With Baton Rouge Riverboat Bandits, men get to stay in the game
By Kyle Peveto
Advocate staff writer
August 25, 2012
Five minutes to game time, the Baton Rouge Riverboat Bandits huddled in the north end zone.
Lightning flashed in the distance, while rap music sounded through the bleachers.
Their former teammate — an honorary captain for this season-opening game — leaned into the huddle and told them how much he loved football, how he could barely bring himself to watch after he stopped playing at 45.
“Cherish this,” said Wilford Brumfield, now 47. “Play football. Respect your coaches, respect your fellow man.”
Competitors in the Southern American Football League, the Riverboat Bandits play in front of family and friends in any stadium they can. They receive no money. They pay for their own travel, pads and helmets.
Compensation comes in self-respect, the players say, and a chance to keep strapping on pads another year.
“I just love the sport of football,” said Donald Ray Washington, 31, of Baker, a cornerback and wide receiver who has become a veteran leader on the team. “It’s something to keep me going.”
Each player stood out in high school athletics and some played college ball. Most earned their diplomas but missed the contact and camaraderie of football.
“We’ve got so many high schools and athletes in the area who played their last down of ball and didn’t go to college,” said Eddie Kay, 44, the Bandits’ head coach who played linebacker at LSU. “They want to play, they just don’t know where to go.”
Started 15 years ago by league commissioner Joe Bean, a walk-on football player at LSU, the Bandits have “stood the test of time,” Kay said. The SAFL began five years after the Riverboat Bandits’ start when Bean founded other teams in the area. It has grown to 12 teams.
“Every team has one or two players who are bona fide players,” said Kay, an insurance agent and financial representative who retired from playing with the Bandits in 2004. “They have the talent.”
Two days a week in the summer the Bandits practice at a Baton Rouge middle school. They stretch, warm up and run drills in helmets and shorts — no pads in the heat. With no lights, they practice 90 minutes and leave by dusk.
This regularity — three nights a week set aside for football — helps keep some players out of bad situations, Kay said.
“It gives these guys an opportunity to focus on something else they could be doing at 5 or 6 o’clock on a summer evening,” he said. “It gives them something to focus on and look forward to.”
Growing up in New Orleans, Jourdan Forcell, 25, found sports a powerful force that prevented him becoming trapped in trouble like his friends and Uptown neighbors.
“I grew up in the projects. Trouble you get into is hard to get out of,” he said. “In New Orleans everybody falls into the same crowd. I knew for sure when I was playing what I needed to do.”
Forcell, who relocated to the Baton Rouge area after Hurricane Katrina, played minor league football on two other teams before he joined the Bandits.
Players on the team “have their own minds,” he said.
Small for a football player, but muscular and quick, Forcell jokes and struts before games, yet becomes intense upon viewing his world from a face mask. He plays “everything” — wide receiver, running back, corner back and kickoff and punt returner.
In practice he surges up among players twice his size to catch a pass and comes down with the ball, then takes a handoff and pushes right through the line.
In recent months, the father of two has had trouble finding a job, but football remains a positive force.
“It’s rough right now,” he said. “Instead of feeling low down, (I) come out here.”
Another young father, Paul Allyn, 22, plays running back. His tattoo on the inside of his left arm reads “Family is thicker than blood” in elegant script.
Allyn, a Live Oak High School track and football standout, speaks in rapid bursts that resemble his running style of bouncing off his lead blockers and any defender that tries to wrap up and tackle him.
“I’m not the shortest guy, but I’m not the biggest,” he said, swaying back and forth with helmet in hand. “I like to prove to people that big, short, or tall, size doesn’t matter. If you have passion, you can do anything.”
These lessons he hopes to pass to his two children, he said. Instead of seeing a dad who comes in from work angry and abusive, Allyn said, he wants them to see a father who loves life.
“I want them to look up and say, my dad is active and works hard,” he said.
On the first Saturday in August, as they prepared to play the New Orleans Gladiators, the Riverboat Bandits numbered in the 30s while some Gladiators would have to play both sides of the ball.
Two minutes before their season officially started, the players remained huddled in the end zone. They prayed together, then Kay dropped his even-tempered, insurance agent voice and yelled before the bunched players, “It’s on!”
“Where’s your foot going to be?” he yelled. “On their necks!” the players answered.
“Where’s your foot going to be?” Kay repeated. “On their necks!”
Together in gray and black jerseys, they charged from the north end zone, then hit the field. Their season had begun.