For many fans in Mobile, football season wraps up each year with the Senior Bowl. The action, as it turns out, was just taking a little break before ramping up again next month — and with a new rivalry.
The Amateur to Professional Developmental Football League (APDFL) has been dominated recently by a team from Prichard. The Falcons capped an undefeated record last spring by beating the Rockdale Rams 27-18 in the Presidents Cup title game.
“This is our fifth year as a team, and we’ve been to the championship each year,” said Falcons owner Rico Ruffin. “We are 42-2 in four seasons, and have won the last three championships.”
The APDFL’s website said it is a nonprofit corporation dedicated to the promotion and advancement of adult minor league football teams through the southeastern United States. As the name indicates, it is a developmental program, with the goal of helping players advance to the next level of competition.
“This league is a real outlet for guys who did not have the grades to play in college,” Ruffin said. “This is a second chance to live out their dream.”
Ruffin said a few of his players have gone on to play in college. Each game is recorded, and the films are sent to community and senior college coaching staffs.
Ruffin has been connected to minor league football for some time, having played for local teams such as the Monarchs and the Sharks. The owner at that time was going to fold the team, but Ruffin asked that he keep the squad together for a year so that he could learn how to run the operation.
In an online poll at the APDFL website, the Falcons are the clear favorite to repeat as champions. Having the entire roster return is a good reason for the optimism.
“We are really looking forward to this season,” said Ruffin, whose has Marvin White serving as head coach. “This team should be better than last year’s.”
Nine members of the Falcons were selected in 2014 to be part of an APDFL all-star team that played the Obic Seagulls of Narashina, Japan. The game, played at Central High School in Tuscaloosa, resulted in a 16-12 win for the Americans. The Seagulls are the four-time defending champions of Japan’s X-League.
Representing the Falcons were quarterback Keith Ray, who was the MVP of the all-star game, along with defensive back Najee Brown, wide receiver Labarron Chambers, tight end Dennis Cranmore, kicker Nick Downey, offensive lineman Jarred Easley, offensive lineman Jason Galloway, running back James Matthews and defensive lineman Daven White.
Another familiar name on the roster is Etric Pruitt, a Theodore High graduate who went on to play for the University of Southern Mississippi. As a cornerback with the Seattle Seahawks in 2005, he performed in the Super Bowl. Pruitt, who plays safety for Prichard, was originally drafted by Atlanta before spending two seasons with Detroit.
To show how much the community matters to Ruffin and his players, they have officially changed their name to the Hiawayi Robinson Falcons. This is in honor of the 8-year-old girl who was slain last year.
“My step-daughter went to school with her,” Ruffin said. “When she went missing, our whole team came together to look for her. We got the blessing from the family to change the name of our team.”
The Falcons practice at Sage Park, with home games played at Prichard Stadium and Blount High School. The first game is schedule for Saturday, March 7, at home in a rematch of last year’s championship showdown with the Rams of Conyers, Georgia.
Generals return to football scene
The APDFL is a remarkably large organization, with 50 teams competing in eight divisions. The Falcons are in the National Conference’s Central Division, along with the Firebirds of Greenville, Alabama, the Pensacola Bay Spartans, the Escambia Black Cats and the Mobile Generals.
This is first year that this version of the Generals will compete. Another minor league team by that name played in Mobile in the past.
“I used to watch the Generals play in the 1980s,” said Jerome James, the current team’s owner. “We even have some of those former players serving as our coaches.” Robert “Sasquatch” Stevenson was a running back for the Generals from 1977 to 1988. Rodney Washington once played wide receiver for the team.
For a new squad, the response has been quite outstanding. More than 80 players have tried out, but the final roster is limited to 65. James has asked league officials if he can have a practice squad, in order to keep the players involved.
“This team really gives these guys something to do,” James said. “I don’t want to push them away. The last thing I want to do is cut anybody; it would just kill me.”
Many of the players learned of the team by word of mouth, through Facebook and by flyers. The team even took part in the GoDaddy Bowl parade.
“We have quite a few good ones,” said James, who has Damon Simon as head coach. “We have some who played at Southern Miss, at South Alabama, at Alabama and other colleges.”
James, who still plays linebacker at the age of 40, is a minister when not on the gridiron. He preaches to his players about life’s issues, and is available to them 24 hours a day.
“I hold my players to high standards,” James said. “At Thanksgiving, we had a food drive and it was great.”
The Generals practice at Trinity Garden Park, where games will also be played. Some contests may also take place at Lipscomb Field near Davidson High School.
“Our main focus is to get the young men off the street, and if possible get some of these to the next level,” James said. “We have an agreement with Bishop State (Community College) to help with some tutors and to get their ACT scores up.”
The Generals open the season Saturday in New Orleans against the Louisiana Blazin’ Bulldogs. After hosting the Westbank Road Runners on March 21, the highly anticipated match with the Falcons will take place in Prichard on March 28.
“It should be some kind of rivalry,” Ruffin said. “We can only carry so many players, so I think it is great having another local team. This gives more people a chance to play.”
“We have about 15 players who have (previously) been with the Falcons,” James said. “That should really heat up the rivalry.”
More information on the league and a complete 2015 schedule can be found at http://apdfl.sportngin.com.