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Diamonds in the rough


Minor-league football is alive and well in OKC, thanks to the Diamondbacks.

Murray Evans August 1st, 2012

OKC Diamondbacks vs. Saint Louis Bulldogs
7 p.m. Saturday
Leodies Robinson Field
Millwood High School
6724 N. Martin Luther King
okcdiamondbacks.com
$7

Adrian Fisher thought he’d rid himself of the football bug.

Several years removed from a successful playing career at Langston University, the 31-year-old Fisher had a job and had long since given up the idea of returning to the gridiron.

Then he ran into a couple of friends at a gym who convinced him to give the sport one more try.

Now Fisher’s the starting middle linebacker for the Oklahoma City Diamondbacks, a minor-league franchise that has won 33 straight games in two different leagues with a roster of men hoping for one last shot at making a living playing the game they love.

No doubt those odds are long, but that chance drives players through a season that began in the January cold, has continued through a brutally hot summer and might not end until October.

“Football was out of my system,” Fisher said, sitting under a shade tree on a 105-degree day at Millwood High School’s Leodies Robinson Field, where the Diamondbacks play home games. “I hadn’t been on a football field in four or five years. I didn’t know if I still had it or not, but after the first practice, it felt like I hadn’t even lost a step.”


Clean sweep

Owner Robert Dennis, who played football at Midwest City High School and Cameron University in the 1980s, started the team in 2008 after working in Norman with another franchise in the Oklahoma Minor Football League, or OMFL.

He coached the Diamondbacks for four years, adding Millwood assistant coach Kevin Cox to his staff in 2010 and Brian Kelly — a former head coach at Edmond Santa Fe High School who also has worked as an assistant at the NCAA Division I and Arena Football League levels — the following year. Kelly and Cox are now the Diamondbacks’ associate head coaches, with Cox running a high-octane offense and Kelly overseeing a stingy defensive unit.

The Diamondbacks have run roughshod over OMFL competition, having won the last three titles. This year, they’ve won games by scores of 77-12, 74-7, 94-0 and 112-0.

After the OMFL season ended May 19, the Diamondbacks jumped into the more competitive Gridiron Developmental Football League and resumed play on June 2. The team has won its first six games in the GDFL, which includes teams across the country, separated into divisions mostly based on geography.

Against teams from St. Louis, Shreveport, La., and elsewhere in Oklahoma, the Diamondbacks have continued to post lopsided wins, including 82-6 and 79-0 routs.


'Chance to go somewhere’

Like most GDFL teams, the Diamondbacks operate on a shoestring budget. Players aren’t paid; in fact, they must pay a league fee of $135, provide much of their own equipment and help with fundraisers to pay for team expenses, including charter-bus travel for longer trips.

The Diamondbacks have a few small corporate sponsors, including Stable Energy of Oklahoma City, whose company name is on the team’s gold jerseys.

Adrian Fisher

The 63-man roster (of which 60 can be active) is dotted with players who starred at Oklahoma’s high schools or small colleges, along with a smattering of players from non-major-college programs from outside the state.

Most have jobs and responsibilities outside football, which often makes the practice schedule a challenge.

“It’s more organized than what people think,” Cox said. “People think it’s like beer-league softball. But 75 percent of our guys played college football.

There are some guys [in the league] who don’t want to let go, but these are guys who, physically, still have a chance to go somewhere.”

Not surprisingly, many of the Diamondbacks believe they should be competing at a higher level. Some have a realistic shot of doing so, such as quarterback Brandon Noohi, a former University of Central Oklahoma standout who has drawn interest from some Canadian Football League teams. Former Diamondbacks defensive lineman Lionel Bibbins played for the Arena Football League’s Utah Blaze this past summer.

The Diamondbacks are ranked second nationally in the GDFL. League playoffs start next month, and OKC should enjoy the home-field advantage through most of the post-season.

If they win their conference title, the team would play another conference champion for the right to play in the GDFL title game in mid-October in Orlando, Fla.

“This is one of the greatest collections of talent I’ve ever been with and that’s part of the reason for our success,” Fisher said. “We’ve got a lot of guys who should have or have had their shot at other leagues … and didn’t stick or get picked up. We’ve got guys who still are trying to get another shot. This is our chance to still play.”

 
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