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No Glamour: Semi-Pro Football In Traverse City Is About Love Of The Game

Sara Hoover

Summer is typically baseball season. But it is also football season for many semi-pro football leagues across the country. Northern Michigan’s team, the Traverse City Wolves, has their season opener on Saturday, May 31. The players, like many athletes, play for the love of the game, which is good because they don’t collect a paycheck.    

The Family Man  

On a recent Sunday afternoon, Pablo Bocardo Jr.’s sons tackle him. They’re playing football on the front lawn of his parents’ house in Williamsburg with his fiancée, Melissa Koinis. His daughter rides her bike in the driveway, while his parents keep a watchful eye.

Bocardo is a veteran on the Traverse City Wolves. He’s been with them since the first season seven years ago. That’s when the team had a whole season without actually playing a game.  The team captain works full-time and has a family, but makes time to play for the Wolves. He paints helmets, designs the uniforms and hosts player meetings. Everyday, he gets up at 2 a.m. to workout.

"I really make a conscious effort with my time being so limited that I work out prior to my kids waking up so I can get that out of the way before I go to work. So, I actually have the time to spend with them at night," he says.

Credit Sara Hoover
Pablo Bocardo Jr.

On top of workouts, there is a lot of travel. For the past several seasons, players provided their own transportation to and from away games. For Bocardo, those are family trips with his four kids and fiancée.

"That's kind of our family time, for the car ride down. We make sandwiches and things like that," Bocardo says. "My son, all of them, are really into sports already. He likes watching the football games. My daughter has taken the cheerleader aspect."

His 7-year-old daughter Ana likes going to the away games because she feels like they’re traveling the world. But her brother Alex has a different opinion.

"Sometimes it’s long, and me and Conner and Ana don’t like to go. And sometimes, like, they’re really short, but we still just don’t want to go," the eight-year-old says. "We just don’t want to go to away games. We just like to go home games because last away game these kids said, ‘You’re on the Traverse City side. You can’t come over.’"

That isn’t going to stop Alex from being just like his dad, beginning this year with youth football.

"I’m going to play Pop Warner."

Team Building

Building a semi-pro team is a little harder than building a Pop Warner one. 

Credit Josh Guldner
Maurice Nash performs a drill at tryouts for the Traverse City Wolves on Saturday, March 1, 2014.

Art McGuff is in his first year as head coach. He works full-time as a psychologist. He hosted team tryouts at Traverse City West Middle School in March. He says building a team in northern Michigan is challenging.

Credit Josh Guldner
Emilio Bocardo, Pablo's brother, runs through a drill at Traverse City Wolves tryouts.

"It's a very tough thing," he says. "We consider Traverse City, our analogy is we're sort of our own island. We're so far from everybody. You know, we don't have – down in Detroit there are eight teams. They have millions of guys to pick from, same thing with Grand Rapids, Muskegon area. So, we have a very few guys that we can pick from."

Besides recruiting, the team has limited equipment. Sean Liles, team owner, told players at tryouts what’s available.

"The Wolves will provide shoulder pads and helmets to you if you need them, but they are not going to be the top of the line, the best stuff you're going to find," he says.

He suggests players protect themselves with high-end equipment, if possible. Most players do provide their own equipment. Several go back to their old high schools to get it.

Liles is a lawyer in Traverse City. He bought the team three years ago, after serving as a coach. The biggest surprise for him was the cost of hosting home games at Thirlby Field in Traverse City. To break even, he has to fill seats. 

Credit Sara Hoover

 "We look to get about 350 minimum at the games for fans, which at Thirlby, it doesn’t look like a whole lot up in the stands."

Liles is excited about the upcoming season. That’s partly because the team moved to a different league, the Great Lakes Football League. It’s a Michigan-only league, so the team won’t have to travel as far.  

"We were traveling to Illinois. I mean this team has traveled to Wisconsin before, this team has traveled to Canada and down to Detroit for a number of games," Liles says. "It takes a toll on your players."

Semi-pro players must be out of high school and cannot be currently playing in college. Most semi-pro football players are not paid to play. They pay to participate. Wolves’ players paid a $300 fee this season. But they have the chance to earn half of that back with professional behavior, like being on time and attending practice.

The team only practices twice a week for a total of 36 practices the whole season. Most high schools’ and colleges’ practice time is usually triple that, according to Coach McGuff.

Credit Sara Hoover
Players practice at the Grand Traverse Civic Center on Thursday, May 22, 2014.

"High school, college, you get to practice 40 plus hours a week, okay," he says. "We get to practice five. And in those five, you may have to work, so you can’t come. And so the only person that’s been here at every practice is me."

The Wolves have a 39-man roster, and usually half the team is at practice. 

"To watch us play and know we only practiced three hours before we played, it’s amazing that we do what we do."   

The Rookie

Credit Sara Hoover
Bryce Austin (right) sits with (left to right) Stevie Bartig, Miranda Snyder and Emily Carlson in the cafeteria at Northwestern Michigan College on Tuesday, March 18, 2014.

Although most view it as hobby, Bryce Austin is a rookie with something to prove. He hopes to be seen by college football scouts. He’s currently a freshman at Northwestern Michigan College, which doesn't have a football team. He would like to play football at a college and possibly the NFL.

He sits with friends in the cafeteria at lunch. Austin got a tattoo retouched the day before. It’s a tribute to his cousin who passed away. He was a football coach who encouraged Austin to play the sport.

"The summer before he died, he asked me if I played football. I was like, ‘Nah, I’m not into that.’  And then once I got to my junior year of high school I got into it," he says.

The anniversary of his cousin’s death is March 30th.

Credit Sara Hoover
Bryce Austin in his dorm room at Northwestern Michigan College in March.

"One of the coaches was like, ‘Oh, here’s the last number.’ And it was number 30," Austin says. "I was just like, 'wow,' right there. It was just more of an emotional type of thing for me. That’s why I haven’t given up on football and everything. That’s why I keep on going with the TC Wolves. I’m not done yet. I’m just starting, so."

Austin is from Holland and planned to stay in Traverse City for the summer for football. But he is back in Holland, three hours away. He’s practicing on his own and intends to play, if he can find rides to the games.

He plans to be on the field when the Wolves kick off their season on Saturday when they face the Muskegon Mustangs, last year’s runner-up national champions.