Wiedmer: Tennessee Crush may live up to its nickname

Wiedmer: Tennessee Crush may live up to its nickname

May 23rd, 2010 by Mark Wiedmer in Opinion Columns

Five days a week Anthony Wallace works for U.S. Express. On Saturdays, well, it's best to let him describe his 17-year obsession.

"As soon as the whistle blows you get to leave everything that's reality in life behind," said the 27-year-old offensive tackle for the semipro Tennessee Crush. "You get to go out there and crush somebody, figuratively speaking. I've basically played football since I was 10 years old and I'm nowhere near ready to stop."

Wallace, who once won a state championship at Red Bank, said this while soaked in sweat at the close of the Crush's 35-0 exhibition victory over the Georgia Knights on Saturday afternoon at Finley Stadium.

Both teams are members of the United South Football League, which begins its regular season in two weeks, its 20 franchises spreading from Montgomery, Ala., to Clarksville, Tenn., to Greenville, S.C., with at least four teams headquartered in Atlanta.

The Crush's home opener will come against Clarksville on June 12, probably at 4 p.m. (instead of 7) to avoid conflicting with Riverbend.

"This is a great league; very competitive," Crush coach Nathan O'Neal said. "You better bring it every night in this league or you'll get embarrassed."

Playing as it did on Saturday, the Crush figures to embarrass a lot of teams for team owner Tracy Rico, who is determined to make semipro football work here, if only as a stepping stone to bigger and better opportunities for its players and coaches.

"We'd like this to be a proving ground for the Arena League and the Canadian League," Rico has said on more than one occasion. "We'd like to help these players realize their dreams to play at another level."

Rico doesn't pay his players. He does provide them with uniforms and some travel money when his budget permits it. Judging from the 250 or so people who dropped by Finley on Saturday, business might be pretty good this season.

"We're working hard to get in a position to win the league," said 23-year-old defensive end Manny Nkana, who briefly walked on at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in the fall of 2007.

"We have great camaraderie. And we finished strong last season."

NKana still goes to school at UTC and helps manage a fruit farm whose chief crop right now is blackberries. Like a lot of the Crush players, he also counts on his fitness and good fortune to protect him from injury, since he doesn't carry health insurance.

"Your insurance is being in the gym and staying healthy," he said.

Like Wallace, Copper Basin native Jacob Shubert briefly played for Tennessee after high school.

"I was on the scout team in the fall of 2004," he said. "I went against the offensive line a lot in practice. Then I came back home and started working. I did landscaping for a while. I tried construction, but I wasn't very good at it. I hit my thumb more than the nail."

But both Rico and Shubert are hopeful that the 6-3, 275-pound lineman can become a big enough hit with some Canadian college to perhaps wind up in the CFL.

"Their eligibility rules are a little different up there," said Rico.

Added Shubert, who previously played in a semipro league with the Western Carolina Eagles and is currently working for Walden Security, "I'm trying to get in a couple of combines right now. I just want to keep playing somewhere."

It is the one sport that's almost impossible to play anywhere past college without a pro contract. Everything else -- basketball, tennis, golf, soccer, even baseball -- can rather easily be adapted to lunchtime competitions or weekend rec leagues.

But real football, that sport played with glistening helmets, oversized pads and officials to give it order and structure, pretty much requires a league, complete with owners and coaches and fans.

Said Wallace as he warmly looked to the start of another Crush campaign, "We work all week and play football on weekends. What could be better?"