A Season With The Toughest Football Team You’ve Never Heard Of
The Boston Bandits were unknown in their own sports-crazed city until one of their players was allegedly murdered by ex-Patriots star Aaron Hernandez. Ever since, Odin Lloyd’s teammates have been using this tragedy — the team’s fourth death in the past few years — as motivation to band together and win a ring in his memory, all while shining a light on a gritty pay-to-play semipro league that has existed for decades on the outer fringes of organized sports.
June 29, 2013
Reporters and photographers fill the stands behind the Boston Bandits bench. They’re playing the Bay State Bucs in a semipro preseason game that had been planned in memoriam of Danroy “DJ” Henry, a Pace University football player and Massachusetts native who was killed by a cop in a New York City suburb in 2010. The media today isn’t here for the Henry family, but rather because Odin Lloyd, a 27-year-old Bandits linebacker, was found shot to death and abandoned in a dirt lot south of Boston two weeks ago.
After prosecutors pegged then–New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez as a suspect in the Lloyd case, the Bandits landed in the national spotlight. This morning, as outlets from the Boston Globe to ESPN would cover, three of Lloyd’s teammates carried his casket while sporting the same kind of crisp Kangols their friend always wore. With journalists and satellite trucks circling, a swarm of other Bandits, past and present players alike, accompanied them in black slacks and shimmering blue game jerseys. A few fought tears behind dark sunglasses.
The Bandits have faced tragedy before, though never so publicly. In the past decade, they also lost one player in a fire, another in a car crash, a lineman from diabetes, and a rookie who was stabbed in a street fight. For this game, players on both teams wear honorary bracelets, pins, and T-shirts with Lloyd’s number, 53. After trailing the Bucs for the whole game, though, a fourth-quarter rally by Boston is only enough for a 13–13 tie.
The rest of 2013 brought further disappointment, with a few exceptions. In one highlight, the league honored Lloyd and his relatives in a sideline ceremony before a midseason home game in which star Boston receiver Daryl Hodge, one of Lloyd’s pallbearers who also played with Lloyd in high school, scored the winning touchdown. No taller than 5 feet, 10 inches from his helmet to the bottom of his spikes, Hodge went on to become last season’s offensive MVP for the league.
Any hopes to channel their pain into a title, however, ran out after a charter bus the Bandits rented broke down twice en route to a championship game in Maine. After arriving only 30 minutes before kickoff and falling behind at the half, Boston lost their 2013 conference final by a touchdown.
There has been scant attention paid to the Bandits since June 2013, but with Hernandez going on trial next month, Lloyd’s name is back in the local news on a daily basis, almost always preceded by the words “semipro football player.” On one hand, the label illustrates the unsettling insult of an NFL millionaire killing an acquaintance who paid annual dues of $75 to play in an amateur league. At the same time, the vague description — “semipro” — begs more questions than it answers.
With football at all levels under increasing scrutiny and pressure, why would any sane adult — and there are players on the Bandits pushing 50 — endure such thankless hurt over the course of mandatory weekly practices starting in April, and Saturday games from July through early November? Unlike high school football standings, scores in the New England Football League aren’t even printed in the local papers.
UNTIL LLOYD’S DEATH, HIS TEAM WAS BARELY A FOOTNOTE IN THE STORY OF BOSTON’S PROFOUND SPORTS ALLEGIANCES.
Until Lloyd’s death, his team was barely a footnote in the story of Boston’s profound sports allegiances. Now, having become a symbol of a besieged pastime stripped of its trappings, the squad stands to represent much more — all while striving for the championship that evaded them last season. With the Hernandez murder trial in January, the Bandits continue to serve as a reminder that football can still be nothing more or less than an exhilarating game in leagues that are, as Hodge calls the NEFL, the equivalent of a “grown-man Pop Warner.”
April 12, 2014
It’s the first practice of the season, a serene urban Saturday, and players start arriving early to hang around. One has a Marine Corps sticker in his window. Another steps out of a pickup marked for a construction company, hops onto his tailgate, and begins taping his ankle. As they emerge and start walking around, players gossip, joke with one another, and begin to change out of their street clothes and into practice gear. I get innocuous yet curious looks from a few guys, but then I realize: While this is technically a public park, it is also the Bandits’ locker room.
The field where they meet during preseason is in the far reaches of Hyde Park between an industrial lot and a greasy brook, more than half an hour in light traffic from the Freedom Trail or Faneuil Hall. An occasional commuter rail screams by on rusted tracks, heading south toward Rhode Island or returning downtown, but otherwise this is as quaint a spot as can be found in city limits. Despite the lack of amenities, the Bandits make due with the resources they have; last year, the all-volunteer staff figured out how to record practice footage by fashioning a crow’s nest for a camera from a painter’s pole and a tripod. Players bring their own Gatorade, and piss in the woods.
The NFL is alone among major American pro sports in lacking an official farm league. While there’s recently been talk of need for more player development in the future, for now the NFL almost exclusively scouts college athletes. Meanwhile, the NEFL and other leagues like it thrive on the sweat of persistent jocks who pay to play. For the Bandits, that’s about $120 for uniform and equipment costs on top of the $75 in dues.
“Let’s go! Let’s go! Move! Move! Move!” Defensive coordinator and general manager Mike Branch is chummy with his players, but with his arms across his puffed chest and his baseball cap curled snugly around stylish rectangular frames, his piercing bark overpowers the occasional passing trains. He commands a dizzying array of drills for more than three hours, at the end of which Branch orders the entire group to do synchronized push-ups. He turns to his coaching staff, still speaking so the players can all hear him. “Isn’t it funny how some of them think we can’t tell who was working out in the off-season, and who was sitting around doing nothing?”
Among those who comprise the rosters of the 40 NEFL teams and the small orbit around them, the Bandits have a reputation as pit bulls with a penchant for accumulating penalties. In the words of one veteran foe from a rival team, “You don’t make plans for Sunday if you’re going up against the Bandits Saturday.”
In roughing young guys up during practice drills, most of the tenured players aggressively stare down the cubs like they’re testing their toughness. Co-captain Alvin Edwards, though, follows up collisions with encouraging words: “Now that’s what it is. That’s what the hell I’m talkin’ about!”
“I didn’t know what [semipro] was,” Edwards says after practice. In 2005, he searched the internet for local football teams and found that the Bandits practiced close to Dorchester, the neighborhood where he grew up with several other Boston players, including Lloyd. The 29-year-old Edwards is the lone older Bandit helping rookies carry pads from the field to the parking lot; he acknowledges it isn’t very glamorous, but says he “always just loved playing football.”
After graduating high school in 2005, Edwards took a security job at one of Boston’s convention centers, but still had the football bug, and found the Bandits online. After winning back-to-back championship titles with Boston in his first two seasons, Edwards left for a short time to play Division III ball at UMass Dartmouth. In that first year he stood among the leaders in his state NCAA conference in interceptions, but having already started work back home, he found the overall college experience underwhelming. In 2009, Edwards returned to Boston, where he now has a career as a youth services case manager. His college story is familiar: Before Lloyd came to the Bandits, he matriculated to Delaware State, but had to drop out after his financial aid fell through.
Moving cones out of the end zone, Edwards says while the team has been through the ringer, the anguish helps keep them together. “When you lose someone it hurts,” he says. “I think about a lot of the players who passed away. You think about them being on the field. I’ll see something go down and I’ll go, ‘Damn, Odin would have killed this dude. He would have come off the edge and killed him.’”
May 27, 2014
Branch, or “Coach Mike,” as the Bandits call him, is waiting for his team under the lights at O’Bryant High School in Roxbury. It’s their first midweek practice, held Tuesday nights from 8 to 10 p.m. Everyone is required to show if they expect to see the field on Saturdays, and Branch appears pissed that fewer than half the 70-odd players on the active roster are on time. “And what excuse do you have?” he says, only half joking, to one latecomer. “Aren’t you a teacher? Didn’t you get out of work four hours ago?”
Branch has been waiting on some of these players for more than a decade, having previously coached several current Bandits on this same turf as teenagers, when they were O’Bryant Tigers. Besides coordinating plays, he is also the general manager, which in the NEFL essentially means he runs the team and handles logistics. He’s also a mentor and father figure. Branch had been trying to get Lloyd, who’d been laid off by the power company and was working as a landscaper, to take the city firefighter’s test before he was killed. He stood up for his longtime player after he sensed that defense attorneys for Hernandez and the media were soiling his reputation.
“He used to drive his bike to practice,” Branch told the Globe after Lloyd’s body was discovered and the search for a motive had begun. “If he was a self-made drug dealer extortioner, he was doing a good job covering it up.” Branch should know. In addition to hailing from the notorious Bowdoin-Geneva neck of Dorchester, where the 42-year-old grew up during the deadliest years of the crack era, by day he serves as the chief probation officer in Brockton, a turbulent post-industrial city just outside of Boston, and has counseled criminal offenders in Eastern Massachusetts since the ‘90s. He was close to Lloyd; besides hailing from the same neighborhood, at 5-foot-11 and 220 pounds, Lloyd was Branch’s younger physical doppelgänger.
At a glance, the O’Bryant practice fields are an urban oasis, a sprawling emerald shelf of AstroTurf on a plateau that reveals a spectacular downtown skyline beyond an ocean of cold brick housing projects. Groups of teenagers are playing pickup soccer and football under the lights, and bony college students from nearby Northeastern University are circling a freshly painted track. Look, though, between the cracks underneath the battered benches, and there’s a scattered mess of broken bottles, empty nickel bags, and hypodermic needles.
Complementing Branch in management is head coach Olivier Bustin, whom the players call “Coach O.” They’re comparable in their commitment to the sport, and both say they feed directly off the enthusiasm and energy of the players, but the similarities seem to end there. While Branch can be heard from one end zone to the other, Bustin, a couple inches shorter than Branch and with curls poking out from under his beaten Bandits hat, is inaudible to everyone besides the players he’s communicating with at any given moment. Passivity, he swears, is key in coaching semipro.
“We found that players respond better to former players than to someone from the outside,” Bustin tells me before practice. He’s leaning on the bumper of his Honda CR-V, which is full of plastic bins holding assorted gear, and checking off names to figure out who still owes money for uniforms. Bustin, a supervisor for the state Department of Children and Families, volunteered to help Branch, an old friend, formulate a defense back in 1996. Three years later, after the players became frustrated with and forced out their first head coach, Branch convinced him to take charge of the entire staff, and to this day he handles everything from watching game tapes and devising strategies to renting buses for away games.
“This isn’t high school,” Bustin says. “This is grown-men football. There’s a big difference between getting hit by a high school player and getting hit by a police officer who had a bad day at work and is taking it out on you.” Having lost not just Lloyd but more than 10 others who moved, quit, or retired since last season, Bustin gives a cautiously optimistic preview of what’s ahead: “It’s a new team, a lot of new faces, a new system. It’s just a matter of getting everyone on the same page.”
Like Bustin, every player on the Bandits has a story about how Branch hooked them. For Greg Benoit, a former O’Bryant Tiger with Lloyd and four-year Bandit who relocated to New York last year, the coach’s force is strong enough to bring him back to Boston for Saturday games.
“Mike Branch [has] got me out of trouble [and] done a lot of big-brotherly type of things to get me on the right path,” says Benoit, a public high school teacher. Benoit started in the NEFL with a team close to the Central Massachusetts college where he played as an undergrad, but he says Branch couldn’t stand watching him play elsewhere and coaxed him into becoming a Bandit. “I wasn’t going to play this year with the move, but I was here for the summertime, played one or two games, and I couldn’t give it up,” he says. “It’s too important.”
June 28, 2014
Approaching Campanelli Stadium in Brockton, about 20 miles south of downtown Boston, I’m impressed by the number of cars outside and families scurrying about. I pay $8 for general admission and cautiously walk up a concrete staircase crowded with untamed kids and perturbed parents. There’s beer and one vendor with lemonade shandies. And then I pan down to the field, an unexpected dirt and grass diamond and…the Brockton Rox? Of the Futures Collegiate Baseball League? It’s the seventh-inning stretch; fans are singing, “Buy me some peanuts and crackerjacks.” I embarrassedly ask an usher if she knows where there’s a football game, and she points over the outfield wall and across the lot to a ghostly Rocky Marciano Stadium, where the Bandits are facing the Bay State Bucs in a rematch of the game they played after burying Lloyd last year.
Once in the correct stadium, I have no problem getting a seat at the 50-yard line in the warped bleachers. There are fewer than 40 fans on the Bandits side, mostly family members, and not too many more for the home team. The scoreboard isn’t working, and I ask a massive guy who’s sitting near me for an update. His name is Derek Wright, and he tells me to hold on for a moment as he verbally accosts players on both sides while enjoying a back rub from his girlfriend. Wright, who goes by the name Diesel, is a school police officer and mental health counselor; he packs a local football pedigree, with one brother who coaches for the Bandits and another sibling who operates the Bucs.
For the Bandits and their dozen competitors in the highest, AAA division of the 40-team NEFL, annual dues are $1,650 for established teams and $2,050 for new squads. That sum covers liability insurance, administrative fees, league awards, and schedules, among other expenses, then teams on their own have to provide the field, game equipment like yard markers and goalpost pads, a trainer and medic, and five officials at $90 apiece. Diesel says that costs are barely covered by dues, even combined with the average $5 entrance fees that semipro teams charge, but he says players and the coaching staff do whatever’s needed to make ends meet. “This is a working man’s league,” he says.
According to semiprofootball.org, there are currently more than 1,000 teams playing in more than 50 leagues across the country that identify as minor, semipro, professional development, or amateur. There are no specific qualifiers used to categorize certain designations, though in Eastern Massachusetts the term “semipro” dates back to when standout park league players were paid, decades before the NEFL came into existence and noted in its rules and regulations that nobody can draw a salary.
The Bandits are the latest in a long line of part-time warriors in New England. Before them, guys with names like Walter “Shorty” Sullivan powered clubs like the Charlestown Townies and the South Boston Chippewas in the Boston Park League, a city football and baseball program founded in 1929. At its peak, there were 228 teams comprised of more than 5,000 players. In 1941, a reported 25,000 fans jammed into Fenway Park for a championship game between the rival Chippewas and Townies, while Time magazine reported that 17,000 were on hand to see Charlestown with the title in 1959, when “one fan got so excited that he drove his Cadillac onto the field and rammed it into the goal posts until they finally fell down.”
Following a string of brawls in the 1970s that put fans at odds with authorities, as well as budget cuts, the final park league football championship game was held in 1984 (the league’s baseball arm is still active thanks to private funding). By then a separate overlapping federation called the Eastern Football League (EFL) had grown to include teams from across the region, some of which attracted Boston Park League expats. The NEFL was founded by jaded EFL players in 1994. Though it took the league six years to grow to 14 teams, competition became stiff by 2000. In an NEFL rarity, one team, the Bellingham Minutemen, even boasted three retired NFL players, including New England Patriots Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Grogan. The Bandits were established in 1995 and have made the playoffs every season since, including four years when they won a championship trophy.
I learn about the roots of local semipro from Diesel and a man named Lawrence Kelly during halftime in Brockton. I spot Kelly in his polo shirt and khaki shorts beside the Bandits bench, a sideline pass hung on a lanyard around his neck. He’s not a coach, though — as a criminal defense attorney and former corrections officer, Kelly says he’s counseled players off the field. “I just started as a fan,” he says, his shoulders shrugged and palms turned up. “Sponsoring and helping here and there. We’ve had some guys who have had little difficulties over the years. We also have guys on the coaching staff who work in the courts and as probation officers.”
Kelly played offensive guard for a Dorchester club in the ’70s. “It was much dirtier,” he says of the Bandits’ park league predecessors. Since its inception 20 years ago, the NEFL has followed NCAA regulations, with “certain modified rules to further protect players and enhance play” (for example, there’s no downfield blocking below the waist outside the legal clipping area, 3 yards to either side of the line of scrimmage). Kelly continues: “All the line techniques that I used are illegal now. We were taught and trained to hit headfirst, come up with your arms and drive with your legs. There’s no legal hitting with your head now, but that’s how we were taught. We bulled our necks, we came up, we hit head to head.”
His occasional legal assistance aside, Kelly says he’s proud of how the Bandits conduct themselves, particularly guys like Edwards who work with young people. “We’ve got a guy that just got out of the can, a guy who’s an engineer, we got an architect, we got a probation officer, we got a telecommunications specialist, we got a rubbish man,” he says. “These guys go to their day jobs, and then they get out, and they go to physical therapy, then they come back and play again. … There’s no insurance. They bring their own water. And [they] get hurt. … And yet, anybody on the sidelines who played the game, if they could get one more season, they’d get one more season.”
Diesel is still at it. This summer the 47-year-old is playing quarterback for an EFL team in Southern Massachusetts. In a career spanning four decades, he’s accumulated a fistful of championship rings, but still won’t retire, and he’s not alone in that legacy class. One NEFL lineman played into his sixties, until retiring five years ago, while the starting Bandits running back, Jadiem Brooks, is in his 18th season. Brooks is about 5-foot-10 with a clean-shaven head and a neat goatee that circles his upper lip. His bulging lat muscles lift his shoulder pads to the ear holes on his helmet, the result, he says, of concentrating on intense lifting between seasons that specifically bolsters weak or lagging facets of his game.
A wide receiver from Brockton powers into the end zone and secures a Bucs shutout. Diesel stands to shout, arms the width of mayonnaise jars waving in disgust, his gold link bouncing off his chest. He turns to me: “How did he not dive at his legs?” Then calms down. “This is the kind of BS I’m talking about. I know guys who will tackle you in the end zone just because you made it to the end zone. As we get older, these guys have to understand that they shouldn’t just do it to stay in shape. Do it so you can win.”
July 26, 2014
Coming off a 15-0 opening week win on the road last Sunday, tonight, in their first home game, the Bandits face the Metrowest Colonials and their ballyhooed quarterback, James Suozzo, who is the talk of NEFL sidelines, coach and player chatrooms, and team Facebook pages on account of a past invite to a New York Giants mini-camp. It doesn’t take much in the way of NFL accomplishments to get a rep in this league; Suozzo is a roofer by day, and has tried out for a few Canadian football teams with no luck. Nevertheless, about 50 or so folks have forked over the $5 admission, and a gaggle of younger fans climbed into the English High School grandstand from the street side.
Linda Lockhart, who the players call Miss Lock, is at the 50-yard line belting, “This is Bandit country!” through a bullhorn. Her brother Alan started coaching for Boston this year, but she already knew a lot of players from her brother’s past involvement with other clubs. Alan played for years before retiring due to back injuries, and most recently coached for the Randolph Oilers in the EFL. Miss Lock works for the public health department by day, and spends her Saturdays in the summer and fall harassing referees. “Sometimes,” she tells me, “it makes the opposing team not pay attention to their plays because they’re wondering what I’m going to say.”
Miss Lock won’t tell me her age, but I’m guessing that she’s in her mid- to late forties. She wears her hair short and natural, about two and a half inches and perfectly neat on all sides, and wraps her knuckles full of gold rings around the grip of her bullhorn. “I don’t like a quiet sideline,” she says. Besides volume and energy, Miss Lock also lugs a cooler full of Gatorade and water to games. “These guys have full-time jobs, wives, kids, girlfriends,” she says. “I do whatever I can to support.”
With all the ills that have befallen the Bandits, I ask Miss Lock why people like her brother keep on leaving other teams to wear the blue and yellow. “They have a nice camaraderie,” she says. “They have a love for each other, like how they came together after Odin passed away. They were really trying to bring a championship home in his memory. Everything is clicking, but there are moments, like when someone mentions O[din], that kind of take away a little bit of the steam.”
Every time the Bandits advance, Miss Lock turns her bullhorn upward and exhales across the speaker like a cowboy would a smoking gun barrel. “You better know!”
The Bandits spring to life in the second quarter as Brooks, the 18-year veteran running back, scores. Two more touchdowns follow for the home team. The Colonials push back enough in the second half to shrink the lead, but in the final minutes, Edwards intercepts a pass at the goal line, and the Bandits punt. Colonials QB Suozzo tosses one final Hail Mary, but Edwards snags it for his second interception. Bandits win: 21-14.
The nail-biter doesn’t make the news. The following Monday, however, a photo of Bandits safety Cliff Anderson appears in the metro section of the Boston Herald. Hours after beating the Colonials, Anderson was sleeping in his Cambridge apartment when a nine-alarm blaze spread up his block. After jumping out of bed and hurdling across the street, he ran back into the burning building and sprinted through the hallways, banging on doors and ringing bells. In the picture in the newspaper, Anderson is in the Patriots T-shirt he went to sleep wearing, standing with his brother.
Aug. 9, 2014
Before kickoff at English High School, I stop in for some beers across the street at Doyle’s, a wood-floored watering hole with high tin ceilings and wall-to-wall kitsch that’s famous for serving political animals like Tip O’Neill and the Kennedys. I used to live nearby and have spent countless weekends at Doyle’s, but even though Bandits games, illuminated by blinding stadium lights, are on full display through the front window, I’ve never heard a word spoken about them amid the nonstop Red Sox, Bruins, Patriots, and Celtics chatter. I tell a bartender I know that I’m pregaming for the Bandits.
“Ya shittin’ me,” one old-timer says. “I always thought they was in high school a sumthin’.” A few of them show interest in the NEFL, but when I offer to buy tickets for everyone, they instead decide to stay put and watch the Red Sox lose on TV.
“Lowell is our big rival.” Coach Bustin explains the stakes of today’s game in the parking lot. “It’s 17 years — this is the 24th time we’ll be playing them. They lead the series 10 to 13, but we’ve won four out the five Super Bowls we played them.” In the Super Bowl Boston lost to Lowell, back in 2002, Bustin says, “the Bandits had won, but then a referee put a second back on the clock.” He talks like it happened yesterday. “Lowell threw a 60-yard touchdown pass to win the game.”
It’s a cool evening, and the Bandits have an edge throughout the first quarter. They’re playing poorly overall though, and it reflects in the attitude of some of the hotheaded players. A Boston lineman screams at a ref, and the team is penalized 15 yards. Before the Bandits can regroup, in the third quarter the running back from Lowell squeezes past some yellow helmets and trucks 70 yards for a touchdown. Branch flips: “That is unacceptable!” Bustin walks toward the huddle tugging at the brim of his cap.
“We Will Rock You” cranks over a crackly portable speaker to start the fourth quarter, and the crowd begins behaving like fans should in a grudge match: yelling, ruthlessly haranguing the other team. Hodge returns a punt for more than 50 yards, then the Bandits run for another touchdown, then intercept a Lowell pass, and go on to win 21-6.
The batteries exhausted in her bullhorn, Miss Lock leans back and exhales loudly, “So much for our archrivals.” She makes a giant downward swatting motion with her open palm, as if to banish Lowell from the field.
In the parking lot, there’s a large barbecue smoking, and hatchbacks have been transformed into a tailgate party. Miss Lock twists open her Ciroc vodka and passes me a cold Corona. Coach Branch sees me with the beer and hands me a bottle-opener key chain with the Bandits logo on it. Rookies who stayed quiet early in the season hang around to celebrate. By the baseball field off to the side, a couple of Lowell players laugh with Boston guys, a few of whom used to play for the Nor’easter. Two of them find relief on a green park bench, where they untie their cleats and inhale mountains of rice and beans high enough to make the flimsy paper plates curve like tacos in their hands. I’ve walked around after wins before, caught a glimpse or two of post-game celebrations, but this is my first personal summons to the locker room.
Aug. 16, 2014
For my first out-of-state game of the season, I drive two hours into Connecticut to watch Boston play the Hartford Whalers (not to be confused with the beloved, defunct hockey franchise of the same name). But several Bandits didn’t make it: One lineman couldn’t leave work early enough, another few had family commitments, some skip away games altogether. “We had a couple of starters whose cars broke down,” says Kelly, the team booster and attorney. “That’s not something you typically see in the NFL.”
While the Bandits are stylish city guys, from their muscle cars to flashy cleats and bright canary helmets, the Hartford team is relatively podunk, their grays and greens as lifeless and depressing as their post-apocalyptic playground. The burnt grass field belongs to a stained-brown high school, which sits on the wrong side of the tracks across from University of Hartford housing and amid a maze of seemingly abandoned housing projects. The late-summer sun, clouded by haze, hangs over a sagging, hopeless tree line.
As usual, there’s no toilet, sink, or changing room. The team also didn’t bring enough water or ice, and there isn’t any sign of an oasis nearby. Miss Lock isn’t here today to bail them out either; in fact I don’t know any of the 40 or so spectators. I sit with the parents of Leigh Zancewicz, a 6-foot-3-inch defensive end who manages a neighborhood hardware store as his day job. Zancewicz is 34 and has played in the NEFL for five years. His father Mike notices me wince at a particularly rough tackle, and he says he often does the same.
“I’m always watching just to see that he gets up OK,” says Zancewicz. He respects his son’s lust for the sport, and understands that while Leigh’s tried staying in shape in other ways, nothing scratches his competitive itch quite like football. Still, the older Zancewicz clenches his teeth each time Leigh squats in his 3-point stance. “He’s had a couple of serious injuries but he just keeps on coming back, rehabbing. When you ask him if that’s it for his career, he says, ‘Yeah,’ but the next year he’s right back out there.” This season, instead of retiring, Zancewicz left Lowell to play for their rivals in Boston, where maturing bruisers like him comprise about half the roster.
After a slow start the Bandits take charge. Their quarterback throws an interception, but seconds later Hodge rips a Whalers pass out of the sky and runs it back for a touchdown. Hodge is congenial with teammates and doesn’t lambaste rookies for errors, but is also somewhat cagey; while most of the crew stands shoulder-to-shoulder on the sidelines, Hodge brought a folding chair to today’s game, and sits off to the side, almost meditatively.
Hartford gets aggressive in the final minutes, but the Bandits end up winning by a touchdown. One of the Whalers is roughed up near the end zone on the last play, and the medics have to haul him off on a stretcher. It’s not their best show of the season, now at the midway mark, but Boston’s been relatively healthy. There are the typical nagging pains: Bandits fullback Chavin Fagan, for example, tells me he’s just coming off surgery for a torn meniscus and ACL, the result of a lineman from another team landing square on his knee last fall. In the event a player is injured, the league doesn’t help with the medical burden, nor is there a multibillion-dollar overseer like the NFL to hold accountable. So far this year, though, no Bandits have been rushed to the emergency room.
Sept. 13, 2014
Things begin falling apart during a September home game against the reigning NEFL champion Connecticut Panthers. The artificial turf feels like wet cement in the downpour. Most of the players claim it doesn’t bother them, but their morale indicates otherwise. The same goes for the few soaked folks who came to watch. Even Miss Lock is nowhere to be found; I saw her at the last practice, where she stopped by to drop off a check to cover guys who couldn’t pay for their own jerseys, but tonight’s nor’easter must have kept her home. All of the Bandits’ equipment and personal bags, tucked under a granddaddy oak tree, are sopping wet.
Players on both sides miss short and long passes alike. The Bandits kick a field goal to put them ahead 3-0 at the half. By the time the Bandits lose 14-10, after botching three consecutive attempts to score, the announcer is the last spectator standing besides four inebriated friends of the visiting team who fashioned slickers out of trash bags.
The loss at home begets humiliation the following week, when Boston gets shut out by the Southern Maine Raging Bulls. Prospects are grim, and the players are of little help explaining why. I turn to Tom Degnan, the team’s public address announcer, for his sense of what the problem is. A firefighter from Pawtucket, Rhode Island, Degnan maintains the NEFL website in his spare time, and during games keeps score, calls plays, and DJs during breaks. I pepper him with questions after a home game, as he’s carefully loading his personal PA system off a hand truck and onto a bright red pickup.
“The Bandits have always been a contender,” says Degnan, who also lends his baritone to local wrestling events, and aspires to announce an NEFL championship game. Semipro players and coaches, he continues, trade insults and gossip in chatrooms, often pegging Boston as underdogs. “A couple of the ‘experts’ have them high in the middle of the pack,” Degnan adds. “I think that’s an underestimation. They’re still looking for a ring for Odin Lloyd. This is unfinished business.”
Oct. 18, 2014
There are two cans of Tiger Balm on the coffee table at Jordan Wright and Alvin Edwards’ apartment in Mattapan, where some of the Bandits are hanging. As Edwards watches college football, Wright, an old friend and former teammate at UMass, applies the ointment to his legs and arms in preparation for their first playoff game of the year. Wright, who like Edwards and a lot of other Bandits is a youth counselor, planned on sitting out this season, but ultimately couldn’t resist.
One after another, teammates arrive at the door of the place they congregate on weekends. “Hey,” Benoit, the high school teacher, says to Edwards. “Is my grill still over here from that last barbecue?” Today’s conversation quickly turns to the team: refs who screwed them, the time they were disqualified from championship play after a Bandit was found listed on a roster in another league. Mostly they bust balls like cousins at a family picnic, with Wright and Edwards cracking on Leighton “Swizz” Lormeus, a bookkeeper for a collections agency, for being the lone guy in the room who doesn’t work for a nonprofit.
Sitting on metal folding chairs and couches with the television flipping between college games, the Bandits recount how they wound up in their team roles. “The free safety missed the bus,” Lormeus says. “I woke up and they were like, ‘Swizz, you’re gonna play safety.’” For Edwards, opportunity came in year two. “Somebody had to go to a wedding,” he says, “and I ended up getting player of the week [with] one interception and five tackles.”
Benoit, who moved away after last season, drove up from New York for the weekend. He parts his dreadlocks, places his head in his hands, and recalls a memorable game three seasons ago.
“MOST OF US HAVE BEEN CHASING A RING SINCE POP WARNER. THIS IS MY CHANCE.”
“Odin was right next to me,” Benoit says. “We just got off the bus and were walking. Marcus [Smith] had just joined the team, and Odin had a picture of us from high school. He said, ‘We didn’t win it then, but we’re gonna win it today.’” Benoit takes a deep breath. “We lost that game.” He exhales, inhales, exhales, inhales. “Most of us have been chasing a ring since Pop Warner. I’ve never won a championship at all, and a lot of guys on the team feel the same way. This is my chance.”
At English High two hours later, there are more spectators than usual, maybe 100 on the Bandits side, though a lot of them are drunk behind the fence atop the Boston bleachers, crushing beers and heckling their friends in uniform. “Where’s the fucking offense?” one belches. “Get rid of the quarterback!” another snipes. “Hey Swizz, you playing linebacker at 140 [pounds], man? That’s heart.” Even Swizz laughs a little.
Between sporadic rainfall and both the Bandits and the visiting New Hampshire Wolfpack being scoreless at the half, spirits are extremely low on the Boston side until Hodge returns the opening kick of the third quarter to the Wolfpack 28-yard line. Moments later, Jadiem Brooks, the 18-season veteran, scores. Later, the Bandits kicker rips a field goal long enough to clear the fence. A passerby picks the football up, cocks his arm, and lobs it back onto the field.
The Wolfpack score a touchdown, but miss the extra point that would have tied the game. Miss Lock left her bullhorn at home due to the weather, and is instead glued to her phone, which she’s using to keep in touch with her brother — after delaying back surgery all season, Alan’s orthopedists insisted that he go ahead with an emergency procedure. She keeps hollering, “Watch the fake!” Alan is still on the phone, waiting for updates. “Hold on,” she tells him.
As we both stand up, with less than a minute left, Edwards flies across the 50-yard line and nabs an interception. And the Bandits play on.
Nov. 1, 2014
After eight months, it all comes down to this — the coldest, nastiest day of the year, and that’s before we motor more than 100 miles north. A photographer and I are sitting in his car near a park and several housing projects, a central meeting spot off of the seven-mile Blue Hill Avenue corridor that connects Boston’s communities of color. Before any of the players arrive, a police car swerves across the street toward three teenage boys. We’ve only been here for five minutes, and already we witness a stop-and-frisk.
As the cops speed off and let the boys walk, we spot a Bandit walking in the punishing deluge, his yellow helmet glistening through rain and fog. Others start arriving at 1 p.m. — the usual succession of fast cars and big trucks led by a custom Mustang on reflective rims, a lifted pickup, and an Infiniti coupe driven by a lineman with a newborn who, after the game in Hartford, told me how hard it was going to be to play this season. Edwards fiddles over an unzipped gym bag, safely sandwiching a fifth of cognac between his helmet and pads. Win or lose in tonight’s league semifinal against the Southern Maine Raging Bulls, the Bandits have a long return trip home later.
Their dark blue coach is hardly Air Force One, but it’s nicer than the death trap that the Eastern Mass Seminoles, an EFL team with players who are noticeably younger than the Bandits, are boarding down the street. The Bandits rode a similar jalopy to their season-ending loss in Maine last season, and it broke down twice on I-95. The Boston guys wish the Seminoles good luck, then load their equipment in the big blue belly and board, some commenting about how happy they are the dilapidated charter isn’t theirs. Swizz, Edwards, and other upper-statesmen hold court in the back, while Bustin solicits 20 bucks apiece from everyone to cover transportation costs. One player is short the cash, and the coach says he can get him back another time.
After driving north in slush and grayness for close to three hours, the Bandits expect some relief once they arrive and unload. Despite being the same field where they lost to a different Maine team in last year’s playoffs, the Deering High School home of the Raging Bulls is more inviting than other NEFL facilities due to an equipment shed for visitors to use as a locker room. A few of the players mentioned this to me ahead of time, seemingly excited about the prospect of at least being able to change out of the rain. When they arrive, though, there’s a golf cart taking up most of the shack, and the Bandits can’t all fit inside at once, so Alvin and a bunch of others huddle around a kerosene heater they brought.
The Bulls are one of the top NEFL outfits, having outscored their opponents 352 to 60 this season. That includes a 28-point whooping of the Bandits on this field in September. Still, despite their powerhouse status, there’s no more than a dozen people in the Portland bleachers. The Bandits have even fewer frozen fans, though to be fair it’s unclear which team anyone supports since most have their mugs wrapped in scarves.
The field in Southern Maine is the prettier, almost suburban version of where the Bandits play — somehow cheerier than Hartford, even though it’s cold, raining, and dark here, and the game in Connecticut was on a perfect summer day. The sounds, however, are another story; by the time the local woman singing the National Anthem gets to “home of the brave,” I can’t hear anything besides a symphony of cacophonous grunts from the Bulls bench. One of the hyenas simply keeps on shrieking, “Lights out!”
After failing to capitalize on two promising plays, the Bandits fall behind 21-0 by the end of the first quarter. Their plight worsens after the Bandits quarterback is sacked and injured; out of other choices, Boston has to play a backup who is actually a wide receiver, and who hasn’t thrown a single pass in a game all season.
Edwards and even the typically reserved Hodge try rallying the younger guys, but any trace of enthusiasm is gone. Others pad the blow with humor: “It’s cold as fuck out here,” someone says by the gas heater. “At least the liquor on the bus is chilled,” another quips.
No one is excited to shake hands after a 41-3 shellacking, but even after losing, and with the punishing haul home ahead of them, there’s not the slightest whiff of regret in the air. His players kneeling at the 40-yard line, coach Branch applauds the Bandits for “a good fucking run.”
“Some of you will come out again … Some of you won’t.” Branch nods to Brooks, whose smooth head sparkles in the drizzle. The final run of his nearly two-decade career now over, and in devastating