The developmental football level is full of disparity, with a vast difference in the quality of teams from one end of the spectrum to the other. At one end, you have teams of which most people in their own city are oblivious of their existence and at the other end, you have teams that are embraced locally and pretty well known among everyone at this level from coast to coast.
One reason such a gap exists is that this level is for each team what they make of it and some teams simply have more resources at their disposal than others. Others were founded purely out of passion and a hunger to achieve gridiron greatness, refusing to let anything stop them.
Wherever each team is at in their journey, understand and appreciate that their organization was literally built from the ground up – and many of them have been fortunate to even start at ground level and not in a hole dug by previous failed attempts by others.
Unless you’re new to this level of football or stumbled upon this page by accident, you’ve heard of the Colorado Greyhawks, which are coming off their fifth consecutive league championship.
“For the last five years, we’ve beaten every team in Colorado,” Greyhawks owner Rashad Ray told Developmental Football USA. “We’re undefeated in Colorado. It’s when we get out of state that we have some problems.”
Adding hardware to the trophy case while seldom facing a challenge along the way has, at times, had the Greyhawks ill-prepared to defeat some of the nation’s other top teams like the South Bay Patriots this year or the Vegas Trojans of a few years back.
“I think honestly we are our own worst enemy,” Ray said. “With the schedule we had last year, just playing the Kansas City Bulldogs was the toughest task that we had. Teams don’t want to play us here in Colorado. I’ve offered teams home and away. I’ve offered teams $1,000 to come here. I tell teams if they come to me, we are going to pack the stands and we do.”
While there’s certainly no shortage of wins, trophies and lifelong memories for Ray and the Greyhawks, those aren’t the main reasons he does this.
“I see semipro different from other owners,” Ray said. “Some don’t like to travel. I like to travel. I do consider my organization as a business and what I mean by that is that no matter what I do, I’m going to give 100 percent on it. Some guys do need some help getting film out, some guys just need football to stay out of trouble and a lot of these guys really don’t have father figures.”
Due to the fact that players generally are not compensated at this level, some teams shy from having firm discipline out of fear of losing players. Oftentimes those same discipline issues cost them wins and in some cases field rights and so much more. However, Ray has a solid system in place with the Greyhawks that other owners can learn from.
“I discipline my team, you miss three practices in a row and you’re off the team,” Ray said. “You miss one practice and I either fine them or sit them out a half.”
That policy is just a glimpse of the system that has made the Greyhawks a household name at this level.
“A lot of them want the structure,” Ray said. “Some of them have got to have it. Some of them couldn’t handle it in high school and got kicked out. I tell the guys, ‘if you want to be here, be here, but this is the business plan and this is the model we are going to follow. If you’re on board, hey, let’s do it.’”
With higher standards than the casual, come-and-go culture they are accustomed to with other teams, many players at this level can’t hack it for the Greyhawks. Even those that make the initial roster, soon learn that there’s even more that sets this team apart from others.
“This will be my 20th year at this level,” Ray said. “Sometimes you get some guys that get disgruntled because the best guys play. The best 11 on offense start and I’ve got two subs on the offensive line. I keep six receivers – five end up playing and the other plays on special teams. Defense is the same way, some guys don’t play and think they should be starting and get disgruntled if they don’t get the playing time they think they deserve and they ask for a release and I give it to them.”
While this approach isn’t completely foreign at this level, onlookers will typically find an abundance of teams who try to evenly distribute playing time to keep everyone happy, regardless of talent or on-the-field production. The reasoning behind this is that most people aren’t getting paid to play. In fact, most of them pay a player fee so they are able to play.
“I’m honest with the guys,” Ray said. “I put up a depth chart. This is the subs, this is what we’ve got. If we blow teams out, you get some playing time and honestly, they know. I’m going to be honest with them and that’s probably why they keep coming back. To me, football at this level has changed, it has definitely changed.”
Another thing that makes this level unique is the ongoing dilemma for most coaches: should they play the guy who’s at every single practice and knows what to do on every play, or should they play the guy who’s a better athlete but rarely shows up except on game days? For most teams, it depends if they’re thinking long-term or short term.
Playing the better player might be the right choice for one game, but neglecting the more committed, yet less talented player makes it tough to develop solid continuity. Too much neglect, and essentially no one is committed and your team’s days are numbered.
However, setting the bar high like the Greyhawks have, will eliminate a lot of this.
“Our guys know the competition and that if they miss practice, they might lose their spot,” Ray said. “Our best football is at practice because of the competition. I put a 60 second clock up and say you’ve got 60 seconds to score, what are we going to do. I give them scenarios, fourth and inches, what are you going to do? I want to see how my coaches react to it, but they like it. Your special team coach said he can make it, but do you trust it?”
At at level where some team’s practices could be labeled as playground football with pads, others are much more structured, like you’d see at a successful high school or college. The structure Ray and general manager Megan Malone have built with the Greyhawks is one that your run of the mill developmental team can take notes on.
“I have picked up some guys from other teams that come in and say, ‘Wow, this is how you practice?’ I say, ‘This is the only way to practice.’ I challenge them and they like that.”
Across the developmental football landscape, the teams that are consistently good typically have really good retention rates or an abundance of resources, or both. As with any level, the key to having the right football environment comes down to relationships.
“Why do the guys stay? I tell the guys my phone is open 24-7,” Ray said. “If you’ve got any issues, if you’re going to do something stupid, give me a call. I talk to them year round, it’s not just during football.
“We’ve got a unique set of guys. We hang out with one another. We go to Rockies games, we go bowling. I try to keep them close-knit. When we’ve got a new guy, I say, Hey before we get off this bus, you’re going to tell me something about them.’ Even though they may be competing for the same position or same spot on the team, tell me something about him. We have fun with it.
“Every player is locked in my phone. If I don’t see them at practice and I don’t hear from them, something is wrong. It’s a no call no show, if they’re not going to make practice, you call me. They like that structure and accountability. I’m not a yeller. I’m more of a player’s coach, if that’s a good term, but also I’m a friend. It’s a respect thing.”
As of this past Saturday, the Greyhawks’ 2019 journey is now underway and the first practice is in the books. It may be a new year in three weeks, but the goal is still the same and that’s a national championship.
“For us, it’s business as usual,” Ray said. “We’re going to try to win our sixth championship and get to the nationals and finish up some unfinished business. We’ve got the same starters coming back, the same guys. I must be doing something right if guys are always coming back.”
With many teams, it’s an ongoing struggle trying to teach a team new concepts on all three sides of the ball when you have spotty attendance. Teams that stick together for several years have a major advantage in this department.
“With the same guys being here so long, it’s easy to just teach six new individuals a defense instead of teaching the whole team a defense,” Ray said. “We can go from a nickel to a 3-4, to a 4-4, to a 4-2-5. We do chalk talk. I don’t know if most teams do that, but we do. We put the defense in one room and offense in another and we quiz them. I show them a defense, if this is the play call and they come out like this do we check out of it? It gets the guys playing fast.”
On Jan. 26, the Greyhawks will travel to Arizona to take on the Spartans, which should provide a decent test before the Colorado Football Association kicks off later in the spring. They are also looking to host a game in any challengers want to plan a trip to Denver.
“The guys, they want to win,” Ray said. “They take pride in their achievements. The guys don’t want to lose those achievements: five championships in a row. Six, we think that if we can get six, nobody can touch it, we think it will be a long-standing goal.”