By Gary R. Rasberry
FORT RECOVERY -- For many high school football players, graduation meant the end of their gridiron days, save for the occasional flag football game at parties or leagues
For 19 men from the Grand Lake area, the chance to run out on a field in full gear and play football like they did in their younger days continues.
The Mercer County Cougars was formed this season as a semi-professional team, playing teams from Ohio and Indiana. The team formed out of a team that was run out of Mercer County and Jay County in Indiana last season.
The Cougars, playing in the newly-formed Interstate Football League, is one of only two Buckeye State teams in the league, the other being the Darke County Warriors out of Greenville.
There's no big front office and most teams don't have a true coach. Mainly the teams are run by a players committee, who set up the schedule and travel, make sure there's a field available. The players call their own plays and make sure everyone gets a chance to play. The Cougars are managed by a committee of players. Jose Faller, Eric Schmitz and Kevin (Pork) Wehrkamp, all former Fort Recovery varsity players who make sure everything is taken care of.
"One of the Fort Recovery coaches (former coach Rick Reynolds) played for a team in Randolph County (Indiana)," said fullback/linebacker Jose Faller. "I talked to Pork, Chad (Timmerman) and Schmitty, started drawing up some interest and went from there."
The team from Jay-Mercer last season had to deal with numbers issues and other items that led to a change. Faller and his friends found the interest to keep a team in Mercer County.
The team is made up with a majority of Fort Recovery players, 12 in all, and slowly, players from Coldwater, St. Henry and Versailles joined the mix.
"Last year we struggled with numbers," said Faller. "It's hard to get the word out to people. I think we're heading in the right direction the next couple of years as we draw in more MAC players.
"There's always guys who want to play football. Those are the ones we want to get out here and spread the word."
"I figured it'll feel good to put the pads back on," said receiver/defensive back Craig Schwieterman. "We have a few more guys than they did last year and a lot of friends on the team."
The players work a full-time job and come out for the one weekly practice and one walk-though the night before the game.
"Preseason we were trying to get out here 2-3 times a week," said Faller. "The first couple of games, you get pretty sore, so we're down to getting here once a week to get ready for games."
The feeling of putting on the pads and hitting hard for the first time in several years brought the usual aches and pains.
"It took awhile to get used to," said Faller. "We were sore the first couple of days after the first game, but it looks like the guys we got out responded well."
"After that first game, the whole team was sore until Wednesday," said lineman Wehrkamp, who also helps steers the team. "I'm sure I'll be sore. That's what we live for."
A $1,000 franchise fee had to be paid to the league. Uniforms, equipment, and paying for officials.
"There's some things you don't even think about," said Faller. "We have liability insurance on the field. All the uniforms and equipment, they add up lot."
Fortunately for the Cougars, area sponsors, such as Miracle Lanes, Theinman's Bar and Grill and JR Manufacturing, donated money. People who root for the Indians began to help the Cougars as well.
"We get a lot of help from the boosters," said Faller. "Ed Wehrkamp, Bill Bechtol and Randy Diller, a bunch of those guys, come out and lined the field and set things up. We get a lot of support from the community with people coming and helping us out.
"It helps to have a close-knit community. We're trying to make it not just a Fort Recovery thing, that's why it's the Mercer County Cougars. We want to try and get the other communities involved and get this going.
After winning their first game of the season 24-6 over the Darke County Warriors, the Cougars had their first home game against the unbeaten Kosioscko County Mustangs, another new team.
The game was held at Barrenbrugge Field, the Fort Recovery high school team's field. Many teams have to rent out fields -- at $600-700 per game -- or find open spaces in parks to play games. The Cougars have been fortunate to be able to use the school field in return for donating some efforts.
"We donate some time to the boosters and they let us use the field," said Faller. "That works out real well."
The Mustangs, many of which came to Fort Recovery on a charter bus, are dressed and warming up as the Cougars roll in about an hour before the game. Renovations at Barrenbrugge Park has the team dressing in what will be a team locker room under the home stands while some are already dressed and have their jersey and pads ready to go.
As kickoff approached, friends, family and sports fans in general begin to saunter in for the game. By the midway point, there is a large gathering to root the Cougars on, with a smaller group of Mustang fans on the visitors side.
The players definitely enjoyed having an enthusiastic crowd.
"That's what we need," said Wehrkamp. "We need some fans to come out. ... Hopefully we can keep the ball rolling for next season. We'll just keep building."
After a scoreless first quarter, the teams looked to go into the half scoreless when the Mustangs scored with 1:21 to go in the half on a touchdown pass from Mike Whitaker to receiver Nick Bolesky. A missed extra point made it 6-0.
The Cougars struck back quickly. Quarterback Adam Wenning, who stopped playing football at Coldwater in junior high, found Schwieterman for a 70-yard score with 47 seconds left. The two-point conversion was good to give the Cougars an 8-6 lead going to the locker room.
In the third quarter, The Mustangs got the lead back with 3:37 remaining when Jon Hill scored on a one-yard run, but again missed the PAT.
The Cougars rallied back. Timmerman, broke through the middle and dashed 60 yards for a score to put Mercer County up 14-12 with 3:04 left.
In the fourth, Timmerman scored from a yard out to push the lead to 20-12. The Mustangs struck back with 2:16 left in the game when Whitaker found Bolesky for the score to make it 20-18. The Mustangs went for the tie but Collin Bechtol and Kevin Knapke stopped Tyler Anglin short of the end zone to keep the lead. The Mustangs ran out the clock to win the game.
"It's been about six years since I played football," said Wenning. "I played a little flag football on the side. They asked me if I wanted to play. The 30 pounds I've put on at college helped a bit on the hits."
"It's fun as hell," said Wehrkamp, who mans both sides of the line. "The only reason we play is because we love football. We want to go out there and have some fun and hit some people. That's what it's all about."
So far the success has paid off as several guys have expressed interest in playing for the Cougars next season.
"After the win over Darke County, three or four said they would play next year and a couple more said they were interested," said Schwieterman. "
"I hope the fans enjoyed themselves," said Faller. "Hopefully they'll come back and watch some more games."
The Cougars have two more home games before hitting the road. This Saturday the Hendricks County Generals come to Barrenbrugge Park. Kickoff is at 5 p.m. Admission to the game is $3.