June 13 at Atlanta Prime 7 p.m.
June 20 vs. Atlanta Red Villians 7 p.m.
June 27 at Classic City Tigers 7 p.m.
July 11 vs. Henry County Horsemen 7 p.m.
July 18 vs. Classic City Tigers 7 p.m.
July 25 at Atlanta Red Villians 7 p.m.
Aug. 1 vs. Atlanta Prime 7 p.m.
Aug. 8 at Henry County Horsemen 7 p.m.
Aug. 15 vs. South Georgia Stars 7 p.m.
Aug. 22 at Berekely County Cardinals 7 p.m.
For more information visit: www.gainesvillegladiators.org
Walking off the field after winning a national title at Valdosta State, Twion Shealer thought his football playing days were behind him.
With no offers to play in the NFL or any other professional football leagues, Shealer took off his helmet, pads and cleats and turned to a life without football.
"I though it was the end of the line," said Shealer, 26, who won a state title with Commerce High.
A year and a half went by and although Shealer wasn’t playing anymore, he still had a love for the game. Then he got a phone call.
A friend of his told him about the United South Football League, a full-contact adult football league that could use players of his caliber. That call came four years ago, and Shealer’s been playing in the league ever since. And instead of getting paid to play football, he’s actually paying to play.
"You got to have a certain type of love for the game because not everybody’s gonna do this," Shealer said.
He doesn’t have to look far to find peers with the same love of the game. Shealer is one of 40 members of the Gainesville Gladiators, a team that moved to the area from Loganville, shed its former name of the Georgia Pride and will open the 2009 season June 13 against the Atlanta Prime.
The Gladiators are one of 22 teams that make up the USFL, a league that has been in existence for four years and according to Gainesville head coach and co-owner Nathan Stephens is "definitely not weekend warrior football."
"You have guys doing this because they love the game and then there are a select few that still have the opportunity to go out there and do something in football," said Stephens, who was an All-Area lineman at North Hall.
One of those players is Shealer, who earned a tryout with the Arena Football League’s Chicago Rush last year. Another is Nathan Murphy, a 25-year-old from Sylacauga, Ala.
"I had offers to tryout professionally after college, but then I broke my ankle," said Murphy, who coaches track at Woodward Academy. "After that I thought my career was over. I searched the Internet and found this league and now I’m trying to get back to where I was."
It didn’t take long for Murphy to get a tryout.
His first year was in 2008 with the Pride, and early this year he received a tryout invitation from a team in Italy, but the timing wasn’t right, since he is just four weeks from getting a degree from DeVry.
"Right now, I feel like I’m where I need to be," Murphy said.
Where he hopes to be is playing in the Canadian Football League, and if not there, then overseas. Either way, he’ll be happy.
"It’ll mean a lot to me and also my family because they haven’t gave up on me," he said.
That’s what the USFL is all about. Providing former college and high school athletes a chance to still compete, and while his playing days are behind him, it gives Stephens a chance to change lives.
"If I impact one person’s life over the existence of this, I feel like I’ve done a little something right," Stephens said.
That goal, as well as owning a team with little to no recognition, comes with some obstacles.
The main one is scheduling, as every player has a career or family that come before playing recreational football. While the Gladiators have 40 players, only 20 or so are able to attend practice.
The other obstacle is where to practice and play. The Gladiators were fortunate enough to build a relationship with the YMCA that allows them to practice there, but the first-year franchise is still in search of a place to play home games. As of now, it looks like although their team name is the Gainesville Gladiators, they’ll be playing their home games out of Hall County.
"There was a prior team out here in Hall County that really did a disservice to the level of football we play," Stephens said. "They burned a lot of bridges and its making it tough on us in Hall County.
"I never realized it would be this hard."
With no prospective home field in place, Stephens said his team may have an opportunity to play at Monroe Area, but if not, they’ll be forced to play doubleheaders at every away game.
Overcoming adversity and getting a second chance is the backbone of the USFL, and Stephens knows that not having a home field is just another obstacle.
"If we show the community what we’re about hopefully we can find a way to change their minds," he said.
Stephens hopes that with that will come an influx of local athletes comprising his roster, and one day he sees his entire team encompassing former Hall County athletes.
Until then he’s more than happy to coach a group of guys who love football.
"There’s some people who dedicate their whole lives to playing this," Shealer said. "For some people, this will be the last time they play ball."
Is that the case for Shealer?
"I hope not," he said. "But if it is I can accept that."
After all, there was a point in his life when he never thought he’d play again.