After playing his last game for Oberlin High School, 33-year-old Joe Norris knew his football career was most likely over. A knee injury ended his senior season prematurely, and college football was not going to be an option.
Joe Stanley, now 38, has a similar story. He played high school ball at Sandusky, and when he walked off the field after the final game of his senior year, he didn’t know if he would ever strap on the pads again.
They both discovered semi-pro football, Stanley in 1996 and Norris soon after graduation in 1998.
After playing for teams all over the Cleveland area, they landed with the Lorain County Nightmares this season.
The Nightmares (12-0) will face the Ohio Golden Knights (12-0) in the Ohio Football League championship game tonight at Midview High School at 7 p.m.
The team was created to give people like Norris and Stanley a place to keep their dreams alive.
“This is about us as a team, as a bunch of guys that love football. We see what it can do for a person and what it has done for us,” said Nightmares owner/defensive end Sonny Hazelwood. “I’m used to working out and going to war with these guys, and at the end of the day if I didn’t have this I would have to fill that void with something.”
At 38, Stanley is the oldest player on the Lorain County roster. A foreman at Leggett and Platt off the field and a center between the lines, he said his time on the football field allows him to do something he can’t get enough of.
“I love the aggressive nature of football,” he said. “I love hitting people. I like the combat of it, being part of a team that’s fighting to win.”
Norris, also an offensive lineman who works at Leggett and Platt, said he and Stanley almost didn’t end up on the Nightmares.
“I tried out for the Predators in Cleveland, and on the way home one of my teammates called me and told me about the team in Lorain County,” Norris said. “We had just gotten phone calls from the Predators telling us we made the team, but it was an hour-and-a-half drive to go practice out there.”
He contacted Hazelwood to find out a little more about the Nightmares, but still was not sold on joining a first-year team.
“I talked to Sonny before I tried out and told him I didn’t really want to play for a new team … that I had played on new teams before and they really never do very well,” Norris said. “That’s when he told me we were going to win the championship our first year.”
Hazelwood meant every word of his prediction because he had what he considered an ace up his sleeve: Terry Murray.
“I got Coach Murray because he coached me in sixth grade and I have never had a bigger playbook in my entire life than I had in sixth grade,” Hazelwood said with a chuckle. “He puts in as much, if not more, energy into this team than a high school coach puts into his program. And he makes us want it more than those other teams.”
Norris remained unsure.
“I kind of laughed and told him he had pretty high expectations when he said his team was going to win the championship in its first season,” he said. “I decided I was going to play for the Predators, but I gave it a shot (with the Nightmares). I went and tried out and made the team. I liked what I saw … and the rest is history. Now we’re fighting for the championship.”
He convinced Stanley to join him.
“I played with Joe Norris about 13 years ago,” Stanley said. “He talked me into coming out here to win a championship.”
The Nightmares have a mixture of young and old players, with many in their mid-to-late 20s and 30s. They have players from Slippery Rock University, Baldwin Wallace, Heidelberg, Bluffton and Howe Military Academy, as well as players that didn’t play in college at all.
Giving these players a place to play was just one part of the picture for Hazelwood.
“After college it wasn’t like I wanted to do this for myself,” Hazelwood said. “I got together with a couple of buddies and we were talking about doing something in the community that could get people involved and entertained.
“We talked about things and thought about how football is America’s biggest sport. With baseball you have all the minor leagues and leagues like the Crushers play in, and those are great. They get tons of support and have had a lot of success because they have some really cool events.
“We thought we could do something like that with football. People have been trying similar things involving football like the USFL, the XFL and some other leagues, but they were looking at making money through television and things like that. We wanted to focus on the event itself.
“We figured if we did things right and presented an entertaining event the community would come out, and in the first year Lorain County has really given us some great support.”
Hazelwood also put the team together because he thinks the game of football has a lot to offer, whether it’s a middle school player just starting out or someone who’s played hundreds of games at all different levels.
“Football is something I’ve been involved with since sixth grade, and obviously life has to go on at some point,” he said. “This isn’t about recognition. … Most of us got plenty of recognition when we played in high school and college.
“I grew up in Elyria and there were a lot of great athletes that did not stick with it and ended up going the wrong way.
“Football is a lot about discipline and learning. Winning is great but you also learn a lot by losing. You never want to lose but you learn so many life lessons … how to have thick skin, how to accept positive feedback and constructive criticism. Those are crucial and things everyone needs.”
Contact Mike Perry at 329-7135 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
WHAT: Ohio Football League championship
WHO: Lorain County Nightmares (12-0) vs. Ohio Golden Knights (12-0)
TIME: 7 o’clock
WHERE: Ross Field at Adelsberg Stadium, Midview High School
TICKETS: Adults, $7; ages 7-11, $5; under 6, free.