For the love of the game

Published: Monday, January 29, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 29, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

It was only a few weeks ago when a football team from Gainesville achieved the ultimate goal in sports.

As the clock hit zero, players ran onto the field in celebration and unveiled the Gator chomp for all in attendance.

Only this celebration was not in Glendale, Ariz., and not on display for millions to see.

Hidden away at a championship game in Homestead, the little-known Florida Thoroughbreds, a semi-pro football team based in Gainesville, celebrated a national championship in a shadow of obscurity.

No stadium celebration. No appearances on Jay Leno. No championship rings — only pride, memories and a championship trophy to prove that national championships in Gainesville extend beyond the limits of the University of Florida.

For the members of the Thoroughbreds, the opportunity to play competitive football is more valuable than anything a celebration could offer.

"These guys come out to play because they love football. They want a chance to play and they want to represent Gainesville," said Bob Kavanaugh, co-owner and head coach of the Thoroughbreds.

The Thoroughbreds primarily consists of former high school stars from the Gainesville area.

Playing for a semi-pro football team offers a different opportunity for each of the players.

"Some of our players still think they can play at a higher level and see this as their opportunity. For others, it's a chance to hold onto the game they don't want to leave," Kavanaugh said.

Johnell Brown, 23, is one of the players who believes playing for the Thoroughbreds is his chance to turn football into a full-time job.

"(The Thoroughbreds) is just a stepping stone to something bigger. I play because I want to make it to the NFL," Brown said.

Brown played last year in the Arena League and will leave the Thoroughbreds in March to play arena football in Sioux City, Iowa.

"It may be a long route, but that doesn't mean it can't be a successful route. Lots of scouts look at these games," Brown said.

Additionally, players such as running back Derrick Scott see this as a second chance. Scott, 19, did not get the opportunity to attend college, and he hopes scouts will notice his talent.

"I think playing here gives me the best chance to get noticed, and then I just hope for the best," Scott said.

For other players, the league functions as a fountain of youth — a way to continue living a dream that has since passed.

Starting quarterback Dee Anderson, 31, once the starting quarterback at Gainesville High in the early 90s, is aware that he will never reach the next level.

"I'm not trying to go (to the NFL). I love football and I can't imagine my life without it. It's what I've always done," Anderson said.

Anderson's attitude is reflected by all of his teammates. While some players such as Brown and Scott still hold onto pro dreams, the players participate because of their connection to the game of football.

The Thoroughbreds are part of the Minor League Football News, a semi-pro league with teams across the nation. The state of Florida is home to two divisions — the SSFL (Southern States Football League) and the SEFL (Southeastern Football League).

Unlike other professional leagues such as the NFL, players in the MLFN don't get paid. Instead, they have to pay to play the game they love.

While most teams have sponsors to pay for the league fees, travel expenses and equipment, the Thoroughbreds are without any support. Finding money to play is difficult for most players on the team.

"Most of the guys are either really young or they are blue-collar guys earning minimum-wage salaries," Kavanaugh said. "We do what we can, but it is difficult without any sponsorship."

Despite the lack of financial assistance, Kavanaugh hopes that the national championship and added awareness within the community will help make the Thoroughbreds popular in Gainesville.

"Gainesville loves football and we hope the fans will come check us out," defensive back Lavares Kelly said. "You see fans at the NFL and college and it makes a big difference."

Despite recently playing the championship game, the Thoroughbreds 2007 season lasts from January until June. The team opened the season by defending their championship Saturday against the Ocala Peppers in a 40-11 win.

While the team realizes that the level of competition is not the same as watching the Gators, the players still believe they have something valuable to offer to the community.

"We love the Gators, too. There is no competition," Scott said. "But if you want to see a national champion play football right now, only the Thoroughbreds can offer that in Gainesville."

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