Carolina Thundering Herd: ‘For most of us, this is our NFL’

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 13, 2019

By David Shaw

SALISBURY — The future wasn’t on display Saturday night at Catawba’s Shuford Stadium, but the past certainly was.

It was there, in that the Carolina Thundering Herd, descendants of the Rowan Rampage and unbeaten league-leaders in the semi-pro Central Carolina Football League, proved that playing football beyond high school and college can be a life sentence.

“There’s something about this team and this league that keeps you hanging on,” first-year coach Torrie Walker said, just moments after the Herd scored two second-half touchdowns and thwarted a fourth-and-goal pass in the waning seconds, securing a 14-8 victory over the defending national champion Pee Dee Vikings. “It’s real football, a true football experience. And even though it’s a non-paid league, we do hold tryouts and won’t put anybody on the field who can’t handle it.”

Anyone who thinks the CCFL is a rag-tag organization filled with the George Costanzas of the world — the could’ve-beens, the should’ve-beens — is in for a surprise. The league boasts an abundance of talented players who were true stars of yesteryear.

“These guys are from all over,” said Herd owner Phildel Kirk, a longtime Catawba groundskeeper who spends some $10,000 annually to keep the team afloat. “Some of them still have the dream, hoping to get an Arena contract or a CFL contract. Some are making up for lost time, missed opportunities. But most of them are here because they love the game. They’re giving back, but they’re getting something too.”

Cornerback Marcus House knows what Kirk means. At 42 — an age when most former athletes are doing something that involves a couch and a flatscreen — he remains a viable and savvy contributor. House was a defensive irritant for Livingstone College teams that won back-to-back CIAA titles in 1997 and 1998.

“I might be the oldest one on the team,” he said, flashing a smile that invites you along for the ride. “I’ve seen it all — the championship teams and the bust teams. These younger guys, they’re still trying to get to the next level, and we’re out here trying to give them that opportunity. But for me and lot of the others, this is our NFL.”

Other grizzled vets include defensive tackle Bobby Lee — the team’s Captain Quirk — and ever-popular linebacker Scotty “Double Nickels” Robinson. Lee graduated from North Rowan High School in 2003, has played on three semi-pro championship teams and still attacks like a 6-foot-1, 265-pound Buick-in-pads.

“I’m a problem, I’m a problem,” he repeatedly taunted the visitors from the Herd sideline. “I went through three offensive linemen before halftime. Three different ones tried to stop me and couldn’t. I guess I’ve still got it.”

Lee punches the clock Monday-through-Friday at Freightliner, but insists, “This is how I love to spend my Saturday nights. I still love playing football. When I stop, I’m gonna get fat and sit at home in my La-Z-Boy.”

Robinson, No. 55 on the roster and a 2005 Salisbury High grad, concedes he’s seen it all — and perhaps has seen enough. He starred at East Carolina University, played in four post-season bowl games and had a 2009 tryout with the Cleveland Browns cut short by a lockout.

“I’ve done some pretty extreme things with my body over the years,” said Robinson, who celebrated his 33rd birthday on Saturday. “Playing here is up there with the best of them. I’m just too old for this. I love to watch games on TV, but I don’t love doing this. This is rough.”

These days, Robinson works as a Salisbury police officer and school resource officer at Salisbury High School. He’s focused on the future and creating positive experiences for students and citizens alike. “I know the game passed me by a long, long time ago,” he said. “But this team is really good for our community. I’ll probably be 70 and still coming out here doing it.”

Wandering the Herd sideline was eighth-year wideout Aaron Holsey, another Joe Pinyan disciple and ’05 Salisbury graduate. He was nursing a shoulder injury and unable to play. “I do it for the love of the game,” he said. “It keeps you busy, keeps you young and keeps your mind right. Even though an injury has slowed me down, I’m still here.”

Not to be overlooked is former North Rowan standout Brandon Ford, a sure-handed receiver who spent the 2006 season on Catawba’s roster before an injury relegated him to the basketball team. His career seemingly left without saying goodbye.

“I didn’t get to finish playing college football,” he said. “Then I had to choose basketball over football. It was my only option. This is where I started, right here at Catawba. For me, this fills a void. It’s ideal.”

Of course, the CCFL has its share of young up-and-comers. There’s 22-year old linebacker Chris Phillips, who’s third-quarter sack triggered the Herd’s comeback Saturday. And 20-year old Ty’Kise Davidson, a 2017 West Caldwell graduate who broke his hip in a car accident following his senior season. “I’m not looking for money,” he said. “Just a stepping stone and a chance to get back on track. This organization keeps me in shape and exposed to college programs.”

Others like Ford, Robinson and former Catawba defensive end Kendall Dickerson have spent time toiling in the expanding arena league circuit. “I do play for money,” said Dickerson, a 2011 graduate who dressed for the Carolina Energy in Charlotte this past spring. “The best thing about (the CCFL) is the competitive edge here. We all play for the love of the game — some to finish our careers and others to give it one last ride.”

Ultimately, they all play for the memories, which come in assorted shapes and sizes, some brandished with bumps and bruises. Nobody ever said playing in the CCFL would be easy, only that it would be worth it.

“For a lot of guys, this is an outlet,” Walker concluded. “This is our freedom. We love the game and the tough competition. This isn’t Wiffle Ball. It’s full pads, a lot of hitting and a lot of fun. We play for a championship. For most of us, this is our NFL.”

• • •

The Herd improved to 3-0, despite falling behind, 8-0, at halftime. Quarterback Mike Roberts lofted a 15-yard touchdown pass Donnell Hammock late in the third quarter to make it 8-6 and Roberts — a recent inductee into the Kings Mountain Sports Hall of Fame — sprinted eight yards for the decisive score with 10:40 to go. Only two minutes remained when defensive back Eddie Shaw deflected a Pee Dee pass on fourth down from the Herd 13-yard line.

“Winning is still important,” said running back Jamal Tillman, a former ECU weapon. “As a competitor, it doesn’t matter if its tennis, badminton or Uno. You still play to win. Football is still football — green grass and white lines.”

The Thundering Herd will visit the Fayetteville Ducks on Saturday. It returns to Shuford Stadium Aug. 24 for the second of four home games, this one against the East Carolina Phantoms.