In a small office in Rock Spring, Georgia, Tracey Rico is planning to bring semi-pro football into a new era.
Rico, who played high school football at ℹ Boyd-Buchanan and played briefly at the ℹ University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, has been a successful player and team owner for 15 years and has launched the Independent American Football League this spring.
For Rico, son of former Chattanooga City Councilman Manny Rico, the IAFL has been years in the making after a more than a decade of involved as a semi-pro player team owner. “We used to have a team called the Tennessee Crush, and back in 2009 we started playing at Finley Stadium,” Rico said. “We won a league title at Finley and won a national title in 2013. “We had an amazing team, but the leagues were just not run well. When we finally finished, I just said that I think I can put together a league that’s better than anything anyone has seen at this level.”
Having reached the top of the game as a team owner, Rico’s IAFL, began playing this spring and will hold its first league title game on Father’s Day, June 16, at ℹ Finley Stadium in Chattanooga. Rico has enlisted several of his former Crush players to help build a league that looks and operates differently than semi-pro leagues have traditionally been run.
“It’s been a great experience,” said Greg Hale, former Crush player and assistant coach at Tyner High School. “As a player I was able to see Rico and the standard that he set. I know he’s serious about setting rules and standards, so when I was able to be a part of the board I was excited to help raise the level of the game.”
Rico found inspiration for how he wants the IAFL to operate from a completely different sport. As a volunteer for the ℹ Chattanooga Football Club soccer team, Rico was impressed with how that organization raised expectations and gave fans a product worth coming out to see every week.
“I’m a big CFC fan, and I noticed how their product was just so much better,” he said “In semi-pro American football, it’s just so tough to market, and so many of the leagues just aren’t as good as I thought they could be run. I would love to see semi-pro football become something like that. And it’s going to take time and a lot of headaches, but it can be worth it,” says Rico.
Rico spent three years establishing a league office in Rock Spring, creating a board of directors, establishing rules and a standard of conduct, and looking for ways to change the often rough culture of semi-pro football.
With the groundwork established, the IAFL began with 30 teams in four regions: Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina.
“We’ve just been getting prepared,” said former South Pittsburg High School player Keaton Jones, a former Crush player who now plays center for the Dalton Danger. “It’s kind of crazy because we have all this new talent. Once you have a team that does big things, everybody comes to join. And we have to see who will be good to join us.”
“These are not just backyard players. We have a running back who was an All-American at Georgia Tech, so it’s top notch people.”
Langston Muse, another former Crush player now serving on the board of the IAFL sees semi-pro football as a way for players to keep their dreams alive and build connections with new teammates after their school football careers end.
“Semi-pro football was a way to extend that football career rather than just giving it up and only having memories,” said Muse, who played at Chattanooga City High School with former Tennessee Titans star Tony Brown. “We were able to make real key memories by going undefeated for two years and winning national championships (with the Chattanooga Crush). It was a brotherhood, and we went out on top.”
A DIFFERENT TYPE OF SEMI-PRO
During his time as a team owner and player, Rico had a chance to see how other leagues operated and saw how he wanted the IAFL to be different. One of his first decisions was to step away from team ownership while running a league to raise the level of professionalism.
“With other leagues, I always noticed that the leagues were always run by one of the team owners,” he said. “I always hated that because it’s just too much of a conflict of interest. I really started by spending 18 months being away from owning a team and thinking about what it would take and lining everything up to do it right.”
Working with former Crush players and his wife, Dainah Rico, the IAFL has had the opportunity to establish a sense of permanence that give the league stability and closeness. “He loves the guys, he really does, so it really is like a family here,” Dainah Rico said. “The football is a lot of fun. I really enjoy it.”
CREATING A PRODUCT
A troubling aspect that Tracey Rico would often see as a team owner is the lack of professionalism that often turned off casual football fans, especially those with families. Cursing and fighting kept stands empty and fed the image of an outlaw organization that wasn’t welcoming to families and casual fans.
Rico’s phenomenal success with the Chattanooga Crush and its commitment to doing things the right way has given him the ability as the IAFL owner to share his vision and expertise with other team owners looking to build successful semi-pro teams.
“A lot of the owners that I go visit will listen and ask me what I think they should do,” Rico said. “With the background I have developed in semi-pro, they’ll listen when I tell them the type of players to recruit and the formula we used with the Crush.”
This increased emphasis on professional behavior in semi-pro football is being passed along by the former Crush players on the board as well as former Crush players such as Jones still playing on other teams in the IAFL.
“We have to start to understand that we have kids looking up to us,” the Dalton Danger player said. Fans are what makes a team, and they can make or break it.
“And we have kids on the teams that are still trying to gather film so they can make something of themselves in Canadian football or arena football. So we have to represent something, or what’s even the point in doing this?”
CREATING AN IMAGE
On June 16, the inaugural IAFL title game will feature an all-star game in the afternoon followed by the championship game that evening at Finley Stadium. “We’re going to have all the bells and whistles,” Rico said. “It’s going to be great, because we know how to put on a good game. We can do that part.”
The winning team will take home the Phantom Horse Championship Trophy, sponsored by Rock Spring brewery Phantom Horse Brewery. Phantom Horse co-owners Skip Welsh, Jennifer McSpadden and Jason Randles will host the Ricos and IAFL team leadership often at Pie Slingers restaurant on U.S. Highway 27 (owned by Welsh and McSpadden), highlighting the family feeling of the new league.
“I think it’s really important to be involved with other local businesses and local events,” McSpadden said. “Phantom Horse seemed to fit right in with a local football league, so we decided to join arms with these guys. It’s been great having them around. We just love it and love having everyone all on the same team.”
For Rico and his former teammates, the dream of creating a better semi-pro football product has truly been a labor of love that they hope will produce an experience that will be enjoyed by fans for years to come.
“I know it sounds corny, but love conquers all,” Muse said. “We all have a lot of love for each other and respect for each other, and that goes throughout this entire organization. I think that message will come across through the board and down to the teams in this league. “When people start to care about the product of the league that they’re in, then you get the best possible product on the field.”