At Wolfpack Stadium behind Park High School, a few receivers and defensive backs in full football pads work despite a steady drizzle, running backward against invisible opponents, sprinting and juking through imaginary pass routes to get the timing down.
Along with getting ready for a Saturday game for the semipro North Bank Bulls, many players also were preparing for more: another step on their personal road to bigger — or at least extended — football dreams.
It’s a hope shared by the team’s co-owners, Chase Brakke and Brock Schreiner, who have brought the newly formed Bulls to Cottage Grove for the team’s inaugural season in the Northern Elite Football League (NEFL). There are nine NEFL teams in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and the Bulls take their name from their home turf being on the north bank of the Mississippi River.
Professional sports teams talk of rebuilding years, but for the Bulls, it’s been just a plain building season. Owning a semipro football team, even though the players actually pay owners a $175 fee for the privilege of playing, is not a lucrative proposition.
“It’s expensive,” said Brakke, who handles most of the business end as chief operating officer. “We’re not even going to come close to making money this year.”
But that’s not really the point.
For the owners and players alike, passion is the driving force. “Yeah, it’s definitely the love for the game,” said Schreiner, who works as the team’s general manager along with suiting up as a linebacker. By day, he works in insurance.
Both Schreiner and Brakke envision the team as a community asset, a source for funding charitable programs, not just as a source of fun and hometown pride. The team has already pledged 25 percent of concession revenues to the Cottage Grove Athletic Association, which supports youth sports programs, Schreiner said. The team is set up as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit charitable corporation — any profits the team eventually makes will be returned to the community.
This first season has been about trying to get the groundwork established. By next season, Brakke and Schreiner said they hope to raise more awareness about the team, build up the fan base and draw area sponsors as a consistent source of revenue.
Brakke and Schreiner both played football in high school in Wisconsin — Brakke in the small town of Hurley, and Schreiner in Somerset, a perennial football powerhouse. Both went to the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, but they didn’t play for the football team.
They never lost that desire, however, and both played for the Eau Claire Crush of the NEFL. “The camaraderie of the guys, of being part of a team — that’s what you miss the most, that brotherhood of knowing somebody always has your back,” Brakke said.
More semipro football leagues like the NEFL are being formed to give talented players another avenue to success or to extend playing careers, Schreiner said. The conventional high school-to college-to pros route doesn’t work for everybody, and the leagues offer a chance to let a player’s talent shine at a high level of competition.
Woodbury also has a team, the Sting, playing in the Midwest Premier Football League (MPFL), which has eight teams in Minnesota. Its home stadium is at East Ridge High School.
Each of the 50 or so players on the Bulls roster brings a unique story. They come from across the country and nearby, including receiver Colin Gilliam, who played at Woodbury, and Robert Grissom, a defensive back who played at New Life Academy; from high schools, small colleges and large universities like the University of Minnesota and Notre Dame. Some aspire to greater things in football — the Arena League, Europe, possibly the NFL. Others are older and just relish a chance to stay on the field as long as possible.
Aside from the fee to play, they are responsible for their own medical bills if they get hurt and provide their own equipment with the exception of jerseys, the black-and-gold uniforms and helmets.
Two Bulls running backs, Andre Owens and Herschel Brazell, were supposed to play last season for the Minnesota Dragons, but the team folded before they could play a home game at the Metrodome. Both are happy with the Bulls.
Owens, who played for Park Center, is planning to go to Central Piedmont Community College in North Carolina for a year, then hopefully on to North Carolina A&T, which has a Division I football program. Brazell, who played in Apple Valley, also is taking community college classes and is hoping to add to his highlight video.
“It’s been good,” Owens said. “The team chemistry’s been getting better and better. Each week we’re coming together.”