Football bonds Gladiators from various backgrounds
Adam Burke hates the kickoff team.
After the tackle was made, Burke remained face down on the field, writhing in pain from taking a helmet to the hip.
It was his first — and definitely his last — appearance on the kick coverage team this season.
“I told them I don’t like kickoff, when I came off, I told them this is why I don’t like kickoff.”
Hobbling on the sideline, Burke pulled off his shoulder pads. His game was done. Four days later, he came to practice on crutches. He hopes to be back before the end of the season.
Burke is in his fourth season with the team. He’s has a solid and a little squared build — a good body for playing fullback. He played for Greeley West High School, then it was off to the military, where he played for Marine and infantry teams.
The wear and tear of a collision sport is taking its toll. At 29, healing takes longer. Age is catching up.
“It’s kind of depressing but there’s a sense of pride, too,” he said about playing on the doorstep of 30. “I got a couple of more years, maybe until I’m 32, 33.”
Last season he tore a knee ligament in the first game and was done for the season.
He’s here because he loves the game of football.
Age is catching up to Adam Burke, but he is a Gladiator.
Tony Kemper moved to Grand Junction to be closer to his grandfather.
He spotted a bunch of guys on the practice field and was intrigued.
“I saw what looked like a bunch of old guys playing football, so I decided to check it out,” he said.
He’s now the starting tailback for the Gladiators.
The 23-year-old played at Standley Lake High School in Westminster. But he says playing semipro ball with the Gladiators is more fun.
“We weren’t very good in high school, so this is a lot more exciting,” he said with a grin.
After high school he discovered rugby but don’t ask him to choose a favorite between the two sports.
“Rugby is a lot faster paced and football is more explosive, more intense. I couldn’t pick between the two,” he said.
At 5-foot-7, 165 pounds, he’s a slasher in his second season.
He loves the game and that’s why he’s still playing.
Tony Kemper is a Gladiator.
QUEST FOR A REPEAT
The Gladiators are undefeated (7-0) and looking to defend their American Professional Football League II championship.
Just in their fourth year as a team, the Grand Junction Gladiators’ quest to win a second-straight title begins Saturday with the first-round playoff game at Stocker Stadium. Kickoff is at 3 p.m. against a yet-to-be determined opponent. The Gladiators have been dominant this season, outscoring their opponents 294-49.
Ed Johnson played on the defensive line for then-Mesa State College before graduating in 2005. After a few years playing arena football, he returned to Grand Junction with his family and started the Gladiators.
At 33, Johnson still plays at a pretty high level, when he’s not providing coaching expertise. He’s also an assistant coach at Grand Junction High School.
The team’s quick rise to the top of the league is no fluke.
“We try and grab the players coming out of high school that aren’t going to play college,” he said. “Most of these players are ex-high school players, ex-college players, some ex-arena players, so the skill set is there. We have better organization and better coaching, so that’s what sets us apart.”
Ed Johnson is a Gladiator.
When Dustin Benton isn’t slinging suds at The Ale House, he’s slinging spirals to Gladiator receivers.
This season, the 6-foot-1, 198-pound quarterback has passed for close to 1,200 yards, 12 touchdowns and only three interceptions.
Not bad for a former linebacker at Central High School and Mesa.
“I wish I would have played quarterback (in high school) but at the time, I played linebacker and was good at it,” he said.
He was out of contact football for nearly six years and “clean, healthy living” had shaved nearly 50 pounds off his frame when he was playing quarterback in the flag football leagues.
At 31, Benton said keeping busy keeps him focused.
“I have a lot of things to occupy my time now and that makes it a lot easier to stay focused, and allows me to be a good role model for my son,” he said.
Today, two things are at the top of his priority list: family and football.
Last year, his first with the Gladiators, Benton helped lead the team to the APFL2 title.
FAMILY AND FOOTBALL
Most of the Gladiator players, both young and old, are content with having fun playing football. Even at 31, Benton says he still has higher football aspirations.
Playing overseas or in South America is a possibility, like Gladiator teammate Jesse Kirstatter, who just returned from a season in France. Benton said his athleticism would be a good fit for the 8-man arena game. And the ultimate goal, he says, would be to find his way onto an NFL practice squad or a backup QB role.
But his priorities are firmly ranked. His wife, Michelle, and their 3-year-old son, Breckin, are at the very top.
“I love football but I don’t love it more than my family. That’s the most important thing,” he said.
And now, the Benton family is about to have another addition with Michelle pregnant with their second child.
Benton said Michelle is very supportive of his football life.
“But it presses on her sometimes,” he said with a tormenting grin. “But she sees the payoff, too, and she wants me to be happy.
“She worries about me, the physical part.”
Like when Denton took his linebacker mentality and tried to bulldoze his way into the end zone a few weeks back.
The collision busted open a gash on his chin but instead of stitches, a dab of Super Glue closed up the wound nicely.
Benton, Kyle Key and Kris Means are the team captains. Benton loves playing for the Gladiators.
“Really, I like my gig right now,” he said. “Now, with another baby on the way, my situation is really good. I have some great friends on this team. We have a great team and a great defense to back me up.”
As for trying to plow his way into the end zone in the future, he smiles and subconsciously rubs his chin.
“I have to play smarter. I’ll slide from now on.”
Dustin Benton is a Gladiator.
LOVE OF THE GAME
This season, the Gladiators are 40 strong with players ranging from age 19 to their 40s.
Waistlines, bald spots and surgical scars have grown since their high school and college glory days, as have the number of tattoos for many. In the stands, girlfriends and wives cheer them on and children root them on. The occasional “Hi Dad!” can be heard as the dads roam the sidelines.
These players continue to play the game, regardless of risk of injury. They play because of the powerful love of football. And because they still can.
For 36-year-old Nathan Gray, football has shaped much of his life.
“Championship Bulldogs ‘95, Coach Joe Ramunno,” he said, proudly recalling his high school days with Palisade.
He plays tackle, linebacker and kicker, and is an eager volunteer for the kickoff team. He proudly says he’s only 5 pounds over his high school playing weight, even though more of his 205 pounds has dropped into his midsection over the past couple of decades.
After 10 years with the now-defunct Grand Junction Outlaws, he joined the Gladiators this year with one goal.
“I came out of retirement to play for the champs and get my ring,” he said.
In the stands, he has two sons, 8 and 2, and a 4-year-old daughter.
He takes pride in still pulling on the pads.
“It’s nice to let our kids see us adults play; instead of just seeing pictures, they get to see Dad play,” he said with a smile.
Football has torn apart both his knees over the years and those injures wear on him at his construction job. But he still plays because he loves the game.
“I just had to get out here, get in shape and get the job done,” he said.
Nathan Gray is a Gladiator.
Jimmie Derrera is one of the youngest and smallest players on the team.
The 20-year-old played running back at Cherokee Trail High School in Aurora, and now the slippery-quick 150-pounder plays wide receiver for the Gladiators.
“I love football. I’m just playing for the love of the game,” he said, echoing the words on almost every other player.
He even played with his dad for a semipro team in Denver last year.
Jimmie Derrera is a Gladiator.
It’s the love of the game that keeps everyone of these Gladiators lacing up his cleats, cinching up the shoulder pads and buckling that chin strap.
For most, injuries have slowed them and age is gaining ground. But still they play. To be part of a team, to try to win a championship, to win together, lose together and hurt together — everything that fueled that love of the game when they first started is still with them.
They play for the love of the game. They are Gladiators.