Fourth and Long

Dreams of Glory Die Hard in Semipro football

The offensive line was composed chiefly of cooks. On Saturday, they had allowed the quarterback to suffer so greatly that on Monday, he came to practice in street clothes. Dwight McDonald said he couldn't bear to be hit again so soon, but the coach was not understanding.

"If you can't get your body hurt," James Germany growled, "you ain't got no right to be out here. That's just the bottom line."

In the evening, in the northern part of town, the practice field was a desolate bright spot near the Sam Houston Parkway. Dwight, a warehouse worker, began warming up again because despite his bruises, he was still optimistic. It had only been a preseason game, after all, and the problem was the blocking, and how hard could it be to teach blocking? He still believed what the coaches said -- that this would be the championship season.

"No doubt about it,'' he crowed. "This is the premier team in semipro football. You got it, right here -- the Houston/Conroe Express.''

They had paid $25 as a "tryout fee," though no one was ever cut from the team, and $90 for a bit of health insurance. Now they were going to take their chances.

"Trying to move on to the next level,'' the clerk at Best Buy explained.
"Trying to move on to the next level,'' echoed the guy who mixes cement for a living.

"Just trying to get out of a dead-end job,'' said the Whataburger team leader. "Trying to make it to the pros any way I can.''

And there out on the field was Rodney Pruitt, all six feet and 240 pounds of him, and he was shouting like rolling thunder, "C'mon -- let me kick all y'all's asses real quick!"

It was a drill in which a blocker and a ball carrier face a linebacker and a defensive back. Pruitt was the linebacker, and when the whistle blew, he heaved the 300-pound cook face down into the dirt and met the ex-Marine dead in the middle of the road.

"Ol' Pruitt,'' said a teammate, shaking his head, "he's a wild man.'' And a coach said what they all said about Pruitt: "This man here is ready for the NFL.''

Just in case no one was talking about him, the defensive back in that drill came over to the visitor and spelled his name -- Mike Ratcliff -- and said proudly, "Write this down -- 'self-proclaimed Deion Sanders.' "

He was tall and muscled, and he said he and Pruitt were the best athletes on the Express, and they were surely going to take it to another level. They had just tried out for a team that would pay them big money, he announced. The Arena League's Texas Terror.

"They're probably going to call me back, too,'' Ratcliff said. "It should be real soon.''

The season was supposed to begin March 2, but two days before the home opener, the opponent died quietly in the night. No one thought much about it, really, for it wasn't as if there were any halftime show to cancel, or thousands of ticketholders to disappoint. The coaches simply got on the phones and searched out a new foe, and by practice on Friday, they were ready with the announcement: the Express was bound for New Orleans.

"Good morning, good morning, good gotdawg morning," said Pruitt, stepping onto the bus the next day. "Listen up -- I know we going on a good trip, but keep in mind what we going down to do. Don't make me turn your engines on. Turn them on yourself."

And then with his pillow and blanket, Pruitt got off the bus, because the stars were taking their own cars. McDonald, in his cowboy hat and lizard-skin boots, was driving his pickup, and Ratcliff, in his new Mercedes-Benz, had asked Pruitt to come along.

The bus coasted onto the highway, and after that things were pretty quiet. Germany, the owner and head coach, sat staring down the road. Everywhere his players want to go, he's already been, he said, "and so I know talent and how to coach.''

At 34, he's a short, pudgy man who talks quickly without ever looking at you. He's had football on his mind since the third grade, he said. He played through high school and junior college, and on through San Jose State University, he said, and after that, as "a free agent wide receiver,'' there he was, playing with the Houston Oilers, the Dallas Cowboys and various teams in the Canadian Football League.

"The limelight, the fast lane" was all too much for him, however, and after four and a half years, he said he developed a cocaine habit that ruined his pro football career. With the help of his family, he was able to abandon cocaine, but he said seven years passed before he could accept that no one would ever ask for his autograph, that he was "just going to be another man on the street.'' He began coaching semipro in 1991, and he was waiting now to hear whether he would be a coach with the Texas Terror.

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