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For the love of the game

Tucked behind Parrott Middle School and at the end of a rough service road is the beacon in the darkness.

It's hard to find, but many have made their way.

Eight glorified headlights, mounted on 12-foot stalks and powered by gas-chugging generators, brighten the football field behind the school. Their stark white light barely casts to the 50-yard line but throws nightmare shadows off the twisted oaks beyond the chain-link fence.

Amid the gloom, arms crossed, lips pursed, Shawn Bingham pumps air through his whistle again, sending his 20 or so Hernando Eagles into another drill. He, like the rest, is making do and making progress with what he has.

The facilities lack much for the second-year franchise in the Southern States Football League, a threadbare minor league stretched across Florida. But things, Bingham said, have been worse.

"We know we have to work under these conditions, so the guys don't mind," Bingham said. "It's what you have to deal with.

"When we first started, we only had one generator, and on the first day of practice we were out here and the sprinklers came on and it was 40 degrees," he said. "We practiced through it. They could have said, "This ain't for me,' but they hung in."

They hang in for personal reasons. They're the former high school jocks who were labeled too small or too slow, too this or too that, to earn the college scholarships they thought they deserved. They're players who had chances at scholarships and misstepped. They're the ones who attained a higher level and found it harder to surrender than they thought. And there are a few looking for a second chance.

Underlying it all is a basic connection that draws them out into the dark, among the bugs, with two footballs and no yard lines.

"There's one main reason: I love the game of football," said Demetrius Woods, a former University of South Florida linebacker who played three seasons in the Canadian Football League. "It's the collision, the contact; it's getting to play in front of people you know."

Bingham, who played at Bethune-Cookman, said: "I've loved the game of football since I came out of my mother's womb."

That is what keeps the Eagles and the 10 other SSFL teams together. Brian Williams, 23, a former Hernando receiver, has watched the group evolve since its inception last year, and he values his contribution.

"All people are playing for a different reason," said Williams, with braided hair pulled up behind a bandana. "Some are playing for people to look at them and get paid one day. Some of them are just playing for the love of the game.

"It's whatever for me. If somebody sees something in me, great, but I play for the love of the game. I'm like one of the littlest guys on the team, but I am captain and I put forth 110 percent whenever I am out there."

Woods, 25, was cut by Ottawa last season because CFL clubs must maintain a certain percentage of Canadian-born players. His experience seemingly would make him prone to impatience with players below his skill level. Not so, he said.

"Even though I've played at a higher level, I look at it like there is always something I could learn," said Woods, who opened a mortgage company in case he decides not to pursue professional football again. "Hopefully, I learn something every day."

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Those words could be tattooed on Jason Owens' consciousness. For him, the Eagles franchise is the embodiment of second chances, a means to undo the wrong decisions that took his life into such a self-destructive direction.

"I look at it like I'm playing for my community," said Owens, who graduated from Hernando with Williams in 1999. "This is my way to try to get back into the community, and I'm playing with people who've been there, who know where I come from."

Sadly, Owens' story is a common one, of a life built on athletic ability and what happens when sports stop creating opportunities. A talented wide receiver and sprinter at Hernando, Owens was considered too small by many recruiters and drifted back into the Brooksville community with little structure and few prospects.

"When football ended, he started hanging out with the wrong kind of people and got caught in a bad situation," Williams said.

Owens learned of the second chance while in jail awaiting trial on charges that included drug possession and kidnapping. He was able to avoid prison by pleading down charges and accepting community service and weekend incarceration. Now, he said, he wants to redeem himself, perhaps even opening his own mobile car detailing business.

"I'm going to stay on the right road," Owens said. "I need to give back because I know I went wrong. I want people to get that trust back for me again."

Many of the Eagles have made that goal a team priority. Owner/receiver Abraham Dowdell describes community outreach as one of the Eagles' main purposes. Owens provides a chance to reach within.

"There is nothing to do in Brooksville, and the activity becomes negative," Dowdell said. "The crowd you hang around pinpoints the atmosphere you're in. In this league, he's clearing himself up and getting out of trouble."

Williams, who calls himself one of Owens' best friends, said he sees a change.

"He's a whole lot better of a guy than he used to be," Williams said. "He learned a good lesson from getting in trouble. He takes things more serious now."

That includes his future. Owens admits that even though he might be wiser, perhaps eventually faster, he still is 5-6, 160 pounds, and at 22, older than most college players.

"It may take me two or three years to get back in the swing," he said. "But I'm going to try to open some eyes."

Bingham, whom Dowdell hired for his mentoring as much as his football abilities, has pledged to help.

"I told him, "You do what's right on the field and at home (and) I will get you into a college program,' " Bingham said.

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Anthony Crescenzo came to the Eagles seeking redemption for a perceived slight that festers after eight years.

Crouched behind an imaginary center, football thrust forward in his right hand, he barks "Blue 88" before running a pass play for the umpteenth time in a row. The 26-year-old, who owns an upholstering business, learned of the Eagles' existence when he drove past a county park where some players were working out. This was his chance to be a quarterback again.

Crescenzo played the position in youth leagues and into his sophomore year at Central until, as he tells it, he was displaced by then-coach Barry Gardner for his son, Jarret.

"(Jarret) didn't belong where he was," Crescenzo said. "(Barry) talked me into playing receiver. He convinced me my next step to going to college was to play receiver, but that was his way of getting me not to play quarterback."

Crescenzo validated Barry Gardner's decision by eventually earning scholarships at two small schools, but Crescenzo yearned for the chance to play his favorite position. Now that he has it, there are no delusions of spring-boarding into a pro league. Being the outgoing QB for the local team, riding up to the practice field in full helmet and pads on his motorcycle, is enough of a taste of the high life.

"I know I will not take it to the next level," said Crescenzo, adjusting the headband that pushes his hair into a shock. "I'm too old. For me, it's personal goals. I played QB until I was 16 and then you're told you can't be it, for the wrong reasons. Now I look back and I realize, if you had a kid, it's hard to sit your kid on the bench. What he did was play his kid, crush my heart.

"It's personal to see if I could have done it," Crescenzo said. "If I had not tried out (with the Eagles), I would have said, "I wish I would have done it.' Now I can say I did."

Paul Herrmann understands. He hadn't worn shoulder pads for 17 years, since he played fullback and defensive line at Hernando and decided not to take a scholarship he earned at a Division II school in Minnesota. Although the absence of football had not left a void, the lack of competition did. Regret would soon come calling.

That's why Herrmann started competing on the Florida motocross circuit, won some races, had some fun, but got out when the prize money no longer could salve the broken bones.

Jerome Tillman, an Eagles running back who works in the same Spring Hill metal distributorship as Herrmann, helped him find the new outlet for his need to compete. Herrmann now plays offensive line for the first time.

"I like to watch these younger kids play and see if I can do it, because I do enjoy it so much," Herrmann said. "Maybe I would have regretted it later in life that I didn't go off and play college ball. It's good to see I can still do it."

He's doing it, but getting started was not easy after such a lapse.

"It was bad," Herrmann said, laughing. "I was out of shape, about 15 pounds heavier than I am now. At first, I didn't think I was going to make it at all."

Hope sometimes gets lost while trying to block players such as Woods, who was tromping through pros a year ago.

"The mind was straight, but the body ...," Herrmann pondered. "That was the worst. Well, the mind part was kind of hard, too. Coming out knowing you're going against kids straight out of high school, out of colleges and then you add guys who've played in the CFL and stuff and you don't know if you can compete.

"You hear about guys like (Woods) on the team, and you just try to stick it out."

The peculiar mix is not made without problems.

With such an array of ages and aptitudes, egos get bruised as much as muscles. It's at those times Bingham tries to "maintain the group focus."

"A lot of guys want to play," Williams said. "It's real competitive. There's a lot of guys who think they know more than the younger guys. When you have so many on the team, it's hard for some guys to play and there's going to be some animosity."

But most of them keep coming back, and leaving with something after each Saturday night game and midweek practice in the near-dark.

Crescenzo's duties as QB this night includes turning off the rented generators and making his way back to his motorcycle in virtual darkness. Sometimes the glory is too much.

"This is an amazing thing for us," Crescenzo said, smiling. "We're fulfilling a dream. How often do you get to do that?"