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.

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Jim DeFede
Contact: Jim DeFede