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Rush redux: New Roanoke semipro football team uses old name to push forward

Rush redux: New Roanoke semipro football team uses old name to push forward

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Motivation varies for members of the adult workforce who play football without benefit of pay.

Generally speaking, two broad categories of competitor emerge.

The first counts those still chasing a pot of coin at the end of the gridiron rainbow. The second includes those who never lost their taste for laying out somebody.

As for that second group, playing a collision sport for free is not only an end in itself, but the athletes are willing to pay for the privilege.

Both types may be found in the Atlantic Coast Football Alliance. Its newest member is a local squad dubbed with the nostalgic revival name Roanoke Rush.

If the name sounds familiar to longtime observers of the local sporting scene, it is. The first outfit so named debuted at now-demolished Victory Stadium on Aug. 12, 1995.

Shawn “Pope” Mitchell, whose three hats for the new Rush are owner, general manager and head coach, was aware of the history. Before the first snap, he secured the name revival OK of former impresario, now Del. Nick Rush, R-Christiansburg.

“I can remember my father taking me to some of their games at Victory Stadium,” said Mitchell, a 2006 Glenvar High graduate. “I loved the tradition and the name.”

The Roanoke ballclub opens its inaugural campaign Sept. 12 on the road at a neutral site against an opponent to be named. The Rush, who play the level of football for grown-ups known as semipro, will know who is on their nine-game slate when the league — “The Alliance” — releases its schedule later this month.

The three-round playoffs conclude Dec. 5 with the championship.

Roanoke has a 33-man roster of athletes mostly culled from home-grown sources available for duty when the season opens.

The age range involves recent high school graduates and first-year semipros such as Lawon Jones of the William Fleming class of 2019 to 30-year-old Carlos Taylor, who will be playing his fifth season of football at this level.

Taylor, a father of two who works for Coca-Cola, never played football but ran track at Fleming. Starting by playing no-pads tackle ball in weekly games with friends at Oakey Field in Salem, he joined the now-defunct Star City Rebels when he strapped on the equipment for the first time.

“I didn’t know anything, even what position I should play,” he said. “I told the coach to put me wherever he thought I should be.”

The Rebels were a start-up that lasted three seasons before folding.

Taylor had a great experience, though, and was delighted to join forces with another fledgling organization.

“This is my hobby and I love it,” he said.

Rookie though he may be, Jones is already talking like a veteran.

“Some of us have already been playing flag football together,” he said. “We have chemistry.”

Jones and Taylor could be thought of as being at opposite ends of the motivation spectrum of playing ball at this level. Jones, who works for a screen printing business, wouldn’t mind seeing where football takes him.

“If I get a chance to play college, maybe I’ll play college. If I get a chance to play on another team, maybe I will. I’m open, for real.”

Mitchell, who attended Fleming before finishing at Glenvar, has experience coaching semipro ball. This is his first head coaching gig. Assistants will include offensive coordinator Rick Forney, defensive coordinator Dom Jordan, offensive assistant Devin Johnson and defensive assistant James Hubbard.

The team has been practicing since November, weekly since February. They meet Saturdays at the Lucy Addison track.

The Association has both fall and spring seasons. The 2019 fall season included eight teams divided by the old Mason-Dixon line. The National Alliance included York, Pa.; Washington; Baltimore; and Harrisburg, Pa. The American Alliance included Richmond along with Raleigh, Fayetteville, and Jacksonville in North Carolina.

York (7-0) and Raleigh (6-1) were the division winners.

Appropriate coronavirus pandemic safety measures will be in place this season, Mitchell said. Guidance is being sought from protocols of recent summer league participants in the Coastal Football Alliance, he said.

The Atlantic Coast website offers no details.

Cost to participants include a $125 player fee paid to the league in addition to out-of-pocket expenses such as equipment and travel. The Association provides insurance that partially offsets loss of work and medical expenses resulting from injuries, Mitchell said.

Although crowds are typically modest for games at this level, scouts from various pro leagues attend Association games. Both Mitchell and veteran semipro Taylor are aware of players who have parlayed semipro experiences into a pro contact.

For Mitchell, living the gridiron dream involves creating a community asset.

“We want to build something people can be proud of that will be here for a long time.”

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