The Billings Outpost

Semi-pro football arrives in Laurel

By MARTIN MULL - For The Outpost

LAUREL – Psst! Hey, did you hear? They’re playing football over in Laurel this spring.

Grownups. Playing real football. Outside.

No, it’s authentic. With helmets, pads and uniforms. The works. Actually, brand spanking new unis, sharp ones, purple and black like the Baltimore Ravens. They’re playing over at that new high school field. With the nice turf.

No kidding. And these dudes really hit, more than just weekend warrior-types. Hit hard, probably a notch above high schoolers, but not on par with the Rocky Mountain College football games seen in the fall.

The new gridiron presence call themselves the Laurel Loco Express. They’re part of a semi-professional football union, the Rocky Mountain Football League, that’s been around in the western United States since 1997. The Loco Express are part of a 16-team division within the league made up of four Montana teams, and teams from Idaho and Utah. They play an eight-game schedule, with the top teams going on to playoffs to determine a champion.

The team and the league are interesting.

First of all, the term semi-professional is anything but. It seems to be a name from the past when players actually earned a few bucks to play on weekends. Not so now, where players don’t earn a dime, but rather pay to play.

Pay to extend high school glory days. Or catch a college recruiter’s eye. Or some professional outfit. Or because they are jobless and simply have nothing better to do. Still nuts to hit and be hit has a lot to do with it.

The Laurel players pay the team $300 to compete. The fee pays for their uniforms and travel expenses for four away games. Padding and a helmet will cost players another $500-$800. Most played high school football; a few have some college experience.

The Big Sky teams also include squads from Great Falls and Missoula. The Billings Bullets, a possible budding rival to the first-year Laurel team, are in their third year of existence [the local teams play their games outdoors and are not associated with the Billings Wolves and the Indoor Football League, due to begin play next year]. The two teams met this past Saturday, with the Loco Express spanking the Bullets, 40-0. They don’t care for one another. More on that in a bit.

The team in turn must pay the league $1,400 to complete, another $1,800 to the Laurel school district and game officials for each home contest. Not to mention player and coaches’ expenses for four upcoming lengthy road trips to Western Montana, Idaho and Utah. They generate income from home game gate sales, concessions and local sponsors.

Loco Express head coach Ken Blankenship, who was instrumental in starting the Laurel franchise, says the team’s operating budget will be around $40,000 for the season. Blankenship, who played high school football in Tennessee, but never college, has coached semi-pro, indoor professional football, high school and some small college football for the last 26 years, all the while working full-time jobs, which now includes sales in the air conditioning and heating industry.

Blankenship says he simply loves the game, can’t let it go, while also mentioning it would be nice to leave the normal working world and someday head a college team, or be part of an National Football League staff. Next year he’ll be the defensive coordinator for the first-year Billings Wolves, the indoor pro guys. He had the same designated slot in 2012 for a planned Billings indoor pro team that never materialized.

That’s the shaky low-end football coaching environment he’s part of. The non-paying Loco Express post keeps a string attached, a flickering candle lit. And he’s fine with it for now, he says.

As are his players. Young working adults, or most, between 19-35, who still want to run, block and tackle on the side.

Zeth Roberts is a 28-year-old, 340-pound mechanic/offensive lineman for the Loco Express. He played some high school football in his hometown of Worland, Wyo., but never achieved as he feels he could have.

“This is like a second chance for me to play football, because I didn’t really put the effort into it when I played in high school,” Roberts said recently during one of the three team weekly practices. “Coming to Billings was a chance for me to get out of my hometown and be on my own.”

Despite working beneath cars for hours during the day, he looks forward to the late afternoon team practices. He says work can be make him mad at times and smashing some defensive linemen seems to let off some of the steam.

“Of course, come Monday, I’m pretty sore after games on the weekends. I can hardly bend,” Roberts noted.

Jesse Bruce is originally from Cincinnati, Ohio. The 30-year-old wrestled in high school and played football. He had aspirations of going on to Ohio State to grapple and play football for the famed Buckeyes, but a broken neck incurred while wrestling killed that dream.

He ended up never going to college, but hooked on with the carpet cleaning company, Stanley Steemer, who moved him to Billings in their management program. He now runs the Billings office, but single, he missed home and football.

“The team is my family out here,” Bruce said. “When I came out here, I didn’t know anyone, so the common theme for me was football. That’s the connection; they are my brothers, and they have taken me in as a family.”

Bruce, who plays several defensive positions, was a Billings Bullets last year, before jumping ship over to the Laurel team this year.

Laurel fans remember 27-year-old Corey Willis as a football and wrestling standout for the Locomotives a few year back. But he missed out on a Laurel High School state football championship season due to injury, so now is his chance to shine for his hometown folks some nine years later.

Making practice can be a chore. Willis teaches physical education out in Pryor, then comes back to Billings to coach football and wrestling at Billings West High School, and also at Will James Middle School.

I miss it,” said the hard-hitting Willis, who plays fullback and defensive line for Laurel, when asked why he still plays full contact football, along with a packed teaching and coaching schedule. “It just brings out the excitement, plus I’ve got good [medical] insurance.”

Unlike Willis, 26-year-old Tyler Hopkins is unemployed. Like Willis, he also played football for Laurel High School years back, and now he too has a mulligan to crack more heads.

“What do I do?” Hopkins replied when asked about work. “I play football apparently. Right now, I’m free and clear. I’d love to work, but I’m unmotivated, so I don’t work. So, now, I play football.”

And he looks the part. Brian Urlacher bald and with taboos, Hopkins says he’s just plain too mean to play offense.

Willis and Hopkins are two of several past Laurel standouts playing for the Loco Express bringing some hometown interest in the team. The team’s home opener against a Logan, Utah, squad three weeks ago drew 1,500 paying fans. Six hundred fans watched the Laurel vs. Billings match last weekend, a slight disappointment, says Coach Blankenship. He thought the “bad blood” between the two teams would generate more gate, perhaps maybe in the future when the two again meet at Daylis Field in Billings for their final game on Jun 7.

Blankenship was an assistant coach with Billings Bullets last year. He says several key players were disgruntled with the head coach and pushed Blankenship to form another team. The Bullets guys looked at the move as treason, says Blankenship. Oh, well.

Thus, the formation of the Loco Express and the makings of a rivalry between the two teams. Which never hurts fan interest.

So, psst. They’re playing football over in Laurel this spring. Grownups. Next home game is this Saturday vs. the Montana (Missoula) Blaze.

Might be worth a look.

Copyright 2012 Wild Raspberry Inc.

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