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    Punt, pass - and protect

    Scouting reports say the New York's Finest team can be nasty. But the local Posse is not a bunch of pantywaist wimps, you know?

    [Times photos: Toni L. Sandys]
    Members of the Tampa Bay Posse gather before the end of practice Wednesday. They will take on NYPD's Finest in the Badge Bowl today at Sickles High School. The game will raise money for local children's charities and the NYPD's 9/11 fund for families of those killed in the World Trade Center.

    By MIKE BRASSFIELD
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published May 4, 2002


    At work, they chase crooks. On their days off, they chase a football.

    They strip off their bulletproof vests and strap on some shoulder pads.

    Today, in one of their biggest tests, the Tampa Bay Posse, a football team of local police officers, will take on New York's Finest in the Badge Bowl, "full contact football between public safety officials."

    photo
    Bail bondsman and Posse player Robert Ryan prepares for practice Wednesday. Bondsmen are considered law enforcement officers since they have arrest powers.
    The teams hope for a big turnout to raise money for local children's charities and the NYPD's 9/11 fund for families of those killed in the World Trade Center.

    This could be a tough game for the locals; scouting reports describe New York's Finest as nasty. But the Posse can get nasty, too.

    "Policemen and firemen can be very intense. You see that in their work, and you see that on the field," said Tim Hayes, a Tampa firefighter and wide receiver.

    "The games are very intense and hard-hitting," added Steve Lewis, a Hillsborough County sheriff's deputy and strong safety. "Nobody likes to lose."

    The Posse's linebackers, running backs and tackles are also patrol officers, detectives, jailers and paramedics from all over Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. Drill instructors from juvenile boot camps turn into tenacious offensive linemen. The team even has military police from MacDill Air Force Base.

    These are not doughy, doughnut-chomping cops. They're in game shape. Many played high school and college football. Many of them joined this team years ago, back when it was known as the Tampa Bay Guardians.

    Each year, they play a handful of other teams in the National Public Safety Football League to raise money for charity.

    The players pay their own travel costs to away games. They practice on their own time, three days a week.

    But getting the whole team to show up for practice is nearly impossible because of all their different schedules. So many of them don't work 9 to 5.

    Another hurdle: Everybody wants to be a star. They all want to touch the ball.

    "Everybody wants to be a running back or wide receiver," lamented head coach Carl Watts. "It's hard to get linemen."

    Like his players, Watts is a master at juggling time.

    A decade ago, he was a rookie St. Petersburg patrol officer and a starting defensive tackle for the Tampa Bay Storm, the local Arena League team. He spent 15 hours a day in one uniform or another.

    Now he's a coach for the Posse and the Gibbs High School Gladiators, and was recently promoted from homicide detective to patrol sergeant.

    He's worried about today's game.

    "This New York team has been around for decades," he said. "They bring in 70 players."

    At practice this week at St. Petersburg's 31st Street Sports Complex, Watts had police officers in blue and gray jerseys running sprints and catching balls.

    Today on the gridiron, they'll be slamming into each other at full speed.

    Why put themselves through all this?

    "For the love for the game," said Jesse Warren, a heavily muscled linebacker and a truancy deputy with the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office. "I'm trying to stay young."

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