The North American Football League has 57 teams located in four conferences and numerous divisions, including four that contain one team. The league's website describes the brand of football as semi-pro, although when the players are paying to play -- rather than vice versa -- the pro aspect loses its luster.

What we're talking about is post-college amateur football, and it has been around Minnesota in various ways for years. In 2002, a number of people who had been involved with the Minneapolis Lumberjacks started a team in St. Paul called the Pioneers.

The quest in the early seasons was to win the Mid-America Football League title, which the Pioneers did in 2003, '04 and '06. The Pioneers became a full-fledged member of the expansive North American league in 2008. They went 8-1 in the regular season, won three playoff games and then lost 42-16 to the Indianapolis Tornadoes in the Northern Conference title game.

This season was similar -- 9-1, followed by three playoff victories -- but then the Pioneers defeated the Racine Raiders 39-17 to win the conference. This set up a game against the Bellingham (Wash.) Bulldogs, champs of the Western Division.

The stake was a place in the NAFL championship game in Miami. The complication was that Bellingham would be the home team. A few players with the dollars to do it bought plane tickets to Seattle. The vast majority climbed into six vans with their coaches and drove.

"You got to love football to spend 23 hours in a van, play a game, and then ride for another 23 hours to get home," offensive tackle C.J. Sanderson said.

The Pioneers left at 7 a.m. Friday, stopped in Montana after midnight for brief sleep, then rolled into Bellingham at 4 p.m. on Saturday, three hours before kickoff.

The visitors stretched the kinks from being squeezed into those vans and defeated Bellingham 20-15.

"Driving back after a loss ... I don't know how we would've taken that," Sanderson said. "But I didn't mind at all, knowing we had a chance to win a national championship. This is going to be the most important football game of my life."

Sanderson played one year of high school football in Tampa, Fla. He was discovered by the Concordia (St. Paul) coaches at a linemen's recruiting camp in Florida. He's now married to Stephanie Westman, a former Concordia basketball player, and they have a 3-year-old son, Christopher John Jr.

C.J. played in Arena2 and other indoor leagues. The Orlando Predators, a team in the now-defunct Arena League, gave Sanderson a tryout, took his name and never called.

This is C.J.'s second season with the Pioneers -- and the idea that he could play pro ball in Canada, in the new United Football League, even in the NFL, remains alive.

"I have the size and I have the heart," Sanderson said. "I'm hoping that this weekend is when a door could open for me."

The NAFL has several football events this weekend at Florida International Stadium, and Sanderson will be fully involved. He will participate in a pro workout for interested league all-stars on Saturday morning. The Pioneers and Nashville will kick off at 3:30 p.m. Central time in the championship game. And then Sanderson will play in an all-star game on Sunday afternoon.

"I grew up in Florida and have been everywhere in the state," Sanderson said. "I've seen the bright lights in Miami before. I'm sure most of our guys will have a good celebration if we win the championship, but two beers will be my limit. This is a business trip."

Kym Trueblood is a defensive tackle and another Pioneers all-star. He's 40 and will complete his schooling to become a realtor today. And then it's off to Miami, right?

"Football is so much in my blood that I've been playing in leagues like this for 12 years," Trueblood said. "I've been telling my teammates this is my last year, and it would be great to go out on top."

There's an obstacle for Trueblood in achieving this that goes beyond the Nashville Storm:

"I need something like $300 for a plane ticket and don't have the money," Trueblood said. "I've checked with a few people, but right now, it's a question if I'll make it to Miami."

And that's why the description "semi-pro" comes with heavy emphasis on "semi."

Patrick Reusse can be heard 5:30-9 a.m. weekdays on AM-1500 KSTP. •