One by one, they climbed the dilapidated cinderblock bleachers near the football field at Carrick High School, some of them missing the wooden bleacher portion. Trees surrounded the elevated field on all sides, making it impossible to see from the roads. The trees seemed to block out real life and wall in the dreams of those who assembled in the twilight, clinging to the chance to play competitive football for as long as possible.
The players walked up to their coach and handed him wads of cash.
"How'd you do, coach?" one asked.
He hesitated. "We'll be on the field Saturday," said Ed Brosky, the owner, creator and coach of the Pittsburgh Colts, the area's longest-tenured minor league football team. "We just hope when that check hits the bank on Monday we're all good."
He is joking, but such are the financial difficulties facing the team these days. Yet, after 31 years, the team not only stays in existence but stays competitive.
The players range in age from 19 to 39. Some are plumbing students, some auditors, some work with special-needs children, some work in medical school admissions offices. Football brings them together three times a week because they can't drag themselves away from the game.
"It's like a drug," said assistant coach Rob Modero, a former Colts player and the linebackers coach at Central Catholic High School. "It's like anything, it's like chewing tobacco, it's like drinking beer, it's like smoking cigarettes. You just get obsessed with it."
The Colts are 2-1. Their schedule always is in flux because teams fold and re-form constantly or can't afford to rent a field, hire referees and everything else necessary to hold a game. The game last Saturday was on, then it wasn't, then it was again.
Used to be, money was no issue. The Colts drew thousands of fans each game because the team attracted former big-time college players, received publicity from newspapers and TV stations and signed sponsorship deals. That's longer true. But Brosky's creation keeps chugging down the tracks because Brosky will shovel the coal himself when he must.
"Ed's been doing this longer than anybody around here," said offensive lineman Pete Geis, who at 39 knows his way around the region's semi-pro teams.
"He's nickel-and-dimed it for years. We've always been able to field a team, we've always had a field, officials still coming out. Somehow, he does it."
Brosky started the Colts in 1979. He played for Pitt's 1976 national championship team and snuck out of the team hotel Friday nights to play for local semi-pro teams until coach Johnny Majors found out.
When he left school, he continued to play for semi-pro teams in the area. He started the Colts when the other teams folded.
"I wasn't ready to divorce myself from this type of competition," he said.
Used to be, semi-pro leagues attracted college players on the fringe of playing in the NFL who needed to stay in shape. Brosky played with Tom Yewcic, Fred Jacobs and George Link from the Panthers' national championship team those first few seasons.
Those were the days, Brosky and Modero will tell you, but those days are gone.
So the players participate now because they love to play football, so much so that they stick around.
Like Wade Brown, the 11-year veteran.
The 34-year-old linebacker won PIAA championships in football and basketball at Duquesne High School, but never played in college. After losing his mother to cancer in 1998 and his father in 2000, he decided to return to football.
"It was therapeutic for me, let me take out some of my aggression, get my mind off things," Brown said.
"I think that's the reason why I'm still with it."
Brown works with special-needs children at the Mon Valley School in West Mifflin, and the fact that he plays football cements his status as a role model.
The team's quarterback is Paul Leitner, 37.The former Robert Morris player heard of the Colts from some of his flag football buddies. Five seasons ago, his first year, he felt his lower leg separate from his upper leg when a hit from a 300-pound lineman tore his patellar tendon. He's still playing. .
Geis, a former All-American at Slippery Rock, is the parks and recreation director of Ross Township. He's a married father of two who finds time to coach his 11-year-old son Billy's football team.
"Every practice is a fight with my family," he said. "My wife wants me somewhere, my kid wants me somewhere, but I got to go to practice sometime."
Geis played semi-pro ball in Virginia and for all of the teams near Pittsburgh. The Colts sucked him back into it when he brought his brother-in-law to a practice and saw a young player "chomping at the bit."
"I'm like, 'Man, I gotta put my pads back on and shut him up,'" he said. "I did. It's a disease. It's contagious."
Then there's kicker Jeremy Hollm, a 23-year-old auditor for KPMG. Hollm started kicking for his intramural team at Pitt and soon after kicked a 60-yard field goal. Eventually, teams conceded the touchback rather than make him kick off and then have to chase the ball down the hill behind the field.
Also among the Colts' young guys is Devin Wilson, the 27-year-old running back from Robert Morris. Michigan State and Syracuse recruited him hard, but he tore both hamstrings his senior year at Steel Valley High School. As a Colt in 2008, Wilson took a helmet to the knee and had reconstructive surgery last year. He returned to action last Saturday.
"Kind of don't like the fact that I'm risking my body for nothing, but I love to play football," he said. "I'm still going to give it a shot for a while."
Veterans and youngsters mix on the Colts. Tight end Brandon McWhinney is 19, running back Chris Loving 20. They're here to play and for no other reason, and they're here despite the costs. Playing a game costs $2,600; $1,000 goes to renting the field and $500 to the officials. When the Colts drew thousands, this wasn't a problem, but at last Saturday's game they sold 112 tickets at $8 each, a profit of $896. The rest of that has to come from the players, anywhere from $400 to $600 each per season.
"It's getting harder and harder to do," Brosky said.
"I contemplated not doing it this year, I really did. But the guys said they wanted to do it."
So, they make it work.
On Thursday before last Saturday's game they practice special teams. Partly because they need work, partly because of the available personnel. They come as best they can, working around jobs and family.
"Depending upon who you have show up at practice, that's what you work on that week," Geis said. "If you have more defensive players, then you're working on defense."
Last Saturday, the Colts outclassed the Lightning easily and win, 26-0, at Ambridge High School. They did not have their best day: Leitner took a helmet to the knee and left the game, and Wilson, in his first game back, dislocated his elbow making a tackle on punt coverage. The defense stifled the Lightning, however, and Brown returned a fumble for a touchdown.
Another game somehow thrown together, thanks to those players trudging up the bleachers and spending their income to play football, knowing that if they can't, the man who started it all 31 years ago will.
Bill Brink: email@example.com .