AS SPRING DUSK GATHERS, about 40 helmeted men practice on the football field at Milwaukie’s Rex Putnam High School. Gene Wilson, a 54-year-old navy vet now wearing the uniform of the Detroit Lions, carefully sets up a ball at the 15-yard line.
“I promised my wife I would just watch today,” Wilson says, adding that he’s recovering from a swollen prostate. “I’m on Oxycontin right now.” He then boots four precision missiles straight through the uprights.
Wilson kicks for the Portland Raiders, a band of former high school and college players in the thick of the Northwest’s small but vibrant “minor league” (i.e., amateur) football scene. Portland may now be baseball-free, but the city supports two Pacific Football League teams, the Raiders and the Monarchs, which play spring seasons against opponents scattered from Klamath Falls to Bellingham, Washington. The Monarchs reign o’er the spirited rivalry between the two squads—they have won 41 regular season games in a row, dating back to 2008, and narrowly lost the national minor league championship game in Las Vegas last year. The Raiders, meanwhile, lost all 10 of their games last season.
When it comes to commitment, however, the playing field is level. Both Raiders and Monarchs players compete for love, not money. And though PFL games draw as many as 2,000 fans, all 16 teams are nonprofits. Raiders owner Mike Jeske, 32, a network administrator for the State of Oregon, spends roughly $25,000 each year on travel, uniforms, and promotion—a sum only partially recouped through ticket sales and players’ fees.
On the field, ambition and aspiration mingle with nostalgia for past careers. Raiders quarterback Zack Taylor, 21, who finished high school in 2008, hopes to assemble a highlight reel worthy of a place on a Division III college team.
“Zack never got a chance to display his true talents in high school,” says Raiders coach Lawrence Haynes III, 42. Last year, the Raiders sent two running backs on scholarships to Weber State in Utah, a Big Sky Conference rival of Portland State.
Career aims aside, most Raiders and Monarchs simply take pride in their dedication to a sport few postcollegiate adults are able to play. “I want the Raiders to earn the same respect as the Monarchs,” says Haynes.
“It’s a violent game,” he adds. “But it’s a beautiful game.”