It's nearly game time. In the dimly lit locker room at Durham County Stadium, many of the Triangle Rattlers are dressed and collecting in the stairwell that leads onto the field. However, Orlando Adwater, the Rattler's 6-foot-5-inch, 320-pound head coach and sometime defensive player, is losing his patience with the stragglers.
"Get the fuck out of the locker room and get ready to play," he roars, moving with a quickness that is as alarming as it is surprising. The late-comers rush to the back of the line, their shoulder pads akimbo and half-fastened. Others turn and look at each other wide-eyed with a mixture of surprise and fear; one player says the only thing appropriate, "Damn."
In another part of the locker room, Barry Marrow, the team's 37-year-old owner, starting quarterback and, in this moment, equipment manager, shakes his head and smiles while distributing the last of the game jerseys.
"O gettin' after them," he says, quietly.
Marrow founded the team in 2004 after years of quarterbacking for other area semi-pro football teams, since he first began playing at that level in 1991. His college career had just ended, and a friend had asked him to come to a practice for the Durham Cardinals. Still hungry to play, he did, and became the team's starting quarterback. Over the next 17 years, he played nearly every semi-pro team in the region: The Durham Vipers, the Durham Storm, the Raleigh Scorpions and the Raleigh Wolverines all folded within two years of their founding, he says.
"You can't expect to make money in semi-pro," he explains. "The Rattlers are basically a non-profit. Everything that we make goes right back into the team. The teams that charge all kinds of money for this and for that, the ones who have owners who aren't in it for the football, those are the ones that don't make it."
To join the Rattlers, you pay a flat fee of $150 and find a decent pair of pads—which is not to say that anyone and everyone who signs up to play will get clock.
The Rattlers, says Marrow, are a disciplined and fundamentally sound team. Tim Holmes, the Rattlers' offensive coordinator, concurs.
"This isn't for the geek off the street; you have to earn a starting position," Holmes says. "This is a very fertile region for semi-pro ball, and unlike a lot of semi-pro teams, we don't have lot of guys out here who have no experience. There's competition at every position. So the hard fact is that just because you show up doesn't mean you're going to play."
Much of this year's roster is filled with players who are either hoping to walk-on to a college team or who attended college and hope to flip their experience with the Rattlers into a roster spot or tryout with a professional team.
The rest, says Marrow, are just here for the love of the game.
"The concept behind the Rattlers is to combat the idea that semi-pro ball is just a bunch of backyard brawlers," he adds. "A lot of these guys feel like they didn't get the looks they wanted while playing wherever they did previously. We try and help them get that so that they have an opportunity to play at the next level."
The game is scheduled to start at 7 p.m. It's 6:45, and the Rampage, who defeated the Rattlers in the opening round of last year's league playoffs, are late. Their transportation had apparently crapped out on them. While one vanload of players arrived, the others stood stranded on the side of the highway, waiting for it to return and ferry them to the stadium.
The game kicks off around 7:15. Midway through the first quarter, Marrow disappears into the locker room. It seems odd for the starting quarterback to leave the field during the game, so I follow him through the locker room to the front gate where his wife is standing with two men: the stadium attendant from the Durham County Department of General Services and his trainee.
He wants to shut the game down because the armed security officer—an off-duty sheriff's deputy whom the county requires to be at public gatherings—hasn't shown up.
The team staff frantically calls its contacts with the Durham County Sheriff's Department to check on the ETA of the officer. But the attendant is taking a hard line. The sun is starting to set. The lights won't be turned on until the deputy arrives, and if he has not shown up by 8:30, then the game is over.
Inside the stadium, the Rampage have just scored, letting the air out of the Rattlers crowd. After several minutes, Marrow finally tracks down the officer who has been assigned to work the game. The deputy is on his way.
Nonetheless, the facilities attendant informs the Marrows that his boss has told him to close the stadium. He tells his trainee to take down the American flag.
"Well, I guess I'll go do my duty," says the trainee, shuffling off.
Marrow pleads with the attendant, telling him that the officer assigned to work the game is just moments away. He defers to his "boss," saying he's under orders. After yet another phone call, the facilities manager announces that the game can continue, and stalks off.
"This is just how they do semi-pro," says Holmes, shortly before the start of the second half. "We're the red-headed stepchildren of the football world."
The Rattlers lose the game in dramatic fashion. After returning to the game, Marrow helps put the Rattlers two points ahead. But after a long punt return with the clock winding down in the fourth quarter, the Rampage kick a field goal to win to win, 15-14.
As the Rampage players storm the field, some of the Rattlers' players fume about not getting playing time. Taking note, Head Coach Adwater gathers the team at midfield.
"If you're not happy with your playing time, show up at practice and take a position," he says, in the most sincere coach-speak.
"You just got beat by a team you shouldn't have lost to. Look around you now and see who's got your back. That's the guy that's going to be with you through what's gonna be a long season."
Marrow looks up from his helmet and nods.