Chris Murphy, Published July 25 2013
Players of newly formed semi-pro football team look to overcome past dramas
The new owner and coach of the Fargo-Moorhead Lumberjacks, the newly formed semi-pro football team, stared through a fence at a practice field at Fargo Shanley High School Thursday.
James Kern’s Lumberjacks would not be practicing on Shanley’s main field. They were given the practice field off to the side.
The guys Kern was about to lead in their third practice were once on the other side of that fence, dominating high school fields, some en route to college careers. But now, they find themselves on the other side looking in, still holding on to a sport they love.
“People love football,” Kern said. “Some of these guys still have dreams of playing football and I’m happy to keep letting them do that.”
From the back of a truck, Kerns took out helmets missing pads inside them, instructing the players where to spray paint red and where to spray black for the team colors. He also distributed shoulder pads not the shape of the bodies they were put on.
With the season opener set for Aug. 3, less than 20 players showed up at the team’s third practice Thursday. They have become the rejects, the ‘B’ team, the benchwarmers and every cliché for forgotten athletes, stooping so low as to play for no money, no health insurance in pads that don’t fit.
But it’s football. And, for them, that’s enough.
For guys like 31-year-old Rochenel Jeanbaptiste and 29-year-old Dwayne Frelot, it’s a chance to keep playing. They remember what it felt like in 2009 when they thought their football careers were over when the owner of the Liberty – Fargo-Moorhead’s last semi-pro football team – disappeared days before their second season started. This after a 12-1 record and a Northern Power Football League championship in their inaugural season.
“I was devastated,” Jeanbaptiste said. “We had a great year and won our league. Everybody showed up the next year; players, assistant coaches, but no sign of the head coach. They told us he was on vacation. Next thing you know, something about a lawsuit that he won, got millions off of it and decided to go overseas and start a team out there.”
Frelot is 6-foot-6 and around 300 pounds, but he can still feel heartbreak. In 2009, Frelot came back from getting cut in the Arena Football League to find the Liberty, who he won a championship with, had disappeared.
“It broke my heart,” Frelot said. “Everything demolished right away. I figured I was done playing football.”
Jeanbaptiste is no longer the 175-pound wide receiver he was with the Liberty, but he’s fine with his 210-pound body to be a running back or linebacker or any of the many currently open positions for the Lumberjacks.
It’s still football for Jeanbaptiste, regardless of where he plays and even with the weight of the heartbreak of 2009 still in the back of his mind.
“Until my leg falls off to where I have to stop, I’m going to keep playing,” Jeanbaptiste said. “I still feel like I have a lot left in the tank. I knew if it was not an established coach, I wasn’t going to do it. He seems legit. It’s a better feeling this time. He’s paid his dues. He’s working hard for us, so I’ll work hard for him, too.”
There’s a trust factor with Kern, who has won two championships in his five years with the Brainerd (Minn.) Lumberjacks. The F-M team is an extension of his Brainerd squad, which plays in the spring.
“I feel like this is a better situation,” Frelot said. “Hopefully, I do well here and if an indoor team comes to Fargo, I can try there.”
Fargo-Moorhead opens up its season Aug. 3 in Duluth, Minn., and will then return home for Aug. 10 and Aug. 17 for games at Shanley at 4 p.m.
“There are 1,000 semi-pro teams across the country and not one in a place that has five colleges in a 50-mile radius?” Kern said. “There is no reason we shouldn’t be dominant. After the first few weeks, I’m going to get calls and we are going to grow and build. I fully plan to have a dominant team just like I did in Brainerd. Actually, I expect more. My goal is for a national championship.”
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Chris Murphy at (701) 241-5548