Players are unpaid, and the team draws few fans. But for the Tulsa Gators semi-pro football players, they love every minute of the chance to play their favorite game in its purest form.
You might not have heard of them, but the Tulsa Gators are back for their second season of semi-pro football, and the unique blend of former college and high school stars, many of them with local ties, are looking to take another step forward in 2020.
The Gators, which will play home games at the Broken Arrow Freshman Academy (301 W. New Orleans St.) this season, are locally owned and play in the Four States Football League (4SFL). There are four other teams in Oklahoma this season, including the Tahlequah Vipers, Muskogee Monstars, and a couple in Oklahoma City, in addition to squads in Kansas, Arkansas, and Missouri, totaling 13 in the league overall.
The 4SFL is considered an AA league that doesn’t pay its players, so current high school and college players can compete in it and still retain NCAA eligibility. Many players participating in the 4SFL are trying to move up to a professional AAA league, or are high school and ex-college players looking for another opportunity at the collegiate level.
“The team is made up of guys who either didn’t get a chance out of high school, or are trying to get a chance to get some video, and guys who went to college and didn’t make it in pro for whatever reason,” says Gators co-owner Levi Currier, 34, who also plays on the squad as a defensive lineman. “There are professional-caliber players in our league. We have veteran players who have played college. We have players fresh out of high school who are looking to go to college. We have ex-professional indoor players, and that’s where we really pull our guys from. We like a good mix of young and veteran players.”
Operating out of Inola last season, the Gators went 9-3 and advanced to the 4SFL’s semi-finals before losing to the eventual champion Oklahoma Bears from Oklahoma City. Another 4SFL team that played at Broken Arrow’s Nienhuis Park, the Tri-City Panthers, which is the squad that Currier played on before forming the Gators last year, will not be operational this season.
Some of the former Panthers have ended up on the Gators this season, and most of their key players have local roots. In addition to Currier, who played at Skiatook High School, the squad includes cornerback Eric Shannon, who went to Coweta High School; linebacker Michael Abernathy, who went to Bixby; defensive end Frankie Davis who played at Broken Arrow and the University of Tulsa; returning veteran quarterback Steven Hamilton, who has won nine semi-pro championships and went to Union; and key receiver Daniel Knighten, who went to Nathan Hale in Tulsa.
Other local players include Princz Jones (Union) and receiver Stefan Davis (Central).
Currier, who has played semi-pro football for about 10 years, including stints with past local teams such as the Oklahoma Thunder and Tulsa Stampede, believes the Gators are ready to take the next step this season.
“The ultimate goal is to win a championship and get that championship ring,” says Currier, who also played at Coffeyville Community College. “I fully believe that this year, we have a team that can do that. You never know what’s going to happen, but we have added more key players, and we also have returning key players. We went from four coaches last year to 12 coaches this year, so we have a full coaching staff.”
Like virtually all minor league sports, the goal of most of the players competing is to eventually move up the ladder to a higher level of play.
“There is a vast majority, I would say over 50%, of our guys doing this to get exposure so that they can go to some league, whether it be European, Canadian, indoor; somewhere they can get paid to play,” Currier says. “There’s quite a bit of opportunity. We got two guys scholarships back to colleges after last season. We got another guy a contract to play professional football in Austria. And our kicker went to play professional indoor and won a national championship this past season. We can send guys to the next level. We provide the services to help get them to that point. We have a professional scout who is affiliated with our team.”
The Gators are seeking more visibility and would like to see their games generate more attention in the area, eventually getting on par with other more established local minor league teams.
“Semi-pro has not expanded past what it is because it’s hard to get sponsorships and schools to let us play at their fields, or just really the fan support,” Currier says. “That’s one thing that we’ve focused on, trying to be a part of the community, a staple of the community, and try to get our name out there, for kids, families, to be able to come to like a Drillers game. That’s ultimately our goal, to see us get to, that level.”
To that end, and to help increase their visibility and generate more attention in the area, the Gators have tried to get more involved in the community, committing to causes like the Broken Arrow Special Olympics, for which they helped raise $12,500 during their chili cook-off last year.
They have also been working on securing sponsorships with local businesses. One of their principal sponsors is Safari Joe’s H2O, which is owned by Gators co-owner Joe Estes. Other co-owners are Carson Smallwood (who plays), and Gators coach Gary Joice, who coaches Chelsea High School. Joice, who was the original owner of the Oklahoma Thunder and coached the Oklahoma Defenders, owns a 135-24 semi-pro career record.
And while they don’t pay their players, the owners do still have quite a few bills to cover.
“We have travel expenses, helmets, shoulder pads — we don’t give them to the players, but we allow them to have a pair to play in,” Currier says. “We don’t pay the players, but the players don’t pay a fee to play; we ask the players to show up and play. We ask that they bring their cleats, a good attitude, get that playbook learned, and come show everybody what you got.”
The commitment to playing on the Gators is significant, even if they aren’t being paid. The players may only practice once a week, but it is a lengthy one, and they still have film-watching meetings during the week.
Games are on Saturdays, starting with the Gators’ season-opener March 14, a road game in Oklahoma City, with the home opener March 21 against the Wichita Skyhawks. The season runs through June. Veterans and first responders, like police officers and firefighters, are admitted to games for free.
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