Waupaca man suits up for Fox Valley Force
By Greg Seubert
Scott Van Handel never had the opportunity to play high school football.
Fast-forward 25 years and the 43-year-old Waupaca man is playing the game that he thought had passed him by long ago.
“I always wanted to play football,” he said. “Here I am, thinking the time has passed me.”
Van Handel is one of three players over the age of 40 on the Fox Valley Force, an Appleton-based minor league football team that will open its 11th season Saturday, April 23.
The force competes in the Northern Elite Football League with the Menomonie Thunderhawks; River City Rough Riders, based in Winona, Minnesota; Chippewa Valley Predators, based in Eau Claire; Rochester (Minnesota) Bills; and North Bank Bulls, St. Paul Pioneers, Minnesota Sting and Minnesota Valley Warriors, based in the Twin Cities.
Van Handel lines up on the defensive line, but also backs up offensive linemen as well. He had 11 tackles and 3 1/2 sacks in his first two seasons.
So how did he get hooked up with a football team that includes players from more than 15 communities, including Clintonville, Green Bay, Appleton, Oshkosh, Fond du Lac and Wautoma?
“The NFL has open combines in Chicago,” he said following a recent practice at Appleton North High School.
“I was going to just get in physical shape and I wasn’t planning on playing at all,” he said. “I had to get into shape, I had to lose weight. The NFL contacted me back because I didn’t have the high school (playing experience). They needed some kind of football to qualify (for the combine) and they suggested minor league football. I didn’t even know the Force existed.”
Matt Reyes, the team’s owner, general manager and president, said the Force is heading into its 11th season.
Players are recruited through word-of-mouth and social media.
“We just say, ‘Hey, you want to play football?’” Reyes said. “Some of them are fresh out of college, some of them want to go on to the pro ranks, some of them just want to strap up again. Everybody has a different goal. We just tell them that we can accommodate that goal.”
Sometimes, players show up with no experience at all.
“We’ve had a number of guys that played no high school football and want to play football,” Reyes said. “We’ve had guys that have played in the NFL. We have a wide variety.”
Tryouts are held in December or January. The season begins in April and continues through August.
Players are not paid.
“It depends on what they want to get out of it,” Reyes said. “We offer high-quality film for them to give to scouts. Some of these kids are fresh out of high school and looking to go to college, but not ready to go yet.”
Age doesn’t matter to Van Handel.
“I don’t notice it,” he said. “They accept me for who I am and appreciate the effort. We’re brothers.”
The Force will open its season at 1 p.m. April 23 against the Kaukauna-based Wisconsin Ravens at Kaukauna High School.
Players have been practicing once a week since January. The team will play four home games at North’s Paul Engen Field.
“We have two hours a week for roughly eight weeks,” Reyes said. “We’re a little more demanding than most semi-pro teams out there because we believe in the product and quality football. We do demand that our guys be at almost every practice, but we do have that understanding that they do have their lives and jobs and families.”
Appleton North recently replaced the grass on its field with artificial turf.
“Appleton North just put this field in last year, so it’s a brand new field,” Reyes said. “Almost all of the Northern Elite teams have field turf as well.”
A summer schedule means the Force and other league teams are playing through the dog days of summer.
“There was one game last year where we had lost a coach and he took some players with him, so we showed up against Chippewa Valley with 26 people,” Van Handel said. “I had to play both ways and a lot of the linemen had to play both ways because we just didn’t have the depth. The game went into overtime and it was just brutal with the heat and the humidity.
“We got the ball in overtime, drove down and scored,” he added. “That was electric.”
Reyes wants his players to have heart and dedication.
“If they don’t, this is not going to work for them,” “You have to love the game of football. If you don’t, this is not the place to be.”
Van Handel is one player who feels at home.
“It’s redemption,” he said. “There’s something about football.”