FFL Rewind: The Minicamp Diaries, A War of Northern Aggression (2002)

By  Last updated: 27th April 2011
The following piece was originally published on The FFL Online during the 2002 preseason.

The Minicamp Diaries, Part II: A War of Northern Aggression
by Jessie Hester

Peeling through the South Carolina low-country, we were making good time to Stables, SC, site of the Charleston Challengers minicamp. However, an uncharacteristic mid-April heat wave had set in on the East Coast, leaving our morale low and our supply of ice cold drinks even lower. Couple this with the fact that the Manfordmobile’s air conditioning is only occasionally functional, and you’ve set up a formula for a major Hester tantrum. I mean, do you think that Chris Berman and Tom Jackson have to put up with this? They have walk-in humidors for their fancy gold-plated cigars, and college kids that hover around them like obedient bees. Or, well, so I’ve been told. The security guards in Bristol are sensitive about who gets to ride in their elevators. But I did see Linda Cohn at the local Friendly’s once, eating one of those sundaes with a cone for a hat. Anyway, we had been on the road all day, and we needed some diversion.

Salvation came in the form of a handwritten signpost at the side of the road, advertising Tealick, SC’s Spring-Time Fair. Bob derisively mocked the advertisement, chalking it up as a “hicktown grunt n’ square dance.” But Manford was unconvinced, and demanded that Coach K pull off at the next crossroad. This was getting to be a tiresome trend. The Never-Empty one had lobbied for stopping over at every Shoney’s, Cracker Barrel and Waffle House that we had seen on the trip. I groaned in disgust, considering the mental image of seeing Fowler stuff his face with yet another handful of mashed potatoes. Coach K obviously shared my opinion, as he unleashed a profanity laced tirade directed at the Fowl Man. Jackie and Ricardo, who probably didn’t care either way, lounged in the bed of the truck, sharing a smoke. We passed another sign for Tealick’s fair, this one emblazoned with a bright picture of a blueberry pie surrounding by hungry round-faced children. Manford reiterated his demand to stop. Coach K dismissed him, his perpetual snarl now accentuated by veins starting to emerge at his temples. Fowler grabbed at the old man’s neck, wrestling him against the front seat and pinning me to the passenger side window in the process. Coach K pounded his foot on the gas, hoping to lurch Manford backward. We started to careen out of control. Bob dove over the fray to grab the wheel, coasting us into the breakdown lane. Looking through the rear-view mirror, I saw Ricardo and Jackie, sprawled on the side of the road, about a quarter of a mile behind us. Lesson learned: never silence the big man when he’s got pie on his mind.

We pulled off the highway onto what was certainly the road less-traveled, a bumpy, dusty road partially enclosed by a swath of tall trees fringed by hanging Spanish moss. This part of the ride was decidedly more quiet. Whether this was because the fight had produced a calm or because of the searing heat in the truck is up to debate. Eventually we reached the one-stoplight town of Tealick, spilled out of the Manfordmobile, and headed toward the fairgrounds. Coach K and Manford, seemingly reconciled, headed off to sample the local hickory barbecue. Ricardo announced that he had a hankering for authentic Southern chaw, and he headed out in search of it. I decided that my best bet was to get the lay of the land and find someone who is a fan’s fan, a blue-blooded follower of the Charleston Challengers.

My search did not take long. Several paces away I found a van, airbrushed to the nines with silvery grey and the stars and bars of the Confederate flag. Challengers paraphernalia dominated the vehicle. Flags, pennants and vinyl stickers abounded. A bobblehead Jerry Rice adorned the windshield; the mudflaps featured headshots of Kerry Collins (perhaps a critique of his playing ability?). The man accompanying the van, whom I conservatively estimate to be a robust 400 pounds, was wearing a big and tall jersey of Charleston’s latest acquisition, wide receiver Joe Horn. “This, my friend,” bellowed the porcine man, “is what I call the War Van.” His name was Paul Atkins, and since 1995 he had seen it all, every home game in Challengers history.

Atkins set up his wares for the fair: three stuck pigs roasting on separate spits, side by side. He generously lubricated his swine with a buttery glaze, took a seat on his 1996 EFC Championship lawnchair, and began commiserating about Challengers football. Being a Challengers fan, said Atkins, was not just following a team — but following a way of life. One had to embrace the team’s look, the team’s player, and most of all, the team’s leadership. He gestured to the back of the van, where a mock shrine featuring a facade of melted candles surrounded a photo of head coach Chris Bransfield. Most important, he noted, was the underdog mentality of the team. “Look at them,” Atkins said. “Smaller market. Less resources. Tough division. And the most important thing, they’re not the same as the rest of the East teams. They play New York, Boston, Middletown. They fight the good fight, the underdog fight. All over again, it’s a war of northern aggression. And they’re united together, they’re not afraid, they just come to play.”

Was this the substance behind Challengers fandom? Channeling ancient spirits of the Civil War through a football team? Worshipping Chris Bransfield? Being fat? I decided to further investigate. Other fans were less “involved” than Atkins, but they too embraced the underdog persona of the Challengers. Despite being the losingest franchise in FFL history, they were unequivocally loved. Hope Cedar, a local barkeep, said that she thought that “the Challengers feel like community. Been some rough times in the area, economically. Too much tourism, too. Those boys play hard, and we appreciate ’em for it.” Peter Olympus, a gas station attendant, said that while the Challengers made it to the Fantasy Bowl in each of their first two seasons in Charleston, it was the four straight seasons of finishing in the cellar that softened the hearts of Challengers fans. Shades of the “dem bums” Brooklyn Dodgers mentality, perhaps? “They’ve had to learn how to survive, and they’re just biding time to become a first place team,” said Olympus.

The next day we arrived at the Challengers minicamp, relaxed and refreshed. The same couldn’t be said for Charleston’s offensive line, who were huffing and puffing through an exhaustive series of laps around the field. An offsides call during drills had prompted the grueling punishment. Clearly gasping for air, one of the men jogged over to Bransfield. He was hunched over and dripping sweat. “Coach, we got it. Break it up, we’re overheating.”

Bransfield’s response was terse and to the point. “This is about discipline, son.” He then gave him a slap on the shoulder pads and sent him off in the other direction. “Besides,” he yelled after the player jovially, “It’s good to be warm. That’ll be our edge.”

I sit with Bransfield as the morning’s practice goes on. Added discipline, it seems, is the theme of this week. The Challengers are in many ways a team preparing for mass revision, and discipline will be needed in order to weather those changes. Barring a significant trade, the Challengers will probably enter the draft with Jerry Rice, Joe Horn and Tony Gonzalez as their three retainees. Other than that, there is much left to be decided. Will there be enough depth? Who will quarterback? Most importantly, can the Challengers solve their toughest woe — the running game?

Lamar Smith was a disaster in 2001, failing to be the franchise back they had hoped him to be. Ron Dayne has never been consistent, and the other Challenger runners were nothing but scrubs. Smith’s performance was so disastrous, he was not invited by Bransfield to the spring minicamps, and was instead given an early pink slip. The focus in these minicamps has instead been to streamline the passing game.

Passing drills and playaction pitches seem to dominate the playcalling of the day. I watch as Kerry Collins engineers an example of the new complex offensive schemes Bransfield has devised to go against the opposition. Collins takes the snap, fakes a handoff to James Allen, rolls right, and then effortlessly flicks off a short pass to Tony Gonzalez. Derrick Alexander and Jerry Rice, the wideouts on the play, have played effective decoys; they spread the scout team secondary wide, giving Gonzalez the running room he needs. He streaks down the field, hustling in for a 48 yard TD catch. Notably, Bransfield yells out congratulations to Rice and Alexander. Obviously, he is a man looking at the larger design of this season.

“This year is the year for us to make a move,” says Bransfield. “We broke into the playoffs last year, and if we can add a couple of key elements, we may just shock the rest of the league.” Bransfield pledges that the team is going to be very creative this year, perhaps even experimenting with a run-and-shoot setup. He acknowledges that the team has lacked a franchise running back for several years, but feels that adequate talent will be available when the team picks seventh in this year’s draft. “Other than that,” says Bransfield, “We can only work now on building a solid core of leadership.”

Veteran Jerry Rice is hoping to be that glue that keeps the receiving corps stuck together. He has taken newcomer Joe Horn under his wing this year, tutoring him on the revised playbook. “He’s my guardian angel,” says Horn. Horn has struggled in some of the early practices, primarily because the Challengers offense contains more intricacies and audibilized routes than those he ran in Boston. But Horn is a pretty good complement to the team in his own right; his confidence from his Fantasy Bowl X win has made him eager to help this team achieve stardom. His enthusiasm has infected the locker room with a good vibe, even if many of those in the room will be looking for work elsewhere this summer.

As we loaded into the Manfordmobile to continue on our minicamp tour, I glanced back at the playing field. The underdog Challengers were huddled together, going over the merits of the day’s practice. Players were arm over shoulder, buzzing over the success of the new plays introduced that day. Bransfield emerged from the mass of players to call after me. “Hey, tell those guys up North not to underestimate us. We may not be the best, but we’ll be coming up to play.” Behind him, the players jumped up and let out a huge cheer for their coach. It was enough to make me think that portly Paul Atkins might be on to something.

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