By Daniel Priest
BILLERICA –Football reigns supreme in the Northeast region and a lot of that has to do with the dominance of the Patriots and the pedigree that surrounds legends Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.
Now that June has begun there is another team in the area that is close to wrapping up its inaugural season. That team is the New England Bobcats, who play their home games at the Chelmsford Forum.
The Bobcats are the creation of Billerica native Cynthia Hudson. The entrepreneur started the team on her own at the urging of her late friend Lynne Tierney after a failed endeavor with a New Hampshire-based team.
The Bobcats took a 5-1 record into Saturday night’s home game against the Rome Knights. Fans have two more chances to see them at the Chelmsford Forum — June 16 vs. the Southern Steam and June 23 vs. the Western Maryland Warriors — before the playoffs start.
Games begin at 7 p.m. Tickets are $15 general admission, $7 for children 12 and under and $35 for a family of four.
“I felt like I brought my game home because I’m from Billerica,” Hudson says.
The Bobcats are members of the Elite Indoor Football (EIF) Professional League. Arena football is professional football, just like the NFL, but there are a few different rules about the game.
The first is field size. An arena football field is only 85 feet wide and just 50 yards long, which is essentially half the size of a regulation outdoor field. The game also has no punting and the kicking rules differ greatly from typical football.
For players, that can be beneficial. Running back Darryl Cyprien, a Boston native, found the smaller field can help to round out his skill set.
“If you can do it here then on a normal field, playing a normal game it should be pretty easy for you,” he said. “When I go outside and play outdoor now it’s like a walk in the park. It works on a lot of things to be able to change direction and read holes in such a small space because the game is so fast.”
Rule changes are just part of the story when it comes to arena football. Members of the team are here to get noticed, with an end goal of making a name for themselves in the hope of moving all the way up the NFL.
“All of us on this team are trying to get to the next level so that’s why we try to perform as high as we can at every game because we never know who is in the stands,” said Cyprien. “We take every chance we get and every team we play 100 percent because we’re trying to get to that next level.”
Players come from all over. Take defensive back Treavor Pugh, for example. He’s originally from Texas and made stops at Tyler Junior College, Southeastern Oklahoma State, and a previous arena stop with the CIF Champions League in Texas as a member of the Centex Calvary.
He found out about the team simply through word of mouth.
“Well, I’m from Texas and I played with the original coach that was going to be here and I played with him in Texas last year,” he said. “Him and Cynthia somehow got connected and he asked me to come up here and play with him. I ended up staying and he ended up leaving for another position.”
For others, the team has provided a chance to get back on track. Taylor Ekstrom, a receiver, found out about the team later on than a few others: “Originally I was on a different team in the AAL and I got released just before camp, so I was kind of panicking looking for a team at that point. Started emailing coaches and our previous coach had told me to come to practice and from there he signed me to this team.”
Regardless of their backstory, the team is putting together an impressive first season.
Bill Savery and Mark Stevens are the two coaches tasked with getting their players ready every week despite extremely limited practice time. Savery handles the offense and Stevens is in control of the defense.
For Savery, practice is all about efficiency.
“We try to work tempo and get as many reps as we can in a short amount of time and our players are pretty good about that,” he said. “We can squeeze two or three days worth or hours worth of plays into half an hour and then we rep them again against the defense.”
Stevens, who played high school football at Lynn English High and college ball at the University of New Hampshire, has a hard task trying to make defensive game plans on such a small field.
“You can score from anywhere on the field because it’s only 50 yards long. There’s no punting, so all four downs you’re going for it so that gives your offense more chances,” he said. “That’s why you see these high scoring games. Most of the teams are passing teams, we run the ball pretty well too, but it’s basically four passing downs every single series and that leads to more scoring.”
The two are focused on wins, but they keep their players in mind, too.
“We put the team first, but we would never hold somebody back from bettering themselves,” said Savery. “If they get a better opportunity and everybody understand that, the coaches understand that, the players understand that, so it’s a no brainer.”
The team is still seeking sponsorships and are looking to get more fans at their games. Attendance is one of the appeals of arena football.
“I really enjoy it. I love it when the kids come out and their rooting for you and want to shake your hand and get autographs during the game,” said Pugh. “How up close and personal you can be with the fans without it getting too crazy. I love it and I love being able to play the game I love at my age.”
The team will often invite kids to perform at halftime and are all about making games a family experience. Hudson, who during the season houses several of her players at her home, has an eye on entertainment and team success.
“We’re going to the next level next year. Right now we’re negotiating with four different leagues that want us to join them. Right now the AFL is kind of dispersing, so there won’t be an AFL. The next level will be NAL and then from there will be NFL,” she said.
“I want to move to the next level. We always want to win the championship and in the long run I think I got a good team,” she paused, and then added, “I’m lucky.”