TAMPA — For years, the four of them played flag football together, traveling all over to tournaments with little to play for beyond bragging rights and a chance to compete.
So when they first heard about a national flag football tournament with a $1 million top prize, it was almost too good to be true.
"It's still a little unbelievable," said Jason Brown, a 30-year-old middle school history teacher from Plant City. "It was awesome though. We had been playing for so long just for fun, just because we enjoy playing the game. To play for that amount of money, to be the first team to win it, it's indescribable."
The four players from the Tampa area, who all played some form of college football, joined forces with a rival team from New Orleans. Their run in the American Flag Football League's U.S. Open of Football started in May, took them all over the country, and last week in Houston, they faced a team loaded with former NFL players and still won. The championship was shown on NFL Network, and the 12 players and a coach took home their share of $1 million.
"I didn't think it would be that easy, honestly, not to be arrogant," said D'Andre Franklin, 24, a Brandon High grad who played junior college ball in California and now works in construction. "Our defense is very strong, and everybody's in love with our quarterback (Darrell Doucette) and his legs."
Franklin, playing defensive back and linebacker, pulled 37 flags in the tournament, the most of any player. Their path as one of 128 teams chasing a million dollars was a long one, first with local elimination rounds and two games each in Atlanta and New Jersey. Then this month, they advanced from one weekend to the next, from Pittsburgh, then Atlanta, then Indianapolis, and last week's finals in Houston.
Former NFL stars like Michael Vick and Chad Johnson had teams on the "pro" side of the tournament, and the Tampa players won easily in the final against a team that included former NFL quarterback Seneca Wallace, running back Justin Forsett and former Olympic gold-medal sprinter Michael Johnson.
Winnings along the way covered the costs of travel, but logistically, it wasn't easy to keep taking weekends off to scramble all over the country.
"For everybody to actually be on board, to get there and work through it, it was crazy," said T.J. Glover, a 26-year-old Plant grad who played four years at South Alabama and caught a touchdown in the championship game. "I told my mother about it and she realized we were traveling like pretty worldwide. When we got to the final 16, she said 'Wow.' A whole bunch of people got on board and saw we could make history."
Their team was called "Fighting Cancer," after one of the New Orleans players lost a former teammate and wanted to pay tribute. That team had been BEAST ("Big Easy All-Star Team") and the Tampa contingent had won locally on a team called "Suped Up." They had hoped to go by "Dirty South," but the name was already taken.
"We met each other through flag," said Darius Davis, 30, who played at Hillsborough and in college for New Mexico Highlands, catching 60 passes for 1,106 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2012. "Flag is the way you stay in shape, how you keep football kind of going."
Davis works as a counselor at a drug rehab center and as a coach and mentor with the City of Tampa's Parks and Recreation department. For all four, the tournament was worth it just as a chance to play football together, but $1 million, even split among 12 players and a coach, is quite a reward in itself.
"A lot of people said it's life-changing money," Brown said. "I talked to my girlfriend, and we have careers, so we have money coming in, we're not really struggling, but in the end, it's still life-changing money. It's an opportunity to be comfortable, to do a little something extra we couldn't do before. It was nice."
Contact Greg Auman at email@example.com and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.