Massachusetts Pirates hold on to football dreams – Lowell Sun
WORCESTER — It’s football, but it’s different.
The Massachusetts Pirates are members of the 11-team Indoor Football League. Games are fast-paced and high-scoring, played on a 50-yard indoor field. The fans are close to the action. After a Pirates home game, fans are permitted onto the field and allowed to take pictures or get autographs from their favorite players. When balls go into the stands, fans are allowed to keep them.
Players clearly do it for the love of football: They make just $250 a game. However, the Pirates help players with housing, transportation and meal costs.
And they’ve been successful. After an 11-3 regular season, the Pirates opened the United Bowl playoffs with a 44-19 rout of the Bismarck Bucks. Now, they’ll look to down the Frisco Fighters in round two on Saturday night, with kickoff scheduled for 8 p.m. at the DCU Center.
“It’s fun being right next to the fans and it’s a fan-friendly atmosphere all the time. Everyone loves touchdowns. Everyone loves big hits and that’s what arena football is all about,” quarterback Sean Brackett said.
Brackett has been with the Pirates since their inaugural season in 2018 and said the team has had high standards each year.
“Boston is a city of champions,” said Brackett. “So, just like the Patriots, just like the Bruins or the Red Sox, every year for the Pirates is championship or bust.”
Brackett attributes the team’s success to committed teammates throughout the organization. He said team owners Hassan and Jawad Yatim find “hungry” players, who are driven to compete, in part because of their desire to reach a bigger stage.
While the IFL might not be the NFL, Brackett said the level of talent can’t be overlooked.
“It’s the closest thing you’re gonna get to see (to the NFL) as far as talent level, and those other things as well but leadership coming from the top, they’ve been great,” said Brackett. “I’ve been on teams where you’re not getting paid, you know, they’re not paying your rent, like all this other s*** going on.”
In addition to owning the Pirates, Jawad Yatim serves as the team’s general manager.
Yatim said he takes an “aggressive” approach to recruiting players. Since the team started in 2018, he’s had to compete for players against not just other Indoor Football League teams but also rival leagues, including the XFL.
Without a league like the XFL to compete with this year, Yatim said recruitment was “a little easier than normal.” However, even with the players they want, the challenges are not always over.
Bigger leagues like the CFL in Canada or the NFL can, and do, sign IFL players.
“Typically in other minor league situations and whatnot, when a guy gets picked up, they’ll provide you with somebody to fill the spot,” said Yatim. “Here the guy gets picked up, you’re on your own. So you really got to go out and find somebody.”
The Pirates have found competitive players, many of whom have played in the NFL or CFL already. Many players have come in with high-level college experience too.
Running back Justin Stockton, for example, was a favorite weapon of Kansas City Chiefs starter Patrick Mahomes at Texas Tech and had opportunities with the Seattle Seahawks and Detroit Lions.
Keeping the dream alive
Many players taking to the turf in IFL games aspire to reach the NFL and some do find an opportunity. Now-former Pirates defensive lineman Willie Yarbary competed for a spot on the Los Angeles Chargers roster this summer.
One player hoping their experience playing for the Pirates will lead to another shot at the NFL is kicker Josh Gable.
Gable caught the eye of the New England Patriots in 2019 and 2017. Affectionately referred to as the “YouTube kicker” Gable never played college football. Instead, he played soccer and intrigued NFL scouts with impressive trick shots he shared online.
That background might have served him well to join the IFL, but for those looking to get a shot in the league, the game presents unique challenges. The game clock is almost always running and the compressed field makes for a wide-open game.
For kickers like Gable, the goalposts are just 9 feet wide, compared to the NFL’s 18 ½ feet. The crossbar is 15 feet off the ground, while in the NFL it is set at 10.
“You don’t really have time to think,” said Gable. “It really helps you, because it helps you get really accurate.”
Brackett, 29, realizes an NFL opportunity may never come and that’s OK. Playing in the IFL has allowed Brackett to play a game he loves and put his roots down near Boston.
“You can’t really beat that, the only thing that could be better is playing for the Patriots,” Brackett said.
But players often find themselves in a position where they need to work a second job. Brackett is a physical education teacher and Gable is a visual artist, with expertise in graphic design.
Coaches work additional jobs as well. No one’s doing this for the money.
Offensive line coach Rob Orell said the franchise is committed to showing the community they “want to help make a difference on and off the field.”
“I also work a Boys & Girls Club, so we were able to have one of the players come over to the club and meet with the kids and now they talk to me about the Pirates all the time,” said Orell. “They’ve come to the games and it’s just nice to be able to see the connection between the two. Yeah, that might be big and scary on the field but they’re all good and very respectful guys.”
Gable said there is a “camaraderie” shared with all of his teammates.
“I didn’t think it would be quite as team-oriented, but it really is, from the people in the office to the guys in the locker room,” Gable said.
The camaraderie developed throughout the course of this season, especially after victories against the Tucson Sugar Skulls and the Frisco Fighters, said assistant head coach and defensive coordinator Rayshaun Kizer.
After those back-to-back wins, the Pirates would string together six more wins for their 11-3 overall record on the season. Then, the momentum carried forward as they beat the Bismarck Bucks in round one of the playoffs.
That kind of success can generate opportunities.
Even for a second-year coach, Kizer acknowledged there is a desire to coach at a higher level for him and his colleagues, even if it’s not the immediate focus.
“The goal is always to move up,” said Kizer. “We want to win championships here, but the goal is to get your feel and move up to the next level.”
The Pirates’ head coach has been atop the football world. Patrick Pass was a three-time Super Bowl champion running back in 2002, 2004 and 2005 as a member of the New England Patriots. Like the man he played for in Foxboro, Pass is said to be driven by winning — but elusive with the media.
Building a tradition
As the Pirates set course for the future, one goal the organization shares is building better brand awareness.
Yatim said the Pirates are focused on establishing their brand and generating more fan interest. In the near future, Yatim hopes to see Pirates merchandise in more mainstream outlets and fans coming to their games.
“If you’re a football fan in the area, and you haven’t checked us out, then shame on you,” said Yatim. “I think you’re really missing out on a great product.”