Turf warriors: Silverbacks put Charlottesville on the football map

When a football team with the name Virginia Silverbacks hits the field, you might expect to see a bunch of macho guys living up to their animal kingdom namesake, flaunting their strength, agility and aggression. You'd be right, but then you might also be surprised at the colors worn by those same tough guys on this game day: black, silver and– pink? Pink socks and pink tape around ankles, knees and elbows. If it's incongruous, it's for a good cause.

"It's for breast cancer awareness," explains Silverbacks Head Coach Randy Jones, a burly, bearded 57-year-old who's dealing with a case of pre-game jitters an hour before kick-off on Saturday, September 17. As amped-up music blares over the speakers, he's pacing near the Monticello High School bleachers with his ball-cap-covered head down and arms crossed tight.

To thumping hip-hop, then Metallica's "Enter Sandman," the team runs warm-up drills on the field and periodically shouts in unison, working themselves up for what promises to be a hard-hitting game against the Virginia Ravens, the Richmond-based team that beat the Silverbacks in their first match-up in July. 

Despite that earlier loss, Jones says, he has confidence in his team tonight, and he notes the team's three defeats this season followed injuries to multiple starters.

"We lost 10 in one game," he says. Most of those players are back in action tonight, and Jones expects to take the Ravens by surprise.

"They're a good team, but we're going to play some Silverbacks-type football," he says with a smile, noting particular strength on defense– "A number of guys can get out there and get it"– and a kicker who Jones boasts can land 35-yard field goals.

Victory is important, of course, but Jones, who spent decades coaching local youth football teams including the Buford Middle and Charlottesville High School teams, says this new team, which plays in the semi-pro Mason Dixon Football League, is about more than winning. It's about giving the players both the opportunity to serve as role models to today's crop of young players and to set goals for themselves, on and off the field. 

That's what attracted 25-year-old defensive end Robert Williams.

"I'm trying to finish my college degree," says Williams, a 2003 CHS grad now working as a mentor in the STARS Program, a residential home for teens, and also taking online classes through Liberty University this fall. A former standout on the CHS Black Knights, Williams says the return to the field and the team camaraderie have even helped him get through the pain of a recent divorce.

"These guys are like family," he says, "pushing you to be a better athlete and a better person."

Jones, too, says that coaching the team has lifted him after health issues forced him to retire two years ago, leaving him feeling without purpose.

"Football gave me second life," says Jones. "I'm doing better than I have ever been in the last couple of years." 

In addition to providing personal inspiration, Jones says, the team wants to give back to the community. Hence this night's pink theme– in recognition of September as Breast Cancer Awareness month. A portion of proceeds from each game's tickets goes to nonprofits including the Jefferson Area Board for Aging.

"We want these young kids to see what's possible, to be inspired," Jones says. 

The 65-member squad includes teachers, coaches, and other professionals. Starting quarterback Jamie Davis, a one-time Charlottesville High School player who works in plumbing, is among them. At 43, he's not just the oldest player on the team, he's old enough to have a son who's also playing semi-pro ball in North Carolina.

The coaching staff, too, has a local pedigree that includes former CHS and UVA standout Tony Agee, who now owns a massage business in the Allied Business Park and serves as the offensive line coach, and Rob Brackenridge, another former CHS standout, as defense coordinator.

It was Jones and Davis, however, who turned the team from dream to reality.

"The hardest part was getting those many young men from different counties, different towns, and different backgrounds," Jones says. Raising money was also a challenge, "and we're still struggling, still looking for sponsors," he adds, noting that the term "semi-pro" does not mean players are getting paid. In fact, he says, some players have had to shell out hundreds of dollars for their own equipment and transportation to and from games.

"These guys are here for the love of the game," he says. "They have passion."

Passion for the game led the founders to choose the name, Jones says, because "It represents leadership and power." A silverback is an older male gorilla, the leader of the troop. It's also a name that's created powerful controversy when attached to sports.

Back in 2006, when a minor-league basketball team in Buffalo, New York, took the Silverbacks moniker, critics demanded a name change. One Buffalo school board member, noted that simian names "have a history of being used to dehumanize African-Americans." But coaches and team members in that city scoffed at the idea, as did the leaders of the Charlottesville team.

"I came through an era where racism was real big," says Jones, who attended segregated Jefferson and Burley schools and would hardly be someone to use a racially insensitive term. 

"I just think it's a great name," he says, adding that 10 members of his team are white and recalling one particularly heroic silverback from the silver screen, a giant ape from a 1949 film.

"I know Mighty Joe Young was a heck of a king of all kings," he says. "Basically, we're the good guys trying to take care of the big monsters."

Jones does note a strong local African-American football tradition in Charlottesville that dates back to segregation. At the team's first home game on July 30, the Silverbacks honored team members' youth coaches, who included members of the Burley Bears football team of 1956– a team that not only went undefeated but didn't have a single point scored against it.

Although he was too young to play on that team, Jones says with pride, "My family was the only one to have three members make captain of the team during that era."

Will the Silverbacks live up to that legendary Burley era by going undefeated in future seasons? Jones hopes so, and if this night's Ravens game offers any foreshadowing, he could be right. 

On their first drive, the Silverbacks score on a long pass from QB Davis. Russell Hunter, a 38-year-old father who works as a heating and air technician, is a dervish at running back, breaking tackles as one excited team member screams "seventy-zip" from the sidelines, urging his team to a landslide. 

And then, the play of the game: a faked punt by kicker T.C. Stephens, who then runs for 30 yards, putting the Silverbacks in position for another touchdown. 

It's the type of play to bring a crowd to its feet, but unfortunately on this night, all four elements have conspired to keep the stands nearly empty.

"It's raining, and there's an Earth, Wind, and Fire concert," Jones says, explaining the skimpy turnout, noting that nearly 2,000 fans had showed up for previous home games.

"We've had great community support," he says.

If the roar of fans is missing this night, the Silverbacks don't seem to notice as they leap on the sideline and backslap their mates. "That's our kicker, that's our kicker!" somebody screams after the trick play.

By halftime, the Silverbacks are up 15-0, and while the Ravens rally to score once, the extra point is blocked, and as the final quarter ends, Jones' hopeful pre-game prediction has come true: Silverbacks 25, Ravens 6.

Their first season 7-3 record is good enough to land the Silverbacks a berth in the playoffs. "It's a major accomplishment" for a first year team, says Jones, who insists it's proof there's "no limit" to what this team can accomplish in upcoming years.

"We," he says, "are making history." 

The Virginia Silverbacks hope to play the DC Falcons in a make-up match on Sunday, October 2. Tickets $10, children 12 and under free. Playoff games to be scheduled.

Update Friday, September 30: The DC Falcons have forfeited the make-up match intended for Oct. 2. Playoff schedule will be announced soon.

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Very cool!

May have to dust off the ol Jock Strap.

Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose!

FYI Courteney... It's a "game", not a "match" (see updates).

I am happy for those guys, wish I had the athletic ability to play with them instead of watching football on TV and being a wannabe. They should schedule UVa next year, I bet they could beat them. Sounds like they have more heart and desire.

Great idea. Play UVA!
A great $ making opportunity...
Many would attend game.

A pick-up team could beat UVa. It would be better coached.

Didn't THOMAS JEFFERSON put this hick town on this proverbial map? LAME! As usual