Faces of lockout: Semipro dreams

The NFL lockout has put players and owners in limbo. The ripple effects also are felt by people whose lives or businesses touch their teams. Here are their stories:

The lockout has spawned dread and disgust throughout most of this country's football landscape. Most. In some areas, it has sparked hope and forced us to remember why people play this game.

Brad Svenson, for one, has been planning to capitalize on the lockout for more than a year. Svenson, who owns the semipro Minnesota Dragons of the Northern Elite Football League, has tried to position his team as a source of replacement players should the NFL decide to play games without its unionized players.

Svenson secured the Metrodome as the Dragons' 2011 home field, a plan since scuttled by the building's roof collapse, and has built a relationship with the sizable stable of former Minnesota Vikings players who live in the Twin Cities. His coach is former Vikings cornerback Rufus Bess, who has led the Dragons to a 4-0 start this season. In previous years, former Vikings defensive end Willie Howard was in charge.

The NFL used replacement players for three games during a 1987 strike, but the chances of replacement games in 2011 appear remote. Commissioner Roger Goodell has consistently downplayed the idea. Even without replacement games, the lockout means potential opportunity for businessmen like Svenson and other owners in the 12-team NEFL.

"From a marketing standpoint, a lockout is great for me," Svenson said. "I tell people, 'This may be your only chance for football.'"

The NEFL has teams throughout Minnesota and Wisconsin for a 10-game schedule that ends in August. Crowds of up to 3,000 have shown up for games in western Wisconsin. Players pay an equipment fee of up to $300 and are subject to NCAA rules for amateurism because some players still have college eligibility. Indeed, the Dragons have players ranging in age from 18 to 40.

You could view the NEFL as an idealized form of what has very clearly become a business in the NFL.

I'm sure semipro players love the game; otherwise, they wouldn't subject themselves to twice-weekly practices and the punishment that goes with once-weekly games. And there is no doubt that some dream of an NFL scout wandering over to a game and discovering them.

Many of them are like Dragons quarterback Jason Johnson, a former Twin Cities high school star who played at Division II Charleston (W.Va.). "We have players who are playing with no health insurance and part-time jobs," Johnson said, "just because they are chasing a dream or because they love playing the game for fun."

In the end, of course, semipro players are more likely to get a tryout with the United Football League than the NFL. That's happened about 10 times in the past two years, according to Svenson. More than pursuing dreams, Svenson said, semipro football is about "the same motivation that kids have when they play.

"In the end, people want to friggin' win. They want to be part of a group of guys that got together and beat everybody in their path. That's why these guys play. We're competitive. We love winning. You play as hard as you can because that's a good feeling. My guys don't look at football in a financial sense or as a way to financial gain.

"The whole lockout is a ridiculous thing to them. We can all say the numbers, but we can't even fathom them. Our guys, all they want is a chance to play in front of a crowd, and have that feeling that goes along with winning."