For America's best football team (sort of), it's all about dirt fields, hostile fans, and dreams of glory in Canada.

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Buses were not made for football players. The Cleveland Lions pretzel into their seats like giant jack-in-the-boxes. Each toss and turn is a useless grab at comfort.

Everyone was supposed to be at the Lakefront Lines parking lot by 5 a.m. A half-hour later, the bus still idles as new-age jazz oozes from the speakers. "Man, what's with the Kenny G shit?" growls a voice from the back. "Turn this shit off."

The bitching persists as 6 a.m. approaches. They want the big silver crib to pull out, rock them to sleep. The bus goes nowhere.

"Who we waitin' for?" asks receiver Marlon Redmond. He clutches a pillow to his head. "Let's move this motherfucker and kill the lights."

Others pore over new plays. Linebacker Dave Schierbaum hazes Al Christian, imitating the team trainer's nasal, slightly lispy voice and the mantra he's forever repeating: "Stretch. Hydrate yourselves. I'm only one person, I can't tape everyone at once." Laughs roll up the aisle.

The bus finally grumbles to life after 6 a.m., climbing onto I-480 and slicing west toward Wisconsin. It's still dark. Ahead lies an eight-hour ride for tonight's game with the Racine Raiders. Eight hours of fitful shut-eye, watching movies, talking trash. Eight hours of feeling like rigor mortis has set in.

Such is the high life led by the No. 1 semipro team in America.

Last fall the Lions were runners-up in the Mid-Continental Football League, one of the country's strongest amateur leagues. This year, heading into Racine at the season's midpoint, they're 4-0, first in the MCFL, and top-ranked among 450 semipro clubs nationwide.

Who knew?

The press doesn't cover them. Sponsors don't covet them. Poetry slams draw bigger crowds. This, despite being the bluest-collar team in a Rust Belt town.

Consider: The Lions don't get paid to play. In fact, the reverse holds -- they shell out $200 apiece for the joy of smacking into other big sweaty men. In real life, they're teachers, factory workers, landscapers. Husbands and fathers. Regular Joes. The anti-Browns.

"They're not multimillion-dollar crybabies," General Manager John Armbruster says. "These guys work jobs, take care of their families. They practice two nights a week. There's no sauna, no Jacuzzi, no masseuses."

Nor, for most, are there thoughts of NFL glory. Quarterback Albert Wilhelmy smiles as he recalls his closest brush with the pros: serving as Tim Couch's body double for an ESPN promo.

At 29, Wilhelmy's life runneth over. There are the twin sons. The fourth-grade class he teaches at Rocky River Elementary. The master's degree in literacy education he's chasing. Not to mention the torn rotator cuff he's had to rehab for the past two months.

And still he's spending his Saturday on a bus to freaking Racine. "You're watching a game on TV and you think, 'I could still do that, I could have made that pass,'" he explains. "It's just a pure love of the game."

The Lions practice at Tremont's Clark Field, a mangy patch of grass in the shadow of the old LTV mill. Quarterbacks bark signals over the hiss of traffic along 490. Anyone needing to take a leak shuffles into the bushes along one sideline.

Head coach Rich Dial stares across the field and smiles. Screw the setting. Football's happening.

"This," he says, watching his squad warm up, "this is my game."

It's four days before the Racine tilt. Practice was scheduled to start at 6:30 p.m. Forty-five minutes later, players are still trudging onto the field. The field has no lights, and the city plans to spray for the West Nile virus at 9 p.m. "C'mon, guys!" an assistant coach yells. "You're burnin' daylight!"

"We ask them to give us four good hours a week," Dial says, referring to the two-hour practices held every Tuesday and Thursday. "They give us that, we give 'em a shot to win."

But the coach is no butt-chewing drill sergeant. His voice is calm and his face relaxed, even as a mohawked teen buzzes the field on a motor bike. If a guy's running late to practice or misses a game, Dial says, "He's probably working overtime or he's taking care of a family issue. That's what he should be doing. Those are the priorities."

Like the players, he and his 10 assistants toil for free. The absence of money lends amateur ball a vibe that's more extended-family than business. Players' kids romp on the sidelines during practice, passing footballs as their dads knock helmets.

Most of the Lions are too old of body to make the pros, too young in spirit to turn full-time fan. Nearly all played high school ball, and about half went on to college careers, usually Division III. Few starred at either level. They're a collection of leftovers, guys who are an inch short, a step slow -- or several. They're a black safety named Woody Allen and a white lineman named Don Cornelius.

Still, against odds longer than the equator, some believe they can make the show.

Sam Poucki lives with his folks in Parma and works at Sherwin-Williams. But that's just a job. His true passion is kicking the bejesus out of a football.

The 22-year-old paint salesman doubles as the team's punter and long-distance kicker, able to nail field goals from beyond 50 yards. At 6 feet 1, 275 pounds, Poucki believes his ample gut is the source of his strength. "If you got a little, you know, cushion," he says, slapping his belly, "it helps you with distance." The left-footer figures there must be an Arena League club that could use Morten Andersen's leg on Tony Soprano's body.

"Long as I can kick it farther than those skinny guys, I think I got a chance."

Schierbaum -- like Poucki, a Valley Forge grad -- has the opposite problem. He goes 5 feet 8, 190 pounds -- making him a linebacker trapped in a kicker's body. At Baldwin-Wallace, he proved size doesn't matter, earning preseason All-American and team MVP honors his senior year. His coaches raved. Scouts yawned.

So Schierbaum, 22, graduated in May with an eye on law school. But a "not that great" LSAT score told him the books should wait. He joined the Lions instead and now works out five days a week. In between he juggles jobs as a waiter, health club trainer, and landscaper. Sleep has become a stranger. All for the faint hope of freezing his jock off in the Canadian Football League.

"I think I could play in the CFL," he says. "It's worth a shot, isn't it? Law school isn't going anywhere."

Besides Ohio and Wisconsin, the nine-team MCFL has franchises in Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, and Michigan. The league stands out amid the hundreds nationwide. In most, including the Northern Ohio Football League, the level of play falls somewhere between sandlot and prison ball. MCFL games draw scouts from the Arena League, the CFL, and, when the planets align, the NFL.

Yet playing in a top amateur league draws about as much attention as being the world's tallest midget. Pro teams pan for real talent at Division I colleges. Everything else is Pop Warner.

A small number of semipro players have climbed to the NFL, among them the late Johnny Unitas and the recently retired Eric Swann. Two ex-Lions scaled the wall. Tim Starks caught on with the Minnesota Vikings in 1987. The Miami Dolphins added offensive tackle Alan Barnett to their playoff roster in 1999.

Three current Lions have almost tasted NFL nectar. Safety Jerry Adams went to training camp with the Bengals in 2000. Redmond, a fleet receiver with pipes as big as canned hams, scored a tryout with the Browns the same season. Three years ago, the Browns told offensive lineman Tony Chiaravalle that they might sign him in a pinch; the call never came.

Chiaravalle, 27, has played with two Arena League teams and another in the short-lived Spring Football League. He's worked out for several NFL scouts. His best stab at glory came in '99, when he tried out with the Dallas Cowboys. The coaches liked him enough to ask for highlight film. His agent took three weeks -- also known as forever -- to send the tape. The team signed another lineman. "I got a new agent after that," he says.

The St. Edward and Bowling Green alum joined the Lions three years ago. The club has been a home base as he's bounced from league to league, tryout to tryout. "You feel like you're in so many places and, at the same time, you're nowhere at all," says Chiaravalle, a special-ed teacher at Westlake High. "But the Lions, they always welcome you with open arms."

Dial will grab whoever he can get, whenever he can get him. He's partial to winning, having done his share during almost 30 years as a coach. That's 30 years of nail-biting -- wondering if his quarterback would show for a game, whether he'd have enough linemen. "You're never sure which 80 percent of the team is gonna be here," says Dial, 55, who works at Chrysler. "You always gotta have two plans: one for when all the right people come, one for when they don't."

He's found a way. Three state titles in the Northern Ohio League, as head coach of the now-defunct Cleveland Falcons in the '80s. Three more with the Lions as an assistant coach, before the team jumped to the MCFL in 1994.

The American Football Association, the governing body of semipro ball, inducted Dial into its Hall of Fame in 2000. The same year, the Lions lured him out of a brief retirement to be an assistant again. After the team fell short of the playoffs, Dial took over the top job last season and led the Lions to the MCFL title game. He wants the big trophy this year. He also wants Racine's scalp.

"I think we can beat these guys in their own house," Dial tells his squad. "Won't be easy. Gotta have a team effort."

Gotta pray everyone shows up.

Horlick Field is home to the Racine Raiders. For many Lions, this is their first time in Wisconsin. The first time they've seen a grocery store named Piggly Wiggly.

"Damn," someone says. "Piggly . . . Wiggly."

At 5 p.m., two hours before kickoff, fans already pack a parking lot next to the field. They're grilling and swilling -- and proof that in the MCFL, the smaller the town, the higher the football fever. In cities like Cleveland and Milwaukee, there's other stuff to do. In specks like Racine (population: 82,000) and Kokomo, Indiana (46,000), there isn't.

The Raiders are the New York Yankees of the MCFL. Formed in 1952, they're one of the country's oldest amateur football teams. They've racked up half a dozen national titles and twice that many league championships.

The team draws 1,400 fans a game, by far the MCFL's best average. Robust concession and merchandise sales afford the Raiders obscene luxuries, at least by semipro standards. Players don't pay team fees or travel expenses. Coaches sometimes fly to away games. Scouts spy on upcoming opponents.

Raiders board president John Wosyk turns a shade defensive when asked whether locals have anything better to do than watch the team. It's only a half-hour drive to Milwaukee, he points out. Less than 90 minutes to Chicago. And don't forget the annual Salmon-A-Rama, held on Lake Michigan and billed as the country's largest freshwater fishing contest. "We get people here because we put a good team on the field," he says.

But Wosyk does allow that fans enjoy one other aspect of Raiders games. Racine is the lone MCFL club that sells beer -- in plastic pitchers, no less. "It's only six bucks for one," he says, grinning. "It is a pretty good deal."

There's added bait tonight. At halftime, the Raider Alumni Club -- another semipro rarity -- will honor past players. The event helps double the crowd and reveals the team to be a town heirloom, passed from generation to generation. Parents filing in wear Raiders T-shirts, while their kids sport the jerseys of favorite players.

Jerry Erickson played defensive back and split end for the Raiders in the '60s and '70s. He recalls the 1965 Central States Football League title game. Some 7,000 fans ringed Horlick Field, standing 20-deep to cheer the team to victory. "This town loves its Raiders," he says. "Always has. It's a tradition."

The Lions spill out of the bus and huddle around Jenny Akeson. She got involved with the Lions a few years back, when her then-boyfriend played. He left; she stayed and became the team's statistician and unofficial "sister or mother -- one of the two." She reads off player names and numbers from a list, then flings them their jerseys.

The Lions invade the visitors' sauna-like locker room. Al Christian drags a splintered wooden table outside and begins wrapping players' ankles and knees. The trainer admits he knows nothing about football. But given that amateurs are as adept as pros at getting hurt, he's the team MVP. A few weeks ago, he provided first aid to a player -- now an ex-player -- who suffered two crushed vertebrae. "I admire what these guys are willing to do," says Christian. "This isn't touch football."

Nearby, offensive lineman Marvin Tolbert cases the Raiders' pregame drills. His tongue revs faster the longer he watches. "Look at these guys, how big and slow they are. Gasping for breath out there. I feel bad for 'em. I don't want 'em to get tired, so I can feel good about hurting 'em."

The four-year veteran is a true semipro -- he swears he'd stay with the Lions even if the Browns called. Which they won't. He's 28 and past his prime -- if he ever had one. He played a year in junior high and none at the University of Akron. More to the point, he cares most about his job in a group home, working with the disabled. Still, football fires up his searchlight smile. Tolbert got to the bus at 4:30 this morning, a half-hour before anyone else. He couldn't sleep.

"No way I'm gonna miss this damn game. This is football, man."

John Armbruster lingers at the far end of Horlick Field. The Lions' general manager tugs on a cigarette, his lungs filling with envy. Signs for Dominos, 7Up, and Miller Lite hang on the chain-link fence bordering the field. Behind one end zone, kids toss mini-footballs that feature the Raiders' cowboy-bandit logo. Adults sit in the bleachers, reading game programs published by the local paper.

"This is what you try to emulate," he says, his voice charred by decades of nicotine. "Get the city to rally around you."

The Lions are The Team That Cleveland Forgot. The club averages 150 fans for home games at John Marshall High. Its game program is a Xeroxed jumble, filled with copies of business cards that advertise bail bondsmen and discount carpet stores. It receives no money from concession sales; the high school runs the stand.

So when Armbruster looks around Horlick, he sees past the burned-out lights and weather-worn bleachers. He sees 2,700 butts in seats. He sees paradise. "We might not ever have anything like this, but I think we can get more people interested in us. We can generate excitement."

Armbruster, 57, is too modest to state the obvious: Without him the Lions would have lain down years ago. His history with the team dates to 1963, when he began playing for what was then the Cleveland Vikings. He returned to the club in 1967 after serving four years in Vietnam. A neck injury soon put him on the sidelines as head coach, and in 1970 he took control of the team after the owner committed suicide.

He's scrounged for backing ever since. His tin-cup rattling has never brought big coin, but it caught the ear of Maggie Burrows 30 years ago. Armbruster stopped in at Jack & Jill's bar one day in 1972 to sell tickets for a team raffle. Burrows, who worked there as a go-go dancer, offered to lend a hand. She sold all the tickets he gave her. A lifelong love was born.

The club joined the Northern Ohio League in 1978 as the Lions. Armbruster picked the name for its availability as much as anything else. He coached the team to four state titles in the weekend-warrior league, whose players were straight out of The Longest Yard. Bench-clearing brawls erupted every weekend. Losing teams would punch out windows of the schools where games were held. Refs nicknamed the league "The Sunday Funnies."

Less amusing to Armbruster and Burrows, the club's president, were the players who failed to ante up their $200 team fee. So in 1993, the couple folded the Lions. They revived the team a year later after making two crucial moves: Joining the MCFL, a league with a glossier image, and converting the club into a nonprofit.

These days, Armbruster handles the football details, Burrows the financial. Most mornings find Armbruster, a retired GM machinist, at Lions HQ, an old chiropractor's office in Old Brooklyn. He spends his time dissecting game film and manning the phone, checking up on players or rapping with Dial. Once a week, he washes dirty jerseys at a nearby laundromat.

A mile away at Ampol Hall, Burrows organizes twice-weekly bingo games, which fund a third of the team's $75,000 budget -- a puny figure compared to other MCFL clubs. The Lions donate the rest of the revenue to youth athletic programs and provide truckloads of food to charities. The team also pays for college scholarships for two players.

Over the years, Browns players have dropped by Lions practices. Their reaction is always the same -- they tell Armbruster they'd never risk their bodies for free. Browns owner Al Lerner probably would say the same about running an amateur team. A home game costs $3,500, from renting the field and paying for refs to buying three $70 balls. (Road games with an overnight stay cost twice as much.) The Lions charge only $6 for tickets; seniors and kids get in free. "How do we make money?" Armbruster says. "We don't."

They draw even less publicity, elbowed off the sports page by the Browns, the Buckeyes, and high school ball. The Plain Dealer gives the Lions about two stories a year. A handful more appear in suburban papers. TV would cover them only if their bus blew up -- though that, at least, might attract major sponsors out of sympathy. "We need a philanthropist," says Burrows, who like her longtime beau is a member of the semipro Hall of Fame. "We need some kind of miracle."

The penny-pinching grinds on Armbruster. Earlier in the day, he told players that if they hadn't paid $25 toward their team fee, they'd ride pine. "Sometimes I wonder, 'Why am I doing it? Damn it to hell -- I'm doing all this work, I don't have to put up with people who don't give a shit. Screw 'em.'" He pauses to drag on his cig. His sea-blue eyes narrow. "But then I always come back to football. It's part of me."

Tonight as ever. The Lions may be ranked No. 1 in the country, but Armbruster feels like the underdog. In truth, Horlick Field resembles a landfill with benches. The beer's warm and the popcorn tastes as if it came off last year's Christmas tree. Doesn't matter. In semipro, this is as good as it gets.

"Hey, Raiders fans!" booms the PA announcer. A nasty reverb from the speakers gives him the voice of a space creature from Dr. Who. "Are you ready for some football tonight?"

Armbruster stubs out his cigarette. Bring it on.

There's a moment of silence for an elderly fan who died at last week's game, after tumbling down the stairs. Then "The Star-Spangled Banner." Kickoff. The fans detonate.

The game's a dud.

Passes flutter like road kill launched off a car grille. First downs are not made, but feared. Tolbert and his linemates draw so many yellow flags, it's not clear if they know penalties are a bad thing.

The Raiders wake up first, midway through the second quarter. They pick off Lions quarterback Rico West deep in Cleveland territory, and three plays later run it in from the 11. A late field goal gives them a 10-0 halftime lead.

The Lions stalk flat-footed into the locker room. Dial shuts the door to seal in players' f-bombs. If the scene were a cartoon, the roof would be shooting off the building, propelled by expletives. Armbruster stands outside and lights another nail. He's calm as the weather. "We've been through the wars. We know what it takes."

Cleveland starts the second half a new team. Wilhelmy, who's replaced West, tosses a touchdown pass to complete a lightning-quick opening drive. The Lions' bench freaks. High-fives, fist pumps, chest thumps.

"Fuck all of ya!" screams reserve lineman Johnny Rogers. "We comin' now!"

The elation lasts about a minute. The Raiders block the extra point, then return the ensuing kickoff for a touchdown. Along the Cleveland sideline, shoulders sag, heads droop.

In the stands behind the Lions' bench, fans stay on their feet. The East Side Bleacher Bums are in full-throated frenzy.

"All the way from Parma to lose!" yells Chuck Besler. "All right!"

"Hey, ladies, did you leave your husbands back at the hotel?" Harry Ticknor hollers.

The two friends sit behind the opposing team's bench for every game. They're joined by hundreds of fellow hecklers who boast a league-wide notoriety for nonstop taunting. Families prefer the field's tamer west side, behind the Raiders' bench. The east side attracts guys with shirts that read "Women Want Me, Fish Fear Me" and "Hold My Hammer While I Nail Your Girlfriend."

Besler, 44, has been a Bleacher Bum since 1970. He has the faded-blue ID in his wallet to prove it. Some call the Bums' antics juvenile; they call it cheap therapy. "This is my release," Besler says. "It's better than going to a psychiatrist."

He excuses himself to scream. "You shoulda had the two-minute warning about two minutes before you got to Racine!"

"Hey, Lions," Ticknor chimes in, "I thought kitty cats could play with balls real good! Meow!"

Most of the time, opposing players laugh back. Sometimes they flip the bird. Once in a while, they charge the stands. That happened last year, against the Kane County Eagles. Besler thinks it might have been when someone yelled, "We haven't scored this much since your wife was in town!"

The Lions roll with the jeers. The bleachers stand only a few feet from their bench, so they hear every word -- and give as good as they get. Schierbaum, one of the team's few bright spots on the field, delivers a verbal hit to a couple clanging a cowbell in his direction. "Why don't you put that thing around your girlfriend and milk her?" he says, smiling. The couple laughs and keeps clanging.

The Bums try to pick on backup safety Steve Kriausky -- who happens to be deaf. He wears a list of plays on his wrist to help him on the field. But he can't hear hecklers shouting, "Hey, 26! Listen up!" When a teammate taps Kriausky on the shoulder and points to the fans, he turns to them, shrugs, and smiles. They wave back.

A voice begins to warble The Drew Carey Show theme song. The rest of the crowd joins in for the punch line: "Cleveland sucks! Cleveland sucks!" The Bums give themselves a round of applause.

The game winds down with the Raiders in control, 23-13. The stands stay packed. No one's leaving until the league's second-place team is officially tied for first. Not that there's anywhere to go. "This is Racine," longtime fan Nora Pansch says. "What else are you going to do?"

The final whistle sounds and kids rush onto the field to collect autographs. The Bleacher Bums shake hands with the Lions. Players stop to chat.

A youngster runs up to Wilhelmy and asks if he can have his helmet. The quarterback laughs and apologizes, saying that he has to keep it. His body feels like one huge bruise, and he's sporting a fresh black eye. His team has lost. He's loving the moment anyway.

"It's the best feeling in the world for an athlete, to be appreciated like that. Most of us, that's the only celebrity we're gonna get. That's our payment."

Everyone piles back onto the bus the next morning. Most partied till the wee hours at Optyx, a bowling alley nightclub. Christian partied a little too long. The trainer has a major hangover when he climbs aboard.

Schierbaum can't stop himself. His Christian imitation fills the bus. "Stretch. Hydrate yourselves. I'm only one person, I can't tape everyone at once." Laughs roll up the aisle.

Poucki jams his pillow against the window. He punted well last night, but didn't get a chance to kick a field goal, and tomorrow a 12-hour shift at Sherwin-Williams beckons. He closes his eyes. "Back to reality."

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