Hernando acquires franchise
By GREG AUMAN
© St. Petersburg Times,
The idea started on long drives from Brooksville to St. Petersburg, when Abraham Dowdell commuted for practices and games while with the St. Petersburg Sharks.
Dowdell, who had played football with former NFL first-round picks William Floyd and Tom Carter at Lakewood, knew if he missed playing enough to make that drive several times a week, surely there were others like him in Hernando County.
After two years of thinking and planning, Dowdell submitted an application to the Southern States Football League, which approved the Hernando Eagles as one of five additions to the 14-team semipro league.
"I think this will be something big for the community," said Dowdell, who served in the Army during Operation Desert Storm and works as a manager in the security department at Sears in Spring Hill.
"The guys I've talked to are very excited." he said, "And they have no idea how excited I am about this."
The Eagles held their first organizational meeting at Parrott Middle School on Saturday. A former receiver, Dowdell helped the Sharks win the SSFL championship last year in his fourth season with the team.
The Hernando squad is in discussions with Hernando High about playing its home games at Tom Fisher Stadium, and Dowdell said he has received permission to hold tryouts there Sept. 29.
Training camp will be at Ernie Wever Park in December. In January, the Eagles will begin a 10-game schedule, including trips to Tampa, Jacksonville, St. Petersburg and Rockledge.
Dowdell said he has received an encouraging number of responses from local ex-players, including Hernando's Jermaine Green, a former all-state running back who earned a scholarship to Florida State in 1993.
Some of the league's best players weren't big stars in their prep days, however.
One of Dowdell's teammates in St. Petersburg was Jerry Blake, who was an undersized defensive back at Springstead in 1995, earning second-team All-North Suncoast honors.
But he has improved enough since that he was the league MVP last season.
The league does not pay its players, who also must supply their equipment. Teams practice two or three nights a week and play games on Saturday nights.
Dowdell has covered details such as incorporation and setting up a Web site at hernandoeagles.com.
Players are responsible for their insurance, and the premiums for a season are $79.
Dowdell has spread the news around Brooksville by painting the squad's logo and the words "Flying Unity in the Community" on his van.
One reason the league doesn't pay its players is so younger athletes can keep their college eligibility. Dowdell said players who do not have a high school diploma or GED will be enrolled in a team program to help them receive one.
He has avoided publicizing the Eagles at high school football games because he doesn't want teenagers to think of the squad as an alternative to college.
There's a family and community message underlying the Eagles' mission statement, outlined in fliers Dowdell has distributed around the county.
"The Eagles offer young adults an avenue to use their energies to be productive, positive role models for other citizens in the county," it reads.
"The Eagles are determined to get those young adults off the streets and out of trouble to enhance sportsmanship and to encourage volunteerism."
The SSFL has franchises in major cities, including Miami, but Dowdell said the places where he has seen the league work best are smaller towns such as Bartow, Raiford, Homestead and Lakeland.
The admission for games will be $5, comparable to a high school game, and Dowdell said he would like to see crowds of 800 to 1,000.
"The feeling I've gotten is that people have been waiting a long time for something like this to come to the community," Dowdell said.
"For the players, I know the excitement and feeling of being able to still go out on the field and do it is special."
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