Following the NFL lockout, the phrase "playing for the love of the game" is one that may be becoming lost in the pro game. But throughout the summer and into the early weeks of the fall, Landry Stadium in Amesbury is home to a team composed of men who aren't paid to play, receive little media attention, and at the end of the day, the only reward is another notch in the win column. For them, their only reason to play is their love for the game of football.
The New England Hawks are a semi-pro football team playing in the Single-A North division of the New England football league. The team was established in 2000, and after bouncing around a few different locations in northern Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire, they have called Amesbury home for the past three seasons.
Mark Workman is playing in his eleventh year with the team and is also serving his first as the team's owner, after taking over for original owner, Jeff Bunnell. His roster is filled out by a wide age-range of players, with some having just recently graduated from high school, while others have already been to their 20-year class reunions. Despite having full-time jobs and sometimes families to take care of, they each find time to practice once a week and put their bodies on the line every weekend.
"Some guys are from right out of high school; some guys are local from right here in Amesbury," Workman said. "It's a working man's league; it's guys that are here on their own time to have a good time playing ball."
The Hawks have enjoyed some success, having won four championships in their eleven seasons. This year has gone particularly well. On Saturday, they looked to put the finishing touches on a perfect regular season, having won their previous seven games.
They pride themselves on their defensive ability, allowing just 29 points in seven contests. Defensive coordinator Mike Bernier, who also patrols the Hawks' secondary, has implanted a more elaborate defensive system than most would expect from a team that only gets to practice once a week.
"The scheme has been this year to put in a very basic base defense and then adjust to our next opponent's tendencies," Bernier said. "It helps in that guys know they need to be at practice to learn what they're going to need to know for that week's opponent."
Defensively, the Hawks draw a lot of their leadership from strong safety Dwayne Johnson, who is in just his first year with the team but spent the 2000-2001 season in the Arena Football League before tearing his ACL. Since recovering, he continued playing semi-pro football in Florida, winning three championships. He is now looking for a fourth with the Hawks.
Offensively, the team is developing a bit of a cult favorite, as running back Marion Wilder, an Amesbury native, is drawing the attention of defenses throughout the division and leaving local fans in awe with his speed, shifty feet and ability to break out a long run at any given moment.
"The Game Changer" is the moniker he has earned as a result of his play, which caught the attention of first-year assistant coach Paul Buckles, who has taken on the role of Wilder's mentor. The pair have long-term goals beyond playing for the Hawks, as they look to set up Wilder with personal trainers and move him up to the Triple-A division of the New England Football League, and from there, they hope to garner the attention of teams in the Arena Football League or Canadian Football League.
As for Saturday night's game, dreams of a perfect season fell short as the Hawks dropped a 20-16 thriller to the Northeastern Bulldogs.
Penalties and turnovers plagued the Hawks throughout the first half; they entered halftime trailing 12-0. However, momentum shifted in the Hawks' favor in the second half. After cutting the deficit to four, quarterback and Amesbury High graduate William Valenzi led the team into the red zone with just seconds remaining on the clock. Unfortunately, the Hawks couldn't convert and turned the ball over on downs. The Bulldogs were able to kneel the ball to run out the clock.
The loss should not have an impact on the Hawks' seeding in the playoffs, which begins October 8 at Landry Stadium. For more information, visit the team's website at www.nehawks.com.