By Oliver Morrison
Dave Gusbin, 49, has been an ironworker for 29 years. But instead of resting his body every weekend, he plays amateur football—on two teams. This was his 40th year of football.
One of the leagues Gusbin plays in is the Five-Star Football League, a New York City league that has grown from 12 to 20 teams in just three years. The success of the Five Star Football League mirrors the success of amateur football nationally. The number of teams has grown from more than 800 just two years ago to more than 1,300 today, according to semiprofooball.org.
According to John Shakowski, 46, the Five-Star commissioner, amateur football wasn’t taken as seriously when he started out 28 years ago. “In fact, then, football games were allowed to happen with no goal posts. If you didn’t have goal posts then you just didn’t kick,” said Shakowski.
Shakowski said the league is attracting more players and teams by making the games more professional: matching uniforms, strictly enforced rules, and teams that always show up.
It is starting to work. Two players on the Long Island Panthers exemplify the wide range of players amateur football now attracts.
At 5 feet 6 inches tall, Mitch Conklin is the shortest player on the Panthers and prowls the sidelong, barking at players and coaches about what they should be doing. Conklin, 26, led the team in tackles and has been playing football since he was 9, including on a championship team in junior college.
“Big things come in small packages,” said Conklin. “You gotta player harder than the next guy. It doesn’t matter if he is bigger or smaller than you.”
Barry John is 6 feet 5 inches and 250 lbs. with a soft cadence that can barely be heard from his perch on the bench when he’s not in the game. John, 27, had never played football before this year.
John said strangers always used to tell him that he looked like a college player. But his mom wanted him to focus on his studies. So he earned two degrees in engineering, but secretly longed to play.
“I definitely could’ve been something great if my parents had given me that chance,” said John. “My wife’s, like, if you could go pro it would be the story of a lifetime.”
Ray Marx, the owner and coach of the Long Island Panthers, charges players $225 a season to cover field and referee costs and says he still loses between $3,000 and $5,000.
The fee doesn’t cover pads or helmets. Kelly Marcucci, 25, lost his helmet last year and had to use a middle school helmet because he didn’t want to pay $300 for another.
Marcucci said he has started worrying more about injuries after he saw one of his friends knocked unconscious last year.
“I was patting him on the chest trying to wake him up for two minutes. He wasn’t moving or saying anything and I honestly started crying,” said Marcucci.
After his team just missed the playoffs in the final game this year, Coach Marx picked up his players’ jerseys from a pile on the sideline, dumped them in his car and mumbled. Players don’t come to practice. The assistant coach won’t listen.
But Marx will be back.
“I’m a glutton for punishment. I love this sport,” he said.