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A year ago, standing on a football practice field in South Dade, Ernie Cambo put his life in perspective. "I'm kind of limited," he explained. "My knees are giving out, so I take things as they come. I just want to give it my best effort and never say, 'What if?' All these guys are out here so they won't have to say, 'What if?'"
On that cool evening, under the arc lights, the twenty-two-year-old Cambo was practicing with his teammates on the Miami Thunder, a semipro football team in trouble. Jim Chambers, the man who formed Cambo's team and the Americas Football League in which they competed, had suddenly disappeared, leaving behind an empty bank account and a slew of unanswered questions.
Semipro football has always been a semi-joke, the stuff that movies are made of A over-the-hill jocks trying to hang on to a glory they never had in the first place; bad bus trips to nowhere; half-empty stands; and almost certain financial ruin.
So when the Thunder charged onto the field last year filled with promises of big payoffs and a clear pipeline into the NFL, nobody outside the team held out much hope. And when Chambers fled, few outsiders were surprised.
But instead of fading away, the team (profiled in the New Times cover story "Semi-Tough Luck" last March 18) hung on, finishing the season with a 6-6 record. More important, everyone involved in the club established more reasonable goals.
"What these guys need is to get back to school," Cambo says today. "Forget about big money and pro contracts. We need to think about scholarships and eligibility requirements."
Cambo hopes he'll lead the way. He recently won a scholarship to play tight end this fall for the Fighting Christians of Elon College, an NCAA Division II school in North Carolina. He started school in January and is majoring in sports management.
Cambo, who continues in his duties as team president, and Rudy Lorie, head coach and general manager, are trying to help other members of the Thunder, most of whom are Miami natives, navigate their way into college, as well.
"We're helping them order their transcripts, finding out what's available for them out there," says Lorie, a maintenance worker for the U.S. Postal Service. "We're also writing colleges and collecting film of the players for prospective coaches to see." Lorie, who coached last year, says the team is also being assisted in its new mission by the Miami Touchdown Club, which assists local players in hooking up with colleges.
Another member of last year's squad, Dez Jackson, has an offer to play for Southern Arkansas University. "I'm leaving for school June 1," says Jackson, who hasn't yet decided on a major. "I'm excited. I'd like to come back someday with a diploma."
Leroy Edmonds, twenty-three, also a Thunder alum, is in North Carolina with Ernie Cambo. But instead of attending school, Edmonds, who was a running back for Kent State until he was forced to quit to find a job to help support his pregnant girlfriend, is about to sign a contract with a professional arena football team.
"After I left Kent State I was always down on myself," Edmonds says by phone from Burlington. "Playing football for the Thunder gave me a lift and helped me realize that I still have talent in me."
The Thunder, which is in the process of becoming a nonprofit corporation, donates 80 percent of the ticket sales to the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, the foundation formed by former Miami Dolphin great Nick Buoniconti after his son Marc was paralyzed while playing football. After the Thunder's first preseason exhibition game in early February, the team passed along $300.
"It's very nice that they thought of us," says Karrie Seiple, special events coordinator for the Miami Project. "I think what they are doing is a great idea."
"We want to do something good for the community," says Rudy Lorie. Along with Cambo, coach Lorie met with county and city officials to line up practice and playing fields for the season, which lasts another two months. The Thunder's next home game takes place this Saturday at 3:00 p.m. at Tamiami Stadium, 10901 SW 24th Street, against West Palm Beach, one of the eleven other teams in the league. Tickets cost $5.
"It's really not a matter of winning or losing," says Cambo. "It's just a matter of getting out there and playing.