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Published: Wednesday, 7/16/2008

Semipro Knights in pursuit of gridiron glory

BY MARK MONROE
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Area fans can get an early football fix this summer by watching local semipro players continue their pursuit of gridiron glory.

The Northwest Ohio Knights is a minor-league football team based in Maumee. The organization consists mostly of athletes who played high school football in the City League and Northern Lakes League.

Former Maumee High School linebacker Dave Calabrese not only owns the team, but serves as its defensive coordinator and special teams coach.

"It's hard-hitting, smash-mouth football," Calabrese said. "It's football just like you see on TV. It's NFL rules."

The players range in age from 18 to 51. Some played in college, but most did not. Many play just for fun, but some hope to move on "to the next level."

All pay a onetime fee of $150 for the right to knock heads every Saturday night throughout the summer.

The Knights play home games at the Lucas County Recreation Center. The team started 3-0 this season and has outscored opponents 98-36.

The Knights' next home game is Saturday against the Lakeshore Cougars, a team from Holland, Mich. Kickoff is at 7 p.m.

Team captain Edwin Clayborne, a 6-foot-3, 302-pound lineman, leads the Knights in tackles with 26, and in sacks with four.

"I feel like I could make it to the next level and play for an Arena League team," Clayborne said.

"But if it does not happen, I'm content with my job here in Toledo and being able to still play football."

The 49 players on the Knights' roster also are trying to hold down full-time jobs.

Clayborne is a paraprofessional at St. Vincent Mercy Children's Hospital, working with autistic children.

The 25-year-old may seem like a gentle giant, but he plays with a vengeance along the line.

Knights quarterback Corey Minnfield starred at Woodward High School before playing at Defiance College and Ohio Northern University.

Minnfield said he has attended many formal workout sessions with teams in the Canadian Football League and Arena Football League. He also said he had a tryout with the NFL's New York Giants in 2004.

"But they had Eli Manning and I guess they thought I was too short," Minnfield said.

At 5-10 and 215 pounds, Minnfield said he has always had to overcome perceptions that he is not tall enough to excel. But he led another Toledo-based semipro team, the Seminoles, to a title in the Ohio Valley Football League in 2006.

Minnfield, 24, has taken only one year off from playing football. He works as a technician for ProMedica Health System. "I'm still trying to get to the next level," he said. "I've had tryouts with teams in Cincinnati, Chicago, and Calgary."

Minnfield, who has thrown for 550 yards and nine touchdowns, has not been intercepted, and has been sacked only once, estimates that a fifth of the players on the Knights' roster could play at a higher level.

"I'm not finished playing yet," he said. "If I can make money with my arm, I will do all that I can to do it."

Running back Eric Robinson, a Fremont St. Joseph graduate, leads the team in rushing with 432 yards and two touchdowns.

Wideout Tarnez Braswell, a Woodward graduate, has paced the Knights with nine catches for 170 yards and six touchdowns.

The Knights play in the Great Lakes Football League, which consists of seven teams, six of which are based in Michigan. The team, in its second year of existence, has defeated teams from Adrian, Belleville, and Detroit.

Calabrese, a 1991 graduate of Maumee, said he won a title with the Toledo Seminoles in 2006. About 15 of the players on the Knights' roster also played for the Seminoles.

"I want to be part of it. I just can't play anymore," he said. "But I've got my ring."

Clayborne, who also was a member of the Seminoles, is the vocal leader. "I keep their heads up," he said.

Clayborne played high school football in Georgia, and received a scholarship to play at the University of Toledo. He received a redshirt his freshman year and never saw game action.

"I had a child and it was too hard to raise my child and go to school and play football," he said.

Clayborne said the team takes pride in representing Toledo and Ohio.

"This is one of the best teams I've played for," he said. "This is real football out here. I mean, we're all grown men. Our ultimate goal is to play for a championship."

Defensive back William McCoy, a Start High School graduate, is an example of how important the game is for many of the players. McCoy had to take himself out of practice on July 8 because of trouble catching his breath. McCoy said he and his family escaped the devastating fire that destroyed nine buildings at the Hunters Ridge apartment complex in South Toledo on July 5.

He said he was staying with his mother and sister for the Fourth of July when they smelled smoke at about 1:30 in the morning.

"We thought it was just fireworks," McCoy said. "We got my mom up and we went outside. We thought the woods were on fire. But the roof on the apartment right next to my mom's was on fire."

He said he inhaled smoke and it was still affecting him at practice three days later.

His mother, Wendy, lost her belongings and is now staying with his aunt, he said. "We're just lucky we got out before the fire got to our apartment," he added.

McCoy, 21, who graduated from Start in 2005, said he learned about the Knights from a former high school teammate.

"It's football. I love football," McCoy said. "It's just a good chance to be able to play. It keeps me busy."

McCoy, who works for Federal Express, said he tried to play in college, but it didn't work out. "This is the way I can keep playing. This is a good team and we keep getting better every week," he said.

Safety Vashawn Robinson, a 2003 graduate of Springfield, went right from playing high school football to playing semipro.

Robinson said he wanted to play at the University of Toledo but had difficulty with his grades. He said he now hopes to play in the Arena League.

"I want to go up to that next level," Robinson said. "I think now that we have a good record, people will start looking at our team."

Robinson's 4-year-old son, Keyon, was at the team's practice last week. Currently laid off from his construction job, Robinson now works for temp agencies and football serves as his outlet.

"We're doing really well right now. Our defense is pretty stacked. Our secondary is good," Robinson said. "Everyone just keeps getting better and better. People are starting to pay attention."

Robinson said an increasing number of fans have been attending the home games.

"It was pretty packed," he said. "It's a good game all around. It's hard-hitting. Emotionally, this team is coming together."

One of the team's oldest players is 35-year-old Terrell Villolovos. The Scott High School grad has been playing semipro football for eight years.

"It's good exercise," he said.

Villolovos said a huge benefit that the team can provide is keeping young people out of trouble, especially in the summer.

"It gives guys something to do," he said. "When you're part of a winning team, it gives you a reason to keep coming out and playing."

Calabrese, 36, works at Ford and is raising four children. He said he is particularly proud of the team's fund-raising efforts in May. The team held a walk to raise funds for a local Cystic Fibrosis charity organization.

Dave's wife, Carey, 37, is co-owner of the team. She also handles the public relations duties.

"I was a semipro football cheerleader and I watched him play for 13 years," Carey Calabrese said. "After he couldn't play anymore, I said, 'Let's own a team.'•"

The Calabreses took over the Knights half way through last season.

"We haven't lost since. Knock on wood," the hairdresser said.

The team also has a Knights Kids Club and gives youngsters an opportunity to be honorary captains. The team's goal is to provide solid family sports entertainment, Calabrese said.

Tickets for adults are $5 and $2 for children 12-and-under. Kids 5-and-under get in for free. The team has two more games in August. For more information go to the team's website: nwoknights.org.

"It's cheap entertainment," Calabrese said. "We're just trying to keep high-level football alive in Toledo."

Contact Mark Monroe at: mmonroe@theblade.com or 419-304-4760.



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