Semi-Tough Luck

Three weeks shy of his 50th birthday, Jim Chambers could still move pretty quickly. As he set out across the field, the knees that had forced him to stop playing football two decades earlier were holding up well. He was charging hard, heart pounding, adrenaline pumping. He didn't seem to mind that he was wearing slacks and a polo shirt while his target, half his age, was in full pads and a helmet.

And he didn't care that this scene was unfolding in the middle of a game, before a few hundred people. After all, this was his football league, he created it, and if it was going to sink, it might as well go down in one big, stinking pile-up.

Without referees, the game had degenerated into a series of fights, anyway, and players from the other side of the field had been screaming that Chambers, president of the Continental Football League of America, in which they were playing, was a thief and a bastard who had stolen their money and given them nothing in return. "I'm the baddest motherfucker out here!" Chambers bellowed back from the opposite sideline of Broward's Tradewinds Park. "What are you gonna do about it?" The taunting continued.

Chambers had heard enough. He set his sights on one of the players, put his head down, and started running. The player, Richard Owes, braced himself for the impact. The two men collided on the 35-yard line and rolled to the ground, arms flailing. Players from both semipro teams - the Miami Storm and the Fort Lauderdale Shockers - joined the melee. Some of the Fort Lauderdale players punched and kicked Chambers on the ground. Others were content just to fight each other. Before long the Coconut Creek police arrived, separated the teams, and canceled the game on account of riot.

Chambers, in the meantime, had crawled out from the bottom of the pile, dusted himself off, and walked away without a word.

In the days that followed the January 19 fracas, Chambers told several league members that everything was fine, that the CFLA would survive. But aside from those few assurances, most of which were delivered by telephone, no one from any of the eight teams Chambers set up around the state is believed to have seen or heard from him again.

Six months earlier, when he began spreading word of his new league, Jim Chambers had been viewed by those same players as something of a hero, the savior of their lost dreams, the man who would give them a shot at playing ball. Some players even went so far as to describe the burly, thick-necked good ol' boy as a father figure, a man deserving of respect.

Back then Chambers had high hopes, too. After establishing his organization statewide, his dream was to eventually expand the CFLA throughout the nation. He pictured corporate sponsors, televised games, and stadiums filled with cheering fans. Miami was the first step. In late July Chambers posted the first in a series of small announcements in the Miami Herald's sports section, in the paper's listings of "Things to Do": "Continental Football League: Semipro league accepting applications from players and coaches for games in Dade County. Players must be 19."

The response was greater than Chambers had anticipated. For the first scheduled tryout on a Sunday in early August, more than 120 people showed up. When Chambers met with the hopeful players, he outlined his own background, telling them he had been involved in other semipro leagues in Texas and Florida. This new venture, he said, promised the opportunity to reach the National Football League. It would also pay $500 per game, plus a $10,000 bonus for the league champions. All each player had to do to get started was come up with a $50 application fee.

Chambers had already selected a coach, Steve Suid, for the Miami Storm franchise. Suid was an old friend from a previous football venture. That first tryout, at Grapeland Heights Park on NW 37th Avenue and 15th Street, lasted three hours. Chambers and Suid put the prospective players through various running drills, and had them practice a few pass patterns and punt returns. Then Chambers invited them all to come back the next week, which was followed by a third, and a fourth, and a fifth round of tryouts. In fact tryouts lasted until November.

No one questioned Chambers's plan. They were all just happy to be playing. For various reasons, most of them never had a chance to play college ball. The few who did had been sidetracked by injuries or family obligations.

"This is my second chance," says 22-year-old Leroy Edmonds, who was a running back for two years at Kent State but quit school to get a job in 1989, having learned his girlfriend was pregnant. "Maybe from there I could have went somewhere," he says solemnly. "I don't know." Edmonds, who was one of Dade's leading rushers at Miami Southridge Senior High School, now works for a landscaping firm. The past year, he says, has been tough on him - had he stayed at Kent State, he would have been looking forward to graduation, and perhaps even a spot in the NFL draft, like some of the people he knew in high school and college. "Now they are in the NFL, and it kind of hurts," he admits.

Wesley Crosby gave up football five years ago, after his girlfriend had a baby. "It was time to grow up and be an adult, time to stop playing games," he says. At age 27, Crosby works as a hospital lab technician, but he saw the Miami Storm as a chance to get back to a position he really loved, defensive lineman. "I just want to bust heads," he says.

Calvin Gray, 21 years old, just wanted to prove his own worth. Gray's vision is so bad that he cannot legally drive a car. Cataracts and glaucoma severely blur his sight and cause him to see double. In high school he was segregated into classes for handicapped children, which angered him. But on the football field he was given no special consideration. "My vision is bad," he allows, "but I play center. All I have to do is hit the biggest guy in front of me. I can see a big person."

Like his teammate Leroy Edmonds, Gray played well at Southridge, and when he graduated in 1989, he had both the grades and the offers to play college ball. His SAT scores, however, which totaled 420 out of a possible 1600, were nearly 300 points shy of the National Collegiate Athletic Association's requirement for eligibility. Gray has been studying part time at Miami-Dade Community College, and searching for work without much luck. In Jim Chambers he saw a chance to show he could succeed. "I've been criticized all my life," he explains. "But when I play football, I'm proving to people that you can have a vision problem and still be an athlete."

Kicker Shawn Hale has lived more football lives than most. When he walked onto the practice field and banged 40- and 50-yard field goals as if they were extra points, he easily guaranteed himself a place on his sixth semipro team in the past thirteen years. "You're not a failure until you give up. As long as there is a league, I'm going to play," vows the 31-year-old ballplayer, who came to Chambers's league after stints with the Florida Suns, the Miami Cowboys, the Miami Legend, and the Buctown Buccaneers. When he was the place kicker for the Florida Renegades, a team that folded in 1989, Hale commuted between Homestead and West Palm Beach, 100 miles up and 100 miles back, five nights every week, to attend practice. He's still hoping for another shot at the pros. "Hopefully I can get on somewhere," says Hale, a construction supervisor with a wife and two small children. "You never know." His longest field goal, a 62-yarder for the Buccaneers in 1986, falls only one yard short of the NFL record set in 1970 by Tom Dempsey.

Hale has tried out in four pro camps - Redskins, Dolphins, Falcons, and the Birmingham Stallions of the USFL - but has so far never been able to make the final cut. His wife Micki says he doesn't let it show, but she knows he's disappointed. "Sometimes I really do wish he would give it up and spend more time at home," she asserts. "But if I made him do that or it wasn't his own choice, he'd be miserable."

Free safety Dez Jackson was miserable a few years ago when he broke his hand in a fight and lost his shot at going to the University of West Virginia on a scholarship. "My parents didn't have the money for me to finish school," says the 22-year-old Jackson, who grew up in Liberty City and still lives there with his aunt. The area was a good training ground for a football player, he says - you learned to play hard, stay tough, and, most important, move fast. "You run from dogs in the street a lot," Jackson explains. "You'll be walking down the street and a dog would break out of a yard and you've got to run."

What Jackson wants is an opportunity to have a pro scout see him play. "All I need is a look," he insists. "Canadian League, World League, NFL, it doesn't matter, as long as it pays. The only person who hits harder than me is [All-Pro safety] Ronnie Lott. If my mama was running the ball, I'd hit her hard, too."

Randy Seymour spent four years behind bars after being convicted of robbery when he was fifteen. "I was bad. I was using drugs and I was out there stealing to support my habit. And I went to prison; that's why I missed my high school days," says the 21-year-old wide receiver. Now, he says simply, "I just want to move forward. Here's my chance."

"These are guys that if you see them on the street, you would go, `Oh, let me get away from them,'" says 22-year-old Tony Rodriguez, who works in his family's freight-shipping business. "But here you get to know them on a different level. You suffer with them, you cry with them, you go through the pains of practice with them, and it unifies people."

Part Two
Rodriguez gave up football when he dropped out of Southwest High to get married after his junior year. The marriage never materialized, and he eventually went back to high school to earn his diploma. But by that time, he says, he was no longer eligible to play high school sports and had missed his chance for a college football scholarship. "I'm sure I would have had a shot at some school," says the six-foot-one, 300-pound lineman. "Probably not a big school, but a small school at least. It would have meant an education, which my family couldn't afford. It would have meant a different life."

Rodriguez harbored no illusions that Jim Chambers's league was a route to the big time; to him it was more like a way of coming to terms with what he knew he'd already lost. "You have a real sense of belonging in football," he says. "Football for me is therapy. I don't have a therapist. I go out and play football."

While the Miami team continued its tryouts through the fall, Chambers set out in September, driving his 1990 Ford Tempo across the state to sell franchises in his league. Placing small ads and press releases in newspapers in Tampa, Orlando, Jacksonville, and other communities, Chambers called on anyone interested in the league to meet him in Orlando on September 15. There he rented a small conference room at a Holiday Inn, set up an easel, and posted a few charts. About twenty people showed up - nothing like Miami, but a respectable turnout all the same. Most were from Orlando, a few had come from Gainesville, and more than half a dozen had driven the 150 miles from Jacksonville to attend.

Like most salesmen, Chambers delivered a pitch that was long on promise and short on specifics. He talked about television coverage, and about his intention to expand the league across the United States. He sold the small crowd on the pride of Florida - the perfect weather and the huge pool of football talent that was going untapped.

By November Chambers had teams forming in Fort Lauderdale, Tallahassee, Gainesville, Orlando, Jacksonville, and Tampa. Coaches had been selected, and in most cases the head coach was also designated the team's general manager. In Miami, after he and Steve Suid selected a 45-man roster for the Storm, Chambers took the players who didn't make the cut and formed an eighth team, the Hialeah Colts.

Contracts were distributed to players and coaches, and they all agreed to defer payment until February 1993, when the league would be on sound financial footing. Until that time, under the contract, Chambers agreed to pay for travel, lodging, and food for any team that had to travel more than 100 miles to a game. He also agreed to provide uniforms and take care of stadium rentals, publicity, and the cost of hiring officials. The players had to come up with their own equipment - helmets, pads, cleats, and, if necessary, braces. They also had to provide their own insurance, so that if they were injured, the league would not be held liable. Chambers opened a central account for the league at Barnett Bank, into which application fees and ticket proceeds would be deposited. Only Chambers had access to the account.

The season would begin in December, Chambers announced, but after drawing up a schedule, he scrapped it and drafted another. That one was scrapped, as well; Chambers blamed the delay on the fact that certain teams weren't ready. There were disagreements, too, over money. Chambers complained that teams hadn't sent him the funds he was due and that players' checks constantly bounced.

Chambers had intended to rent large stadiums for his teams. He instructed T.D. Knox, coach and general manager of the Jacksonville team, to negotiate a deal to lease the 85,000-seat Gator Bowl. The city said it would require a $10,000 deposit and $5800 per game. Knox says that after Chambers told him the fee was no problem, he scheduled a press conference with city officials to announce the deal on December 28. Chambers, it was understood, would drive up from Miami and present the $10,000 check. It would be great publicity for the fledgling league.

"I had the TV stations ready to cover it," Knox recalls. "And then Jim Chambers calls up a few hours before the meeting and cancels, saying he didn't have the money. He made me look like a fool."

Restlessness was another problem, particularly in Miami, where the Storm had been working out since August. Finally, a series of what were described as "preseason" games were played in different cities on January 11, but those turned out to be nothing more than deluxe scrimmages, in which opposing teams practiced different plays against each other.

Players were becoming discouraged. Hialeah coach Joseph Montoya had taken his squad to Fort Lauderdale for a scrimmage, and had been told by Chambers to expect referees and media coverage. "When I get up there, I find out there is no media, there was never supposed to be any," says Montoya. "Their field wasn't lined - we were playing on a soccer field - and there were no referees."

Word had spread that Chambers had not been as successful in the past as he had led people to believe. Miami coach Steve Suid says he knew Chambers had been part of a Florida league in the mid-Eighties that had suspended play after only three games. Some of the players from that failed league were now on the Fort Lauderdale Shockers, and they were beginning to wonder where their application fees had gone. "All of the extravagances that were being promised were just too much for what we had," says Rick Doemel, the Shockers' coach.

It is impossible to determine exactly how much money Chambers collected and spent. If league books were maintained, no one has seen them, and Chambers was notorious for failing to give players and coaches receipts for money they handed in. Individual teams' record-keeping was similarly lax. Some team officials admit they began to hold back funds because they didn't trust Chambers any more. Others acknowledge that some players' checks did bounce. (Rick Doemel says that of the $2000 he turned over to Chambers in player checks, at least $400 worth were returned for insufficient funds.)

Chambers waived the application fee for some players, and persuaded others to contribute $100. The assistant coach for the Miami Storm, Lindsay Diaz, says his mother gave Chambers $150, ostensibly to buy stock in the league. She never received any certificates.

Chambers did pay for the Miami team to travel to Tampa for one of the preseason inter-squad scrimmages, picking up the cost of vans, motel rooms, and meals. He gave the Metro-Dade Parks and Recreation Department a $500 deposit to reserve the Tropical Park stadium for a game, but forfeited the money when he failed to come up with the $1500 balance. And for a few of the preseason games that were held, Chambers did pay the officiating crews, says Erik Joh, who was in charge of organizing officials for the league. Mostly, though, it seemed Chambers was spending the league's money to cover his own expenses as president. He rented an office in North Bay Village, paid for phones, electricity, and a fax machine. He traveled, sometimes in rented cars, pressing the flesh and talking up his league.

In attempting to keep the cash coming in, Chambers appears to have cheated his own players. In one case he collected eighteen dollars apiece from Miami Storm players for jerseys. After taking the money, he passed around the blue shirts so the players could see what they looked like, then took them back, promising to return them in time for the next game.

A few days later, several Storm players went to a scrimmage between Hialeah and Tampa, and immediately noticed that the Hialeah squad was wearing Miami's jerseys. Hialeah coach Joe Montoya says on the eve of the game, Chambers had sold his players the jerseys - for twenty dollars each. Montoya says that although he didn't learn until much later that the shirts originally had been sold to Miami, he had suspected something was wrong because Hialeah's colors were supposed to be orange and green, not blue.

Jim Chambers's Continental Football League of America opened its inaugural season on January 25 with a thriller in Tallahassee, in which the Jacksonville Blazers defeated the Tallahassee Senators, 19-13, in overtime. "We started the league off with a bang," says Blazers coach T.D. Knox, who tried to get in touch with Chambers after the game to to find out why the league president had failed to show up for the opener. On January 28 Knox was surprised to hear Chambers's answering machine announce that all league play was suspended because various teams had been withholding money from the league. Knox immediately went to the bank to check on his team's individual account, which, like the league's Barnett account, Chambers controlled. Only 66 cents remained from the $300 that had been there the day before.

By the next day, Knox says, Chambers had taped a new message: All players, coaches, and general managers were released from their contracts. The league might be reformed at some future date.

That was the last anyone from the CFLA heard from Jim Chambers.
Players, coaches, and officials portray Chambers as a master thief, a con man who made a fine living for himself while operating fraudulent semipro leagues. They say his office was merely a post-office box, that he had neither a Social Security number nor a Florida driver's license. Always a shadowy figure who deliberately shied away from cameras, Chambers, they say, never allowed himself to be photographed. They say he hid behind sunglasses and a cap.

"Information I have received is that Jim Chambers is not his real name; it was one of several aliases he used," says T.D. Knox. There was also talk that he had been known in Texas as Lou Hires, and that just two years ago he was involved in a failed football league there and ran off with nearly $50,000 in cash.

Contracts were distributed, and they all agreed to defer payment until February 1993, when the league would be on sound financial footing.

Part Three
Perhaps those myths are more easily accepted than what might actually be the truth. Instead of saying they blindly followed a loser, people can claim they were duped by a seasoned pro. And it is easier to hate someone if you believe he deliberately set out to cheat you, rather than someone who just can't seem to succeed, someone who isn't really much different from you.

In a league filled with dreamers, Jim Chambers was probably the biggest dreamer of them all.

He does have a Florida driver's license (although it expired last month) and a Social Security card. He was born in Nashville, Arkansas, on February 7, 1942. His father was a salesman, his mother a housewife. In 1960 Chambers graduated from Texarkana Senior High School, after receiving the F.E. Pharr Trophy as the school's most valuable football player. After a three-year stint in the U.S. Air Force, he came home to Texarkana and football. He played tight end, and sometimes quarterback, for the Texarkana Phantoms, at least until his knees gave out. He moved to Miami in 1970 and graduated from the University of Miami in 1975 with a major in accounting and a minor in business administration. He ran his own accounting business, and for a time he worked as a substitute teacher at Miami Beach Senior High.

Based on interviews with players, coaches, and past business partners in Florida and Texas, it appears Chambers has been involved in organizing at least four leagues since 1976. "He has this burning, burning desire to have these football leagues," says a long-time family friend. "And they've always failed."

William Blan met Chambers in Houston in 1976, when Chambers approached him and another man, Curtis Barnes, with the idea of reorganizing a failing semipro league and expanding it throughout Texas. When the league went bust within two years, Blan, who works as an engineer, says he realized he wasn't cut out for semipro football. "You don't have to hit me over the head too hard before I know I've been clobbered," he says. "Semipro ball is a losing proposition. There is no way to do it unless you have the money to make it your hobby."

Blan suspects Chambers keeps trying because he loves football, and desperately wants to stay involved in the game. "It's got to be depressing that here's this dream you have and you just get on the threshold and you fall backward," he says. "And you get up and try again and the same thing happens."

Al Stone, a Tampa private investigator who volunteered to look into Chambers's past for jilted CFLA players, says Chambers's intentions were probably good when he started the league. "Sometimes people become so driven that maybe they tend to spend more than they can take in, and as a result, they have to keep up a front," Stone theorizes. "And they continue to spend more than they take in, and the first thing you know, they have forgotten what the purpose of the league was."

"I always felt he was looking to be more than what he was," adds Fort Lauderdale coach Rick Doemel. "And all he was, was an accountant."

Last year, when Chambers told his wife he planned to start another league, there was a sense of urgency in his voice. "This football league has to succeed," he told her. "It has to succeed. This is what I'm good at." His wife confides that privately, she wondered what would happen if it failed. Now she knows.

When Jim Chambers walked away from his league, he also left behind his wife of fourteen years. "He left me high and dry," she says, requesting anonymity because she fears she might lose her job as a receptionist. "I have no family and nowhere to go."

She's seen him fail with leagues before, once in Houston and now twice in Miami. Three years ago, after Chambers's first Miami league folded, she told him to give up on the idea of starting a football league. "I said, `Don't try it again, we don't have the money for it,'" she recalls, adding that his parents also warned him against entering into another venture. And for a time, she says, Chambers complied. He buckled down, got a job as a substitute teacher, and earned extra money preparing tax returns. But then a year ago, he began talking about football again.

"He felt that no matter how many times he failed, at some point he would succeed," she says. "But he couldn't make it go. I think he is embittered with himself. He thinks he's failed in life."

In the aftermath of the fight at the January 19 Miami-Fort Lauderdale scrimmage, all but ten Fort Lauderdale players quit, and by that time coaches from other teams were openly voicing their doubts about Chambers. His wife says that during the last week in January, he flew home to see his parents in Texarkana. His mother had recently undergone open-heart surgery, and his father was in the intensive-care unit of a local hospital, where he was being treated for prostate cancer. Upon returning to Miami, he announced matter-of-factly that the two of them would move to Houston. "He said, `I'm fed up with the football league, let's just get the hell out of here,'" she remembers.

According to his wife, Chambers wanted to abandon their apartment, leave all their possessions behind. She told him he was acting crazy. "`You just don't walk out and leave everything,'" she remembers telling him. The next day he packed a suitcase and left. She hasn't heard from him since.

Financially, the league cost them both. "He devoted his whole existence to football, and we lived on my salary and what I had in the bank, which wasn't much," she says. All her savings are gone; everything went into football. In fourteen years of marriage, she believes, she's lost nearly $80,000 on her husband's various football ventures.

After Chambers left, she says, she became so angry and distraught that she tore up every picture of him that she had.

Although it would have been easy for the CFLA to disappear along with Jim Chambers, that hasn't happened yet. After he vanished, calls began going out among the coaches from the various cities, to see if there was anything they could do in the league president's wake. A meeting was scheduled for early February in Tampa, at which representatives from all but two of the league's cities showed up.

"Everybody's confidence picked up when they saw how many people were there," says Jacksonville coach and general manager T.D. Knox.

The teams reformed under a new name, the Americas Football League. In order to ensure there would be no further hint of financial impropriety, the league maintains no central bank account; each team exists as an independent entity, responsible for its own money, travel, and equipment. And no one is promising that the players will get paid, at least not for a long time.

"The ball clubs were out there and they needed some direction," says John Mays, who volunteered to serve - unpaid - as commissioner for the new league. "Here they were, in limbo, not knowing what to do. So I said, `Let's put our sails in the wind and see if we can generate something out of this that will help the ballplayers.' Which in essence is what we were trying to do all along."

The Hialeah and Fort Lauderdale franchises folded, but Miami, Gainesville, Tampa, Tallahassee, Orlando, and Jacksonville stayed on. And amazingly, the new league has already added teams in Clearwater, Lakeland, and St. Petersburg.

Miami was represented at that Tampa summit by 22-year-old tight end Ernie Cambo and special-teams coach Rudy Lorie. (Chambers's old friend Steve Suid had left the team after the league president's disappearance.) On the drive to Tampa, Cambo and Lorie discussed how they would reorganize the team. First, they changed their name from the Miami Storm to the Miami Thunder. Cambo, an international relations student at FIU, is now the team's president and player representative. Lorie, a maintenance worker for the U.S. Postal Service, is vice-president and general manager.

Lindsay Diaz, formerly the team's assistant coach, is now coaching the team. "If we can make it through the first season," says Diaz, a 28-year-old Metro-Dade police detective, "I think we can make it." Although only half the players were willing to give the league another chance, other players - some from the defunct Hialeah and Fort Lauderdale teams - have replaced those that called it quits. Altogether, John Mays says from his home in Orlando, the league comprises 600 players and coaches on its nine teams.

The cheapest practice field the Thunder could find is the football field for the Palmetto Optimist Club on SW 184th Street and 97th Avenue. Rent is $50 per night for the team to practice two nights per week. Each player was asked to chip in five dollars every week to cover lighting and other expenses. With one-third of the team unemployed and about half supporting wives and families, money is the Thunder's biggest hurdle. Instead of Tropical Park, the club plays its home dates at Belen Jesuit Preparatory School at 500 SW 127th Avenue. Use of that field costs only $300 per game. Because each team has to come up with its own funds, the Thunder scrounges for money by holding car washes to raise travel money. One player collected aluminum cans and sold them to help pay for the club's first two away games.

Other teams, too, have come down a few pegs. The Jacksonville Blazers, which Chambers had said would play in the Gator Bowl, now play home dates on an old field behind a church. The bleachers there hold about 400 fans, about 100 more than the team has been drawing so far.

Part Four
Cambo and Lorie say Thunder practice sessions are plagued by low turnout, which they blame on Jim Chambers, and the legacy of mistrust he left behind. "The guys are not willing to put in that extra effort they would have before," says Cambo.

"I know we've got problems," Lorie told about fifteen players who showed up for a recent practice. "We're always going to have problems. I know everybody got screwed, but for whatever reason, you keep coming back, and I want to see this work. We've got talented people here."

Even with the tension and squabbling, the Thunder has seen more success in six weeks than what Chambers accomplished in six months. Already, the team has played four games; the second home game takes place at Belen this Sunday.

And at least a few dreams appear to be coming true. One Thunder player still holds out hope of wrangling a college scholarship even though semipro play technically makes him eligible. To avoid getting caught, he plays under a fictitious name. After a shoulder injury his senior year in high school, no college would touch him, but he's healthy now and has been using the Thunder to keep him sharp and in shape. Although he's never received a dime for playing, his real payoff might have come a couple of weeks ago, when a small college expressed interest. "If anyone from the college knew I was doing this, I wouldn't have a chance in hell of making it," he says.

Jim Chambers is living in Houston now, having rented an apartment near the airport, in the Greenspoint section of town. He did not return repeated messages left on the answering machine at his new address. One family friend says Chambers might have found employment as a truck driver.

The CFLA office in North Bay Village is dormant. Shortly before Chambers left Miami, the tape on the answering machine was changed to say that the league was once again accepting applications for players and coaches in Florida and across the U.S. Two weeks ago, the phone was shut off entirely.

On March 8 Chambers's wife began moving her belongings to a smaller and less-expensive apartment in Miami. That same day, the Miami Thunder played its first home game, trouncing Tampa 37-6. About 200 people showed up to watch, and offensive lineman Ike Dixon's mother and general manager Rudy Lorie's wife sold hot dogs to raise money.

Dez Jackson, who lost his shot at a scholarship after breaking his hand in a fight, ran back a punt 70 yards and did a flip into the end zone for the game's first score. "Everybody's coming together," he said on the sidelines. "We're coming together like a family."

Quarterback Al Grier threw for three touchdowns. Shawn Hale nailed a 42-yard field goal. Tony Millelo scrambled into the end zone on a 30-yard punt return. "This is great," he said, grinning. "My first fucking touchdown!"

Before the game, Tony Rodriguez, whose engagement and troubles at home led him to drop out of high school after his junior year, waited anxiously near the entrance to the field. At practice, he had said he wanted to play in front of his mother and sister but he didn't know if they would show up. Later, during the game, he was beaming. "I got my wish," he said, pointing to the small grandstand, where his mother was sitting with his sister and his girlfriend. "My family is here."

"I'm very proud," says Rodriguez's mother, Gloria Sabaluco. "I want him to do what makes him happy. He loves football."

THE MIAMI THUNDER plays its home games at Belen Jesuit Preparatory School, 500 SW 127th Avenue. Tickets for this Sunday's 1:00 p.m. game against the Jacksonville Blazers cost five dollars and can be purchased at the gate. For a complete schedule of home games, call the team at 361-8119.

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