Posted October 19, 2010 | comments Leave a comment

Humble beginnings

Dan Bryant directs his players
Dan Bryant directs his players at practice. Dennis Grundman/Daily

Tony Bergida runs through drills
Saint John's quarterback Tony Bergida (foreground) runs through a drill during an afternoon practice. Dennis Grundman/Daily

Coach Dan Bryant watches Joe McMahon
Coach Dan Bryant watches linebacker/running back Joe McMahon push the team's new tackling sled. Dennis Grundman/Daily

By Jeremy Stafford - jstafford@nvdaily.com

FRONT ROYAL -- The single sheet of cloud, dark and fat with rain, rolled to the farthest reaches of the Front Royal horizon and cast a premature darkness.

A white pickup grumbled in a gravel cul-de-sac at the end of an unmarked road. Its interior light sprung wildly from its cabin, and its two bulbous headlights pierced the night.

Passing through the pale light were shadowed figures, many with football helmets dangling from their fingers, all wearing pads. They were members of the Saint John's Saints, a football team founded through Saint John the Baptist Roman Catholic Church in Front Royal.

The team generally comprises parish members who are either homeschooled or attend small private schools like Chelsea Academy. Those players still lingering in the cul-de-sac were waiting for their own version of a high school activity bus -- a ride home from mom and dad.

The Saints are in no way associated with a school. The team is run through the church, and many of the Saints had never played a game of tackle football until the team's inaugural season a year ago.

The Saints were a raggedy sqaud then, a flag football team holding practices on a soccer field at the Rivendell Athletic Club in Front Royal. They played flag football while they waited for pads and helmets and gear, while they waited to become a genuine football team.

Until the Saints' inception last year, any of Front Royal's homeschooled athletes interested in playing tackle football typically went to play for the Fairfax Kings, one of the nearest independent football teams.

Joe McMahon was one of those players, or nearly was. Homeschooled his entire life, Joe's only experience with football had been pick-up ball, which he often played in Tony Bergida's backyard.

Bergida is now a quarterback for the Saints.

"That's where I really learned football," Joe said of the backyard games. "I was never really a football person, and then this team came along and we've just been really blessed continually since then."

But a year and a half ago, the Saints weren't around, and Joe wanted to play for the Kings.

He told his father, Harry, and they paid the Kings' registration fee, which cost upwards of $350. The fee got Joe McMahon a helmet and pads and other accessories.

His father would have to provide the rest, namely the long drives to Fairfax for practices, and trips to away games which sometimes lasted until 2 a.m.

On the way home from Fairfax one evening, father posed son a proposition: "What if we start a program here?"

Harry McMahon had already started a basketball team for homeschooled students through Saint John's, but starting a football team was ambitious. It required money and personnel and trust.

Joe was initially skeptical, so his father said this: "It's not gonna just appear; somebody has to start somewhere."

So they started. Joe returned his gear to the Fairfax Kings, and Harry McMahon posted a flier in the church bulletin. He spoke with the Rev. Jerome Fasano, the church pastor, and asked his permission to associate the team with Saint John's. With Fasano's blessing, Harry McMahon recruited Steve Kubanda and Tony Antunes as assistant coaches.

Later, Dan Bryant was brought on as head coach.

Bryant had played football in the navy before playing semi-pro ball for the Virginia Storm. Prior to coaching the Saints, Bryant coached a 150-pound team in the Youth Football League in Vienna.

Then came the matter of getting equipment: The Saints' registration fee didn't come close to covering the cost of pads and helmets and uniforms, and with scheduled football games looming, Harry McMahon needed immediate access to reasonably priced equipment, and a means of paying for it.

What's worse, athletes frustrated with playing only flag football dropped out of the program. At one point only about 10 players consistently attended practices.

Harry McMahon eventually found someone within the church willing to make a donation to the team. The donor, who wishes to remain anonymous, handed him a check, and Harry McMahon thanked him without looking at it.

He assumed the check was for $200. It was for $7,000.

That money bought the Saints enough uniforms to dress 20 players, and the registration fees covered the cost of practice apparel.

When the pads came the Saints had exactly three days before their first game. And it was a good thing, too -- that first practice was a circus of harlequins.

"Last year I would say half the players had never even put a helmet on before," Bryant said. "It was so funny watching them gear up for the first time -- I could give you some funny stories on what the gear looked like on them."

But they knew how to play football, and they loved the feel of the first game, even if it came on a cold, soggy afternoon.

"Everybody else canceled their games," Harry McMahon said. "It was cold, it was rainy, it was miserable -- but a perfect football day for these guys to be initiated."

This season the Saints are 3-3, including a 40-0 win over Rappahannock County. On Oct. 1 they beat the Virginia Lions 15-8 at Redskins Park.

"It's amazing: We kicked our first extra point this past game, we never even attempted it before and he got it through the uprights," Kubanda said.

This is impressive, too: The Saints aren't just winning football games, they're cleaning them up. When Joe McMahon sends someone sprawling to the ground, he then extends a hand to help the tackled player to his feet.

Later, when Joe is tackled, his act of sportsmanship is often reciprocated.

"That's how we coach, that's our philosophy," Antunes said. "This idea of busting people in the mouth, being violent -- we don't do that.

"They're Christian young men, but they know this is a game where you can legitimately be physical."

Referees often tell Harry McMahon that Saints games are some of the most pleasurable to work. After a game in Herndon, the Saints spent 45 minutes in the parking lot chatting and shaking hands with players from the opposing team.

They don't cuss during practice, and they call Bryant "sir," which, Bryant admits, took some getting used to.

But it also took time getting used to an inconsistent group of players showing up for practices, which are only scheduled three times a week. The players rotating through the offensive line, for example, have hardly been consistent week after week.

But then there are those players who show up every day, players who have been with the team since the very beginning.

Bergida's one of them. So is Joe McMahon.

And so is Jacob Goode. Goode sat through meetings before the Saints became the Saints, and he sat through meetings after the Saints became the Saints. He played for the flag football team, and he's still with the Saints today.

Goode injured his finger in a game against the Frederick Christian (Md.) Eagles this season, and so had surgery. Pins, not bones, support Goode's finger now. But Goode still runs with the team, still simulates light tackles during practices.

Goode, Harry McMahon said, exemplifies what the Saints players have come to represent.

"They're out there -- it's them and their blood and guts that really makes this program what it is," Harry McMahon said. "And I think the makeup of these kids -- where they come from, various walks of life -- is what makes this team so unique."

Copyright © The Northern Virginia Daily | nvdaily.com | 152 N. Holliday St., Strasburg, Va. 22657 | (800) 296-5137