The Knoxville Knights had clubbed and poleaxed their way to a satisfying 13-0 halftime lead over punkass Midwestern rivals the Stallions of Country Club Hills in the 2009 Alliance World Bowl, the championship-deciding pinnacle of the season for members of the semiprofessional Alliance Football League. But playing on their home turf of Illinois, the Chicago-based Stallions dug in and scrapped their way back into the game until, with less than a minute to go, they found themselves inside the Knights' 20-yard line, down 13-10.
On fourth-and-11, the Stallions' coach made a gutsy call, electing to go for the winning touchdown rather than a tying field goal. So Knights chief Greg Campbell showed his moxie by inserting his top wide receiver—a long, lean fellow, a human tractor beam with adhesive fingertips—as an extra defensive back to shadow the Stallions' best receiver.
The players huddled and broke; the Stallions' quarterback barked out an interminably long count and then finally took the long snap from the shotgun formation. Rolling to his left, he threw the ball on a frozen rope into the front corner of the end zone, near his open receiver and the pylon. At the last possible second, the long arms of the Knights' newest defensive player darted out and snagged the ball, intercepting the pass, sealing both the win and the 2009 season championship for the team.
That the Knights won not only the 2009 but also the 2008 championship in their league; that they've been around (albeit using another moniker, the Crusaders) since 1996; that they haven't had a losing season since 2004; that they still toil away on torridly hot football fields (theirs is a summer-long season) in relative anonymity: This is a source of some consternation for coaches and players.
Given their recent record of success—they were 8-2 in 2010, following the two championship seasons—and the fact that they barely register so much as a blip on the radar of most local sports fans and media outlets, they are arguably the best-kept secret in Knoxville sports. It's a hard dollar, finding the money and motivation to keep going for 15 years with so little in the way of tangible rewards, but the Knights have done so, going almost the whole way under team founder/coach/occasional quarterback Campbell.
"Knoxville is a tough place to do what we're doing," acknowledges Knights starting center/de facto offensive coordinator/public-relations guy Joshua Paluzi, a big, shaven-headed fellow with a bird's nest of a goatee. "You have the university, and they're always going to get most of the attention. We don't want to compete with UT football. We want to be our own thing at our own time of year, getting out to the community and getting exposure so they know where we're at.
"We'd like to be part of the community," he adds. "We'll work with other organizations. People shouldn't be afraid to ask for our help."
The Knights are banking on the fact that while Knoxville is and always will be a college football town above all else, it is also purely a football town in the abstract. Thus the Knights have graciously scheduled their June-to-October season so that, mostly, it doesn't coincide with University of Tennessee games. They have priced their tickets reasonably ($8 gate, $7 advance for games at Carter High School), and generally done everything they know how to do to appeal to a fan base that will support, for instance, Friday midnight sports shows and Saturday special sections in the daily newspaper devoted to high school football alone.
Because the Knights would very much like to have full stands and cheering crowds.
"If there's one thing I like more than playing football," says Paluzi, "it's having people watch me play football. I love filling up the stands. It makes you play harder, hit harder. You get all crazy."
Maybe it's no surprise that the team been down such a long road, a long time gaining traction. The whole endeavor began on a lark in the mid-1990s when Campbell, then 27, was chucking a football around at the track at Farragut High School and a jogger stopped and complimented his tight spiral. Turns out the runner was a former wideout himself; he asked if Campbell had ever heard of semiprofessional football.
Before long, the two had embarked on a quixotic quest, exploring the feasibility of founding their own semipro team by visiting teams in a host of other states. They traveled north to West Virginia, where they watched former West Virginia University Heisman hopeful Major Harris quarterback a mountaineer state semipro squad. Then to Green Bay, where they sat among nearly 8,000 fans, many of them off-season Cheeseheads, watching the Bay City Raiders wallop the visiting Michigan Timberwolves.
Campbell came home from that outing with a name (Crusaders) and a logo idea. He organized team tryouts soon thereafter. He found a league online. And he put together team finances, by "going door-to-door, getting sponsorships from everybody who would, collecting teams fees." Start to ask him if there's ever been any money to be made in the deal, and he'll whip out an emphatic "No!" before you've even fully formed the question on your lips.
"I know of maybe two guys who are able to run their teams for profit—they still don't pay their players—and be successful at it," Campbell says. "But I'm not one of them. One's in Nebraska, I think, the other's in Pennsylvania. What I get out of it is when guys say they appreciate everything you've done, the sacrifices you've made, just that affirmation that everything you've done didn't go unnoticed."
Those early Crusaders teams featured a handful of former UT players, as well as a litany of local ex-high school stars. There were the Cofer brothers, siblings of former UT and Detroit Lions defensive stalwart Mike Cofer, who were high school and college standouts themselves that never had NFL careers. There was former UT quarterback Sterling Hinton, whom Campbell calls "the one guy who really helped me hold it together in the early years.
"Sterling was our driving force," Campbell says. "He was a real ‘character' guy."
And that was important, he adds, because character seemed to be in ever shorter supply among team members as time wore on. Guys missing practices, missing games. Legal problems. "We had a couple of guys who got arrested, who were in and out of jail for a couple of years," Campbell says.
One Crusaders player was murdered in an off-the-field incident; yet another suffered a similar fate, albeit a few years after his tenure with the team. The issues began to wear down Campbell, coming to a head at a practice one evening when one player, a known gang member, threatened to gun him down because he hadn't returned a phone call.
Campbell washed his hands of the whole damned mess and quit for a time, only to return in 2004 with a clear head and a strong notion of what kind of football team he wanted this time around.
"Those first years helped mold me to where I needed to be," he says. "I was inexperienced. I was overly generous with how I dealt with players, feeling like I had to provide everything for them. And a lot of them used me. What I decided I wanted was guys who would coach good and had good character, and I didn't care as much about talent level if they had those things first. And it's paid off."
"You have to take more into consideration on this level than just their 40 time and their bench press," says Robert Hardin, the Knights starting middle linebacker and defensive coordinator. "You have to take the individual into account. Will they come to practice? Are they willing to learn? Are they willing to work?"
If nothing else, the players who have slapped on pads since 2004 are a weirdly diverse lot; most of them have had at least a smattering of high school football experience. (Campbell, who plans to shuttle in as one of the team's three QB options after a 15-year layoff since his stint as the backup during the Crusader's first year, is one of the few players with none.) Several have had noteworthy college careers, like recent Knights running back David Yancey, a former UT rusher, and Carl Stewart, another former Knight who stood out as a fullback at Auburn. And every so every often, the team is blessed with a player whose resume includes legitimate professional experience—Arena Football League, Canadian, or even the NFL. Current Knight Sam Hardy, a 350-pound fixture on the offensive line, was briefly a member of the Arizona Cardinals. (The aforementioned Stewart, it's worth noting, was entertained in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' training camp as a free agent before being cut by the team.)
But it's not the gridiron stats that really set the players apart, one from another. At 340 strategically centered pounds, 33-year-old Paluzi is a veritable pillar, a great bearded Buddha, the proverbial immovable object on the football field. But he's also well-spoken, with a voice that's a touch nasal, maybe a pitch higher than you expect it to be. He's a caterer, running his own business, and also that certain sort of big man probably capable of coaxing giggles and smiles out of small children when he dandles them on his furniture-sized knee.
Then there's Hardin, also 33—linebacker, defensive end, nose tackle, and defensive coordinator, depending on the season. A look-alike for pro wrestler "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, Hardin seems plenty jovial seated at a local pancake house across from Paluzi, tearing through a pillowy stack of syrup-drenched cakes and an omelet seemingly made with an entire carton of eggs plus attendant ratios of meat and peppers and cheese. But during practice, his default settings, demeanor-wise, are either a militant scowl or a pitiless 1,000-yard stare.
Not much outward sign, in other words, that Hardin (nickname: "Bull") is an Oak Ridge scientist, with a Ph.D. in plasma physics from West Virginia. Having earned all-star honors as a semipro player for the West Virginia Wham, he cast his lot with the Knights when he moved here two years ago for post-doctoral work.
Then there's the 50-year-old personal trainer from Johnson City who is a starter on the offensive line; 340-pound "Bubba" Trotter, a bouncer and also an offensive starter; a construction worker; a social worker; and a security guard.
There are a host of UT students, too—like Andy Jones, a 6-foot-3, 250-pound phenom who quarterbacked both of the Knights' championship teams before leaving the team due to other responsibilities. "He could throw the ball 75-80 yards," Campbell says of Jones, who worked as a basketball assistant under Bruce Pearl. "He should have walked on the football team, but he never did.
"Most of the guys are just working-class guys willing to do whatever it takes," Campbell continues. "We come from every walk of life. We're every guy in Knoxville. We are Knoxville."
And the reason they do it is because, according to Paluzi, the semipro game is quite simply "more fun than any other level of football. In high school, you're playing for a scholarship, and once you have a scholarship, it's a job. Now you're playing to have fun."
Fun, of course, is conceptualized in some pretty unorthodox ways in this case, ways that potentially involve chronic pain, hemorrhaging, debilitation, and severe orthopedic dysfunction. Says Hardin: "I like taking people off the field. That's the reason I like playing defensive line. A lot of guys talk about playing football to hit, then they play running back or receiver or defensive back, and hit every so often. But if you're playing defensive or offensive line, you hit every play, simple as that. And if you're not, you're doing it wrong.
"That's why I like the nose tackle position. You've got two guys hitting you every play."
"We're barbarians," Paluzi chuckles. His own layoff from football was about 10 years, as he played through his senior year at the small liberal arts college in his home state of Kentucky where he earned a business degree, then went bustling off to face the rigors of Real Life.
Had he known of the opportunities semiprofessional football presented, prior to seeing an ad in a local grocery store in 2010, his return to the game would have occurred long before.
"I never knew anything like this existed; as soon as I knew there was an opportunity to play, I knew I would play," Paluzi says. "It's in your blood, in my blood. I know now that as long as God lets me walk around, I will play football. And with the way medicine is now, if I blow out a knee, they'll grow me a new one and I'll get up and I'll play again."
Knoxville Knights 2011 Schedule
June 4 @ Tri-State Wildcats (Jonesville, Va.)
June 11 Pike County Crusaders
June 18 @ Letcher County Wolves (Whitesburg, Ky.)
June 25 Fort Campbell Patriots
July 9 Frankfort Falcons
July 16 Tri-State Wildcats
July 23 @ Pike County Crusaders (Pikeville, Ky.)
July 30 Letcher County Wolves
August 6 @ Fort Campbell Patriots (Fort Campbell, Ky.)
August 13 @ Frankfort Falcons (Frankfort, Ky.)
All games are 7 p.m. kickoff. Home games are played at Carter High School (210 North Carter School Rd., Strawberry Plains). Season tickets can be purchased for $35, and individual tickets are $7 in advance/$8 gate. Check knoxvilleknights.com for the most up-to-date information.