A couple hundred kids splash in the McMillen Park Pool. Few golfers venture past the driving range. The tennis courts are empty. It’s 89 degrees; no clouds, no breeze.
Sean Raber stands alone on the Allen County Lions semipro football team practice field. The sun blasts down on the drying grass and Raber’s bare shoulders. The sturdy, 22-year-old Northrop High school graduate dashes across an empty field, barrels back toward the empty stands, and dashes back to nowhere in particular.
Raber’s teammates are not late for this miserably hot practice. Raber is 45 minutes early.
For everyone on the roster, this might be the last shot at the game that they love. For Raber, it’s also his first shot. He enjoyed theater at Northrop, where he built scenery. He had to enjoy football from the stands. “I didn’t have the grades to play,” he said. He missed football in high school and thought he had missed it for life, and then he heard about the Lions. “If I had been told they existed a few years back, I’d have been playing,” he said. “I’m hoping for several seasons.”
Raber’s story is typical of the Lions, but only in the sense that there is no typical story. They drive in from Butler or from Marion. They harbor no ambition of playing on another level, or they treat every tackle like a tryout for the Arena Football League and whatever lies beyond. They turned 19 this year, or they turned 19 just 19 years ago.
Kendrick Eaton is in his fourth year with the Lions, his third year as defensive captain. He played three sports at North Side and Bishop Dwenger high schools. Since high school, he has played only football and only with the Lions. He was defensive player of the year in 2015. “That was the year we won the championship, too,” he said.
“We have all different ages and hometowns,” he said. One teammate starred in college, got an NFL training camp tryout, and is working for that next break. “Then there are people like Sean; he’s never played football before,” Eaton said.
Lawyer Smith III, 26, plays offensive tackle and serves as offensive captain. He played football at Snider High School and in college. He’s now a barber and a church musician. The three-time league all-star hopes to play Arena football again, and bring home one more championship.
“It’s just for the passion of the game,” he said. “I love the competition. I do this because I’ve been playing football all my life. Plus it’s another opportunity to do something positive. He has had offers from Arena teams and hopes for still another shot. “Right now I want to bring one back to the city, and then we’ll go from there.”
Ryan Townsend walks onto the practice field, carrying a tray of water bottles and sporting an authoritative smile. For the next two hours, he will be “coach” to the players.
He founded the Lions, and leads them against three rivals in the Battle Ground Football League. Townsend and the Lions expect home-field advantage when the playoffs begin at 4 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 26, at Havenhurst Park in New Haven.
“This is our fifth season together,” he said. “We’re excelled from where we started to where we are now. We’re 4-0, undefeated. We are chasing something that we deserve, and that’s the championship and the ring, with the opportunity to go to the nationals in Florida or in Atlanta.”
He describes the team as family. “It’s a brotherhood out here,” he said. “These guys stood together and they play very well together. There may be a little bit of bickering going back and forth in practice, but they come together as a team.
“They want to be able to be a leader in their community, in their homes. They wear the symbolic lion — courage, strength. And they carry that honor with great attitude. Sometimes it’s hard to deal with everyday life, but football helps discipline. They build character. They come ready to play, they come ready to listen.
“You wouldn’t think that guys of this age, in this era, would listen to someone of my age. I’m 44. But they are listening to someone of authority. We sit around a round table. I don’t make myself bigger than them and they don’t make themselves bigger than me. We feast together, we pray together, we play together, and we learn together.
“They come to my house. I cook for them. We feast.”
The Lions logo is a positive symbol in the community, he said. “Kids come up and ask for my autograph and they say, ‘Hey, Coach Townsend. I know you. I watched you play.’ It’s a good feeling to know that we’re contributing to a positive feel in our community.”
Ryan “Tre” Townsend feels all the pressure of playing quarterback, plus the responsibility of being the coach’s son. “It’s a lot more pressure. He’s extra hard on me, wanting me to be better,” Townsend said. “Not only that, but the quarterback has to be the general on the field. I’ve got to be the voice of the team. If I mess up, we all mess up and it all comes down to me.
“Everybody works hard. You’ve got to put in the work. No one gets any favors. Even though I’m the coach’s son, there’s no favoritism.”
The younger Townsend has been playing football since the age of 10, and with the Lions since the team was founded. He also played at Paulding (Ohio) High School, but not at college; “I didn’t get the opportunity.”
And two-thirds of the way through the season, his team had all four games in the “W” column. “It feels great to be able to come back to the squad and be a part of the team and part of the organization and be able to bring home the dubs, hopefully bring home the trophy and the ring.”
Xavier Ballantine, 20, played one year of high school football for Eastside High School in Butler. He gave it up because he just wasn’t big enough, he said. “I love it for the passion of the game. I’ve always just watched football growing up, since I was too little. Now I’m out here, showing up, showing what I’ve got.”
Ballantine’s helmet rises to about Smith’s shoulders. But the receiver’s trap-like grip and sharp turns prove that it’s not all about stature.
“I’m showing leadership,” Ballantine said. “I want to better myself.”
“Semipro” describes the competition level more accurately than it describes the compensation. In fact, players pay for the right to wear the Allen County Lions blue jerseys.
Come to the games, Smith said. Admission is free. “It’s just for the love of football,” Smith said. “If you love football and just want to come out and have a good time, that’s the place to be.
“We want the community to back us up because once we bring home the [champion]ship it’s on from there. We’re going to make something happen and bring football back to the city of Fort Wayne.”
A half-hour into practice, and it’s time for a quick break. Two fans have retreated to the shade or to the A.C., leaving a semipro veteran alone in the stands. It’s time to put on jerseys and pads.
“What all of us have in common is everybody wants the opportunity to play football again, no matter what level,” said Eaton, the defensive captain. “Everybody just dreams of playing football. They want that opportunity, whether it’s NFL, college, whatever. Everybody just wants the opportunity.”
For Raber, who started sweating 45 minutes before his teammates arrived, practice is a reward in itself. He burns off the anxieties of life by smashing into his teammates; they return the impact in kind. Everyone understands. “Every time we leave practice I feel better,” he said. “I feel good. I’m more calm. I’m just ready to enjoy a nice relaxing night.
“And I’m trying to be a better person. This will teach me about leadership and teamwork. And hopefully, there are more seasons to come after this one.
“I’m doing this because I love the game.”