A home for football: Former Mesa State star helps form semipro team in Grand Junction
Ed Johnson could never find a good excuse to put away his football helmet.
That passion drove the former defensive tackle at Mesa State College to start a semipro football team, the Grand Junction Gladiators.
“I still love football, and still wanted to play,” Johnson said. “This community needs something extra and I figured who better to try and put it on than me.”
Johnson, 30, finished his playing career at Mesa State in 2004 and spent the past six years playing in the Arena Football League with teams in Oklahoma City, Bossier-Shreveport, La., Bakersfield, Calif., and Kansas City.
Johnson, who has young children, said being on the road had taken its toll and he decided to return home to Grand Junction.
“I have kids on the phone saying ‘Dad, what’s going on?’ ” Johnson said. “Here I am in another state playing ball and it got hard, so I wanted to come home and be with family.”
Johnson began the process of putting together the Gladiators in January, and got help from the team’s sponsor Grand Junction Subaru, which will help pay for travel expenses, field usage and keeping the cost down for players.
With a sponsor in place, Johnson spread the word by putting up fliers around local gyms and Mesa State College.
Johnson said the initial reaction was strong.
“We had a tryout in January and had a good turnout,” Johnson said. “I was confident I could find a good group of guys because we have such good sports here from the high school level to Mesa State and on.”
Johnson said semipro football is an outlet for every player who comes out.
“We have guys who are right out of high school and didn’t get a lot of reps,” Johnson said. “We have guys that are looking to keep playing and getting better and hoping to move on.”
But there are also players like John Wirth, who are simply making up for lost time. Wirth went to high school at Fruita Monument where the opportunity was never right to play football.
“I played soccer in high school. Seven years ago this guy I worked with was playing semipro football and he said they needed a kicker and punter, so I came out,” said Wirth, 30. “I’ve been into it since.”
Wirth originally handled the kicking duties, but since then has played all over the field. Wirth said playing football has not only been a lot of fun, but kept him in shape.
“You take a little bruising but you train like you want to play, and I’ve lost 20 pounds just getting ready for this season,” Wirth said. “It’s a good place for people to get onto the field, and we need people to come out and take advantage of it.”
Lawrence Scott is a 22-year-old whose only football experience is playing flag football. Scott said he wants to see if he has what it takes to play tackle football.
“I’m really excited because I’ve been told I can play pretty well, so I want to see how far I can take it and see how much knowledge I can get,” Scott said. “Our first game is a month away so I’m going to play how I always have and see how it goes.”
The Gladiators will play in the Mountain West Region of the North American Football League. Grand Junction has nine games scheduled, beginning on May 22 on the road against the Rocky Mountain Renegades. The Gladiators’ first home game with be June 12 at Stocker Stadium, with the season running through early August.
“We have time between every single game and we only have five teams in the league, so we play every team a couple of times. The good thing about that is we can learn from what we did,” Johnson said. “The first two or three games are a warm-up, so with nine games, that should be enough to determine how we should be.”
Johnson said the Gladiators are always looking for more players. Anyone interested can go to http://www.grandjunctiongladiators.com.
“This is an opportunity for someone to get that itch itched,” Johnson said.