Many times we hear pro football players say they would play for free, because they love the game. Those in the semi pros do play it for the love.

I officiate high school football in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area. Every now and then members of our organization get assigned to do semi-pro games in the Mid Atlantic Football League. Games where men play strictly for love of the game.

Semi-pro football is played by adults where fans get charged to watch and players get paid to play. Well some of them. If a player joins a team to stay in shape for a tryout with a pro league then he gets paid. Everyone else gets nothing but the satisfaction of playing and maybe a team banquet at the end of the year. This does not stop them from playing just as hard as the men who get paid the big bucks on Sunday's in the fall.

I began doing semi-pro games in 2007. I had always read about it and knew there were leagues in the area. The Mid Atlantic is an offspring of leagues that have been around for years. A friend of mine asked me to play for his team in my younger days, but I declined. Then I got the call to officiate and experienced my first taste of semi-pro football.

The teams we had were from Prince Georges County, Maryland and Washington. They were full of good athletes and big men, but no one with the potential to play in the National or Canadian  Football Leagues. A couple may have been able to play arena ball. That's the way it usually is.

Semi-pro uses the same rules as the NFL so players don't have to wear all the equipment that they must in high school and college. All that they need is a helmet with a single bar face mask, shoulder pads, shoes, a jersey and pants. That's it. No mouthpiece, thigh pads, hip pads or athletic supporter. And most of them wear as little as possible. Probably, because they have to pay for their own equipment.

The games are played at local parks and high schools. Some of them have bleachers and some don't The field that I did my first game on did not. Neither did they have lights.

I remember it being a rough game and very fast. These men played all out and though play was ragged, because semi-pro teams don't get to practice much, one could still recognize the game as football. I don't know who won, but enjoyed doing the game.

Since then I have done other semi-pro games from time to time. Usually they are a circus. Players and coaches showing up late. Teams with barely enough players to play. Fields  not marked. Teams fighting with each other and among themselves. And a lot of bad football.

As officials, we have to watch the intensity, because player safety is paramount. We have to call the game tight or cheap shots will be taken, fights will break out and injuries will occur. And these men cannot afford to get hurt playing football, because they have regular jobs that they must go to on Monday morning and bills to pay. Injuries are going to happen, but they should occur from the playing of the game not anything else.    

Through all of this you can see that these guys love to play the game of football. Why else would they subject themselves to the punishment?

I've seen guys get hit just as violently as in any football league you want to name and come back for more. I've seen guys who were injured and could barely walk go back into games and play. One team had a center whose knee was badly injured, but he stayed in the game and played defense when they asked him to.  Usually teams start out the season with many players and finish with a few because of injuries. A few are also lost to job and family commitments.

This is semi-pro football.

The game where players truly play for the love of the game.

Semi pro footballers in action
Credit: The Anclote Pirates