CENTRAL FALLS — Back in the mid-1990s, Brian Johnson and Chuck Rinebolt often teased each other about how long they would, or could, last playing semi-pro football.
The game, more often than not, can be thankless. They don't get paid, and – at times – are stuck paying for their own equipment, but they don't care. These men, most of whom work full-time, have to hustle to the practice grid two or three times a week before or after their jobs to hone their skills, speed and strength for their upcoming weekend opponent.
They're in it just for their intense love for football.
“We were two of the older guys on (the Ocean State Buccaneers, a now-defunct, semi-pro club based in Pawtucket), and we were always talking about which one would still be around to play with our sons,” grinned Johnson, a 42-year-old center and defensive lineman for the Southern New England Rage, which has its home games at Mansfield High School but whose club consists primarily of Blackstone Valley residents.
“I used to joke around with him, saying, 'Come hell or high water, I will play on the same team as my sons!'” he added, then softly stated, “Chuckie, a nose tackle, died in a car accident back in 2001 or '02; it was tragic. I mean, he was only about 39. That's when I thought, 'Well, Brian, now it's up to you.'”
Amazingly, Johnson's wish has come true, as his two “boys” – Jordan Johnson, a running back/receiver/cornerback who graduated from Tolman High in 2010, and Jared Battersby, a starting fullback/linebacker and Tolman Class of 2011 alumnus – suited up with him on Saturday, Aug. 11 for a New England Football League Division AA tilt against the South Shore Outlaws.
It gets better. Brian Johnson's “kid brother” Glen also took Battis Field in Marlboro with his elder and two nephews for the Rage, he as a safety.
“We got killed, 28-0, but it was great being out there with my sons,” grinned Brian Johnson. “It's something I've dreamed about for a long time.”
The hefty Johnson has been representing area semi-pro football teams since the late-1980s. He graduated from Central High in Providence in 1988, then had a short stint in the U.S. Air Force before returning to his hometown of Providence.
“I had received 10 letters at Central playing football, wrestling and doing outdoor track; the Air Force sent me home not long after I enlisted because I had medical issues with my knees,” Brian noted. “I didn't tell them I had Osgood-Schlatter Disease.”
The syndrome is an irritation of the patellar ligament at the tibial tuberosity, and is characterized by painful lumps just below the knee; it's most often seen in adolescents. The condition occurs in active boys and girls age 9-16 and coincides with periods of growth spurts. It's believed that it happens more often with boys and girls, with ratios ranging from 3:1 to 7:1, and the reason may be related to greater participation by boys in sports and risk activities.
“I had a knot form under my kneecap, and it's very painful, but you do grow out of it,” Brian Johnson said. “I just wanted to play football, so I worked through the pain.”
He joined the Siccone Outlaws (a Providence semi-pro squad) in 1988, then signed on with the Ocean State Bucs in 1989. He represented them for six years, then moved to the Rhode Island Rhinos to the Rhode Island Gridiron to the Providence Prowlers, then had a short stint with the Bellingham Minutemen, which was mentored by former New England Patriots' quarterback Steve Grogan.
After that, he hitched on with the Rage; that was nine years ago.
“I started playing for the Rage this season because my dad and uncle kept hounding me; they wanted me to come out and play with them,” laughed Battersby, Jordan's full, biological brother as his parents gave him his mother's maiden name. “Every year, when training camp started, I used to go with Dad and watch him, and I got a kick out of it.
“He always said that it wouldn't be his last year until me and my brother played with him and our uncle,” he added. “I really didn't want to play. I thought the guys were huge, and I didn't want to get hurt. I was thinking about going to college (at the Community College of Rhode Island, where he'll start next month).
“Dad told me to come out to one practice, at Wide World of Indoor Sports in Mansfield, then decide; that was back in, like, February, and I immediately fell in love with it … I just missed playing football. I discovered I missed it a lot.
“It was pretty weird, playing in the game with him,” he continued, laughing. “When I grew up, I was always being taught by my father, who was still playing. To see him in the same huddle as me, and making a block for me, it's bizarre.”
Jordan Johnson didn't play for the Rage right away this year, but joined the club just a few weeks ago.
“I have epileptic seizures on occasion, and I had to wait for the doctors to clear me to play, but I did go to a couple of practices this spring and summer,” Jordan revealed. “I spent a lot of time weight training so I could remain strong.
“I actually played in the New England Football League's Developmental League with him back in 2010, when I was fresh out of high school,” he added. We had real games, but there were only six of them. Now, this is the real thing, and it's fast.
“Playing with my father and uncle is kind of nerve-wracking because we've been watching them play our whole lives. They coached us through all of those years, and now – playing with them on the same field – you feel like you have to prove to them that you paid attention to all the details they gave you. You wanted to do all the things they had taught you.”
Against the Outlaws, Jordan proved his worth on one kickoff return, as he delivered it for about 40 yards.
“We don't talk each other up, not at all,” Jared indicated. “We just communicate with our eyes or head nod, or just by pointing at them after a great tackle or block.”
Glen Johnson revealed he played his freshman and sophomore year at La Salle, then sat out his junior year after a transfer to Hope High before playing with the Blue Wave as a senior in 1990. He mentioned he did play for Salve Regina University after graduation, “but that lasted only two weeks or so. I had to get a job to support my family.
“I always knew my dad (Jesse Johnson, 74) had played semi-pro football for years back in the 1950s, and that Brian loved it, so I figured, 'Why not join?' I started with the R.I. Gridiron club in 1997, played two years with them, then went to the Rhinos.”
As for taking the field with his nephews, he described it this way:
“Brian kept mentioning he had a bet, maybe pact is a better word, with Chuckie Rinebolt about playing semi-pro with his sons, and I know he wanted to win it. It's obvious he was serious, I can see that now.
“It's a little strange, playing ball with your nephews, and – you know – I still haven't stopped coaching them,” he continued. “In between plays, on the defensive side of the ball, I talk to them. I'll give them a nod for something good they did, or a look like 'Are you out of your mind?' if they do something wrong.
“Honestly, it's like playing street or sandlot ball when Brian and I were kids, and it's cool. It's a little different; when Jordan is in the secondary with me, I have to school him. Last week, when he came in against South Shore, I had to tell him what coverages we were in. I had to say, 'Cover 2,' and he knew.”
Mentioned Brian with a chuckle: “I just hate it when they say, 'Hey, Dad,' or 'Hey, Uncle Glen.' It just sounds weird, but I still love it.
“Last week, we just made too many mental errors and special teams mistakes,” he added. “I mean, losing 28-0? We're better than that.”
The defeat pushed the Rage to 1-2 on the NEFL Division AA season, but they'll try to rebound when it faces the aforementioned Wardogs at Macomber Field in Central Falls at 6:30 p.m., Saturday.
According to co-owner and player Joe Baker, all of the proceeds from concessions will go to the Central Falls Panthers' youth football program, one in which Brian Johnson serves as coach and mentor.
“Because our place in Mansfield is being renovated (with new field turf), I went to Tony Tager (of the Central Falls Park & Recreation Department) and asked him if we could use any of their fields,” Baker claimed. “He let us use Higginson Field for practices, and then he got us our first two home games ever in C.F.”
(The first was Saturday night against the Green Valley, Conn. Blackhawks).
“We're excited about it, and also giving the money from concessions as a donation to the Panthers,” he continued. “We talked about it, and we as a team like to help out the community, especially the younger guys playing Pop Warner. If they man the concessions and sell all the food and drinks, that's fine with me. Brian coaches them, so they deserve to collect some money to help their program.
“I think they'll make pretty good money.”