DOWNERS GROVE - Football season is already here.
The Chicago Bears are still weeks away from kickoff, but local fans don't have to go far to get their football fix.
The Chicago Thunder, a semi-pro team in the MidStates Football League, has set up shop in Downers Grove and will play its home games this season at Downers Grove South High School, starting with the home opener Saturday night.
Several players are from the western suburbs and the Thunder are making games accessible to families in the same area, starting with $7 tickets for adults. Tickets for kids are $4 or less.
"Kids with report cards, veterans and active servicemen, police officers and firemen are free," said Thunder general manager and Darien resident Steve Sliwka. "Anybody from the Downers Grove Panthers or other youth football leagues are free. All they have to do is wear their jerseys."
Fans who attend games won't just get to see a Thunder team that has had tremendous success since its inception in 1991 (10 league titles and two national championships in 2007 and 2008), but also a group of hardworking players who are out on the field solely for the love of the game.
Teams in the MSFL play according to NFL rules, which means full speed and full contact. The bumps and bruises are the same; the difference is the way the players have to deal with them. Locker rooms in the MSFL aren't equipped with hot tubs.
"I've got a full time job," Darien resident and first-year Thunder fullback Phil Washington said. "If I get injured, I still have to go to work the next day."
Williams is part of a new crop of Thunder players. Several players are Thunder veterans, such as quarterbacks Jorge Sierra (Riverside) and Greg Holcomb (Downers Grove. Washington, defensive lineman Dave Wisbrock (Westmont) and wide receiver Bryce True (Clarendon Hills) are league veterans but are new to the Thunder.
Wisbrock, in his 11th season playing semi-pro ball, last played with the Leyden Lions and said it was a no-brainer to join the Thunder, even though he's recovering from an ACL injury.
"They were our biggest rival, but they were the only team in the league I respected beside the one I was on," Wisbrock said. "It was either retire or have a chance to play for the only other team I respected."
Baptiste Williams, a 28-year-old offensive lineman from Downers Grove, is also new to the team.
"It's been good. It's been everything I expected," Williams said at a practice July 11 before the Thunder's season-opening 38-6 win over the Joliet Buccaneers on Saturday. "I'm proud that they accepted me to be a part of the team. I feel I can do a lot."
On the Thunder website, prospective team members click on a tab titled "Become a Thunder Brother." That's how they players talk about each other, as brothers rather than teammates.
"This is not a team, this is a family," the 38-year-old Sierra said. "It's been that way for a long time."
That love of each other and of the game is what keeps them going though the bumps and bruises that come along with playing an eight-game regular season. In the NFL, there are game-day paychecks, the opportunity for big endorsement deals, and the cache of being a professional player. Thunder players pay to play, and winning a league title and playing for a national title are the ultimate goals.
"The love of the game. That's why I do this every year," Sierra said. "I've been playing since I was 8 and playing Pop Warner. I love the game."
Veterans like Sierra and Holcomb met in the offseason to discuss this season's goals, and they're hoping to take a "family vacation" to Miami for the national championship at the end of the season.
"If we don't have the opportunity to play for a national title, the season won't be a success," Holcomb said.
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