department 22-0 in the Trans-Atlantic Challenge Bowl.

"They were the kind of guys who could come across and smash you and look in your eyes and say, "jolly good hit,' " Kelley said. "They were just happy to play American football."

The Guardians, who this year are playing in the 10-team National Law Enforcement Football League, are 1-0. They beat Metro-Dade Corrections 7-0 on March 1 and will play two more games in April: at Nassau, Bahamas, on April 5, and at Tampa Bay Tech on April 19, when they host the New York City Police Department.

Records aside, the players are just as proud of assisting the charities. The Suncoast Children's Dream Fund is the predecessor of the nationally acclaimed Make-A-Wish Foundation and the Gold Shield Foundation helps families of police officers or firefighters killed in the line of duty.

"There's nothing like seeing a kid get something he asked for," Kelley said. "It can make a big lineman teary-eyed."

Added Herman: "If we can raise $500 or $1,000, whatever it is, we're going to help somebody, somehow."

If you go:

Badge Bowl IV is at the USF soccer stadium, on the main campus.

Kickoff is at 4 p.m. Tickets are $5. Children 10 and under admitted free. Proceeds benefit the Suncoast Children's Dream Fund and the Gold Shield Foundation.

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