The Spokane Wolfpack players arrive at practice with a spring in their step.
Even after a full day of work, they drive to a remote high school field in Colbert for two hours of practice. With the pads and helmets they bought themselves.
All for the love of the game, they said, to a man.
“I think I’ll always be in this game,” linebacker Scott Word said with a big smile as he pulled the pads over his 46-year-old body and joined the fun.
“These guys keep me young,” Word said.
Perhaps it’s the other way around. Five days later, on May 3, Word was in the middle of the action at Albi Stadium as the Wolfpack – Spokane’s semipro football team – took on the Waitsburg Elite. Early in the game, Word scooped up a fumble and dashed 20 yards to set up a touchdown in a 42-0 win.
With that victory, the unbeaten Wolfpack, 4-0, were rewarded with home-field advantage throughout the upcoming Washington Football League playoffs, but the reward comes at every practice for coaches, players and even an owner who doubles as offensive coordinator.
“We have a lot of camaraderie, a lot of friendships,” said owner and general manager Travis Leavitt, a former high school star from Dayton who had the speed but lacked the size to play at the college level.
Leavitt owns the nonprofit franchise, but the players belong to head coach Jim Nendel, who may be better known for starting a football program last fall at Northwest Christian High School – not coincidentally the Wolfpack’s practice site.
“This is a lot easier,” smiles Nendel, who wears shorts and sandals as he sets up the practice field while about 40 players trickle in from the parking lot. A player at Whitworth from 1978-81, he’s been a coach for most of his life, including 10 years as an assistant and recruiting coordinator for the Pirates.
Along the way, he’s coached at almost every level, but seems to have found a niche in the semipro game. In 2009, he coached a Finnish team called the Porvoo Butchers to a national title, then returned for another stint with the Wolfpack.
“I’ve stayed with it because you get some high-caliber athletes, try some things that may be you wouldn’t try at college,” Nendel said.
“Plus, I want to give these guys good standard of coaching and teaching and do things for the community,” Nendel said.
That’s been Nendel’s focus for decades. At Whitworth he founded the Barnabus Project, which reaches out to at-risk children in Spokane. Five years ago, Nendel started A Champion’s Heart, a worldwide Christian humanitarian group that in Nendel’s words “uses sports to bring hope to kids, communities and families.”
Those ideals are shared by Leavitt, a former semipro player and professional property manager who purchased the team in 2012 and has taken it “in a new direction, with a lot of community involvement.”
That includes helping with Meals on Wheels, SCRAPS and in Spokane schools. Each player is required to put in 15 hours of volunteer work.
The players come from all backgrounds, but most have played small college ball, including former Whitworth All-American running back Adam Anderson of Elk, Washington.
Anderson, a 2011 graduate who spent five months playing semipro ball in Germany before reality – and the burden of student loans – brought him back. Now a corrections officer at the Spokane County Jail, Anderson looks forward to one day coaching his son, now 9 months old.
“I don’t think I’ll ever get away from the game,” said Anderson, who along with the other 43 players supplies his most of his own gear.
And then there’s Word, who was a strong safety for Montgomery (Maryland) Community College, in the 1990 national juco title game.
Love carried him to Spokane, where he works as a commercial blind installer. His love of football has him on the sidelines as a volunteer assistant coach at Rogers High School – and in uniform for the Wolfpack.
“Travis tells me this is my last year, but he’s been telling me that for five years,” jokes Word, who said he’s careful to take little more stretching time before and after games.
Unlike the sensory overload of Spokane Shock games, the game-day scene at Albi Stadium is understated. So are the prices: $5 for adults, free for those 17 under.
About 400 fans are sprinkled in the bleachers; a loudspeaker blares from a BMX event next door even as the color guard marches to midfield. Apparel is for sale at an endzone kiosk, while the dance team prepares to entertain the crowed.
Nendel is still wearing sandals and sporting a smile along with his Wolfpack windbreaker.
Some of the players have lost half a step since their college days, but the game-day execution is crisp. On their first drive, the Wolfpack convert a fourth-down on their way to a touchdown.
Two plays later, Word recovers a fumble and the rout is on.
“The only age limit is in your mind,” Word said.