The weekly battle on the gridiron doesn't take place just in youth, high school, college and pro football leagues. Thousands of adults play football in hundreds of semi-pro leagues around North America. Unlike pro football, which covers the entire United States, semi-pro leagues are generally regional in nature and may play by different rule sets, but they still have rivalries and championships that are just as important to these players as the Super Bowl.
The semi-pro leagues consist of athletes, both men and women, who play solely for the love of the game. The moniker "semi-pro" may sound impressive, but the reality is that this term really stands for "amateur." Teams are made up of a wide range of athletes, from former high school stars who didn't go to college, to ex-pro players and college players, to couch potatoes. Not only do they not get paid, but also many players must pay dues to participate.
Still, that's not much sacrifice to the men and women who suit up to play their favorite sport. If you want to join their ranks, you should know a few things before you try out. Click through our 10 tips to help you get ready for a successful semi-pro football career.
Semi-pro Football Tryouts
Football season for semi-pro players generally starts around April and ends in July. Most teams rent playing facilities such as high school stadiums, so they can't play when the school needs the field for its own schedule. Teams in areas that have hot summers may start their seasons a little earlier.
Most require players to be 18 or older to try out. They don't have age limits though -- some teams have players who are into their 60s [source: Bouchard]. Also expect to sign a waiver that proves you have your own health insurance.
While each league sets its own schedule, look for tryouts during the winter, particularly in December or January. Some semi-pros may even offer pre-tryout training opportunities to work on weight lifting and general conditioning.
What kind of training should you do before tryouts? Start here by dialing back to the end of summer.
Early Training Season
If you're training for semi-pro football, you should start conditioning in September or October. Even though it's called "semi-pro," it's still full-on contact, with hits as hard as in college and pro football. Your body needs to be able to dish out -- and take -- that kind of pain, so you need to be in the best physical shape possible.
If the team you're trying out for offers training camps, take advantage of them. If not, hit the weight room to build up your strength. Don't forget to add cardio training. Some teams are small, or they lose players throughout the season, and you may find that you're suiting up for both offense and defense. That means you'll have to build up your stamina to be able to play an entire game.
Just how fit do you need to be? We'll run through that next.
Weight Lifting Regimen
Even though semi-pro football isn't the pros, it's definitely a step up from recreational leagues and flag football. The hits are real, and the players can be fiercely competitive. Your body needs to be able to keep up. This is especially true if you're an older recruit. The semi-pro ranks are full of people in their 40s and 50s, but in order to be able to play at this level, you really need to be in tip-top shape.
A big part of playing football is having the ability to move a person. That person could be smaller or much larger, but it still takes great strength to block an opposing lineman.
Be sure to ask the coaching staff how strength will be assessed during tryouts so that you can hit the weight room to prepare. Some teams may ask you to perform tasks such as bench-pressing a certain amount of weight for as many reps as you can handle.
Upper, lower and core body strength will help you excel throughout the season, so develop a well-balanced strength conditioning program and follow it for the weeks and months leading up to the tryouts.
What about the cardio side of football fitness? Are you ready to run down the field?
It's good to note that team tryouts vary in structure, and they may take place in stages over several weeks so that the coaches can assess initial fitness levels and observe any improvement. The Iowa Xplosion women's team makes recruits run a 40-yard dash at every tryout to see if hopefuls maintain or improve. Staggered tryouts show the coaching staff whether you're working out on your own between sessions [source: Axline].
Some teams will want to test your endurance, so they may ask you to run 1 to 2 miles (1.6 to 3.2 kilometers) without stopping.
If the team you're trying out for has an informational session, ask what cardio levels the coaches are looking for and how they will assess recruits.
Strength training and cardio are just two aspects of physical fitness, but there's one other physical skill that good football players have: You'll have to explode.
One of the skills coaches will look for is your ability to explode off the line when the ball is snapped. That takes agility, yet another way to prove to the coaches that your body is at the proper level of conditioning. Be prepared to run speed and agility drills if they ask.
Plyometric exercises can improve your agility. These exercises rapidly stretch and shorten the muscles and connective tissue. As a result, elastic energy builds up in the muscles to create more force when you need it.
Jumping, hopping and weaving all qualify as plyometric exercises. Practice standing long jumps and vertical jumps. Hop over low cones or other small objects. Throw some lateral shuffles or runs into the mix, and you can create a good base before tryouts.
Exercise isn't the only factor in your fitness. Diet plays a big part in how you'll be able to function during a game. Let's look at how you eat while you train.
A Well-balanced Diet
You are what you eat. That old adage was never truer than in semi-pro football. Eat too much junk food, and you might find yourself tossing your cookies as well as the pigskin during a practice.
It's helpful to eat a well-balanced diet to maintain your fitness level, but football players also need to boost the protein to help rebuild broken-down muscle fibers.
Whether or not you'll need to gain or lose weight depends on what physical shape you're in at the moment. If you're 50 pounds (23 kilograms) overweight, of course, you'll need to trim down so you can keep up on the field.
Once your body is prepared from the inside, you can consider what equipment you'll need on the outside. Your uniform is just the beginning.
In semi-pro football, along with your uniform, you need special protection for your body:
- shoulder pads
- mouth guard
Ever since the development of the game, head injuries have been prevalent in football, and every year there are 300,000 incidents of concussions at all levels of the game [source: Berler]. Today's football helmets come designed with safety features to prevent concussions.
It's incredibly important to invest in a good helmet. It's protecting your head, after all, and you don't want to use your 10-year-old high school helmet. Look for helmets that have shock absorbers, polycarbonate shells, a proper ventilation system and foam inserts around the sides, where most concussion-inflicting hits occur.
This kind of protection may cost a few hundred dollars, but it's worth it, when you're trying to prevent head injuries. Price isn't necessarily an indicator of safety, so make sure that you aren't spending $200 on a helmet that will barely protect your skull.
And make sure your shoulder pads fit properly, or they don't offer any protection.
Be prepared to pay for this equipment yourself, though you may be lucky enough to be on a team that will provide some of your gear.
Equipment isn't the only thing you'll potentially pay for as a semi-pro player. How much do you really love this game?
In addition to expecting you to provide your own equipment, many teams also require you to pay dues. The costs vary from team to team and could amount to a few hundred dollars a season. Luckily, your dues don't always have to come out of your own pocket. Many teams allow you to find sponsors to cover the cost.
Some teams also have a community service requirement, at times putting their brawn to good use. The Southern Maine Raging Bulls offer a moving service for single mothers and the elderly who need help with large items. Whether it's helping out a couple of hours a month or at a semi-annual event, you may need to budget extra time to fulfill this requirement.
Travel is an inherent part of the sport, and players should expect to cover most of their travel costs for the half of the season they're traveling.
Practices, community service, travel. It sounds like a lot of time. How much of your schedule will semi-pro football dominate?
Semi-pro football can easily take over your life, but those who love the sport won't mind that it does. During winter training, you can expect to practice two to three times a week after work for a couple of hours at a time. During the season, you're packing in regular practices and viewing films to learn strategy. Games are on Saturdays, so if you have to travel, football could take most of your weekend. If your team makes the playoffs, that could mean additional travel during the month of July.
Still, for many men and women, it's a small price to pay for the unusual camaraderie they find in a sport that attracts people from all walks of life.
Could your investment pay off with an invitation to play in the major leagues? Or is that a dream you need to bench?
Path to the Pros?
If you think that joining a semi-pro team is your ticket to play in the NFL or in the Canadian Football League, you're wrong. Semi-pro players mostly play for the love of the sport. Sure, an occasional player has moved up to the NFL. Sometimes these are players who are cut from the NFL but spend some time working on their skills before getting called back up. All the same, these incidents are truly the exception and not the norm.
In fact, you might experience the opposite: Some players retire from the NFL but still want to play, so they join a semi-pro league just to stay in touch with the sport.
At any rate, it's best to set your expectations to make your semi-pro career a hobby -- one that allows you to experience teamwork with a diverse group of people who come together for their love of the sport.
Funny intramural team names can make recreational sports that much more fun. Learn about 10 funny intramural team names at HowStuffWorks.
More Great Links
- Axline, Courtney. Quarterback, Iowa Xplosion. Personal interview. July 28, 2011.
- Berler, Ron. "Two New Football Helmets Do Battle Against Concussions." Wired Magazine. July 21, 2008. (Aug. 3, 2011) http://www.wired.com/gadgets/gadgetreviews/magazine/16-08/st_helmets
- Bouchard, Jim. Coach, Southern Maine Raging Bulls. Personal interview. July 27, 2011.
- Cagan, Joanna. "A League of Their Own." Village Voice. Dec. 19, 2000. (Aug. 3, 2011) http://www.villagevoice.com/2000-12-19/news/a-league-of-their-own/
- Clark, Jerry. "Love of the game fuels football players to keep on playing." YourPlum.com. July 21, 2011. (July 29, 2011) http://www.yourplum.com/node/11846
- Dorksen, Aaron. "Morris hopes to bring semi-pro football back to area." The-Daily-Record.com. July 20, 2011. (July 29, 2011) http://www.the-daily-record.com/news/article/5068906
- Easterbrook, Gregg. "Virginia Tech helmet research crucial." ESPN. July 19, 2011. (July 29, 2011) http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/page2/story?page=easterbrook-110719_virginia_tech_helmet_study&sportCat=nfl
- Greene, Alicia. Lineman. Boston Militia. Personal interview. July 28, 2011.
- Miller, Michael G., Jeremy J. Herniman, Mark D. Ricard, Christopher C. Cheatham and Timothy J. Michael. "The Effects of a 6-Week Plyometric Training Program on Agility." Journal of Sports Science and Medicine. No. 5. Page 459-465. 2006. (Aug. 3, 2011) http://www.jssm.org/vol5/n3/12/v5n3-12pdf.pdf
- Salmons, Claire. "Building character in a West Oak Lane-based semi-pro football team." Newsworks. July 20, 2011. (July 29, 2011) http://www.newsworks.org/index.php/flexicontent/item/23369-opening-day-a-character-builder-for-a-west-oak-lane-based-semi-pro-football-team/
- Workout of the Week. "What is the Best Workout For a Football Player?" Bodybuilding.com. (Aug. 3, 2011) http://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/wotw104.htm