Thunder football squad features familiar names

By Ivan Sanders
STAR STAFF
isanders@starhq.com
Carter County has long been a breeding ground for quality football players that often played out their eligibility through the school systems in the area, and then vanished into relative obscurity. Thanks to a group of area players that have caught the fever again, the Carter County Thunder is bringing semi-pro football back to the place they call home.
Playing in the Appalachian Football League or AFL, the Thunder open up the 2003 season on Aug. 24 when they travel to Knoxville to take on the Tennessee Raiders at Bruce Wilkerson Stadium at 1 p.m. The following week will be a reunion of sorts as the East Tennessee Warriors travel up Stoney Creek to Unaka High School to open the Thunders' home schedule, with kickoff slated at 7 p.m.
Many of the Carter County team's players were members of the Warriors' championship squad last season. The Warriors made a great showing, only to fall in the final game of the playoffs in Atlanta.
"A lot of us played for Johnson City last year and we are just looking forward to coming out and playing in front of a Carter County crowd," stated tight end Jon Sluder, a former Unaka Ranger. "Since many of us played together in the county schools, we feel like this is a coming home year for our team."
Names like Tim Clipse of Cloudland, Justin Bowling and Sluder of Unaka, and Travis Brown of Happy Valley are just a few of the familiar names that once took the spotlight on Friday nights in the county, often squaring off against each other. Now, these guys are joining ranks to hopefully bring the 2003 AFL championship to the area.
"This is just a great opportunity to play football again since graduating high school," said Bowling. "I love the competition and I look forward to being out there on the football field again."
If there is a distinguishing feature between the semi-pro teams and the pro teams, it is the fact there isn't a paycheck waiting for the players after the game is completed for a majority of the semi-pro teams. For this reason, the motivating force that drives these players to come and knock each other's block off is for the gratification of playing the sport of football.
Said Sluder: "For me, it's been the opportunity to strap on the pads again and come out to play football once again. No one gets paid, so it is just a bunch of guys that love football coming out to play the game. Either you love the game of football and want to play, or you aren't willing to make the sacrifice to play. This is football country with all the high school and college teams, making it that much more special to come out and play for the fans in Carter County."
Many may think that the play isn't as tough as the high school or college ranks, but what these doubters don't realize is that the players have an opportunity to play in the Arena League and some are even discovered by pro teams as the average age of the players is between 18-30 years of age. With the fact that an indoor football league is coming to Johnson City's Mini-Dome next year, the incentive makes these players hungrier to succeed and win.
Rusty Flack, a former Unicoi County Blue Devil, will be the team's starting quarterback in charge of running a multiple-faceted offense. According to Flack, it's not just about showing up to don the green and orange of the Thunder on Saturday night but a chance to shine for the potential scouts in the stands.
"There's no doubt about it, I want to win," said Flack about his goals for the Thunder's new season. "I want to represent Carter County the best way possible, and good Lord's willing everything will work itself out."
The Thunder is very fortunate to have head coach Bo Wilcox, who has played college and semi-pro ball along with a brief stint with the Chicago Bears in the NFL to help direct them toward its goal of winning the regular season championship and a chance to go to the playoffs.
"My job is really simply -- I just stand behind my team 100 percent and provide the motivation to help them achieve the goals they have set," said Wilcox. "You give me someone that really has a heart for the game, determination, and a little mean streak and I can motivate them to do anything because that is what I am really good at."
Although the team is fielding a little over 40 players on the roster, according to Wilcox there is still a space or two available for others who might be interested in playing for the team. Those interested can contact Wilcox at 416-3312 or 952-4622 and Daniel Shell at 773-4023 for more information.
The team practices at Kiwanis Park in Elizabethton on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 6-9 and on Saturday from 1-4. All fans are invited to come out and watch practice as well as meet the players.
Also, the team will be at the Appalachian Fair each day to sell T-Shirts and give its fans an opportunity to win a pair of tickets to the Tennessee Vols and Vandy Commodore game this season.
As far as the East Tennessee Warriors go, a couple of the area players decided to stay on board with the Johnson City-based team. According to Warrior head coach James Spears, the team will be fairly new as personnel goes, but competitive.
"We will be young, but I think we have an opportunity to be a good team, especially with some of the exciting players we have had come on board," quipped Spears. "I think it will be an exciting season for all the fans in the area, especially since the league has grown from four teams last year to eight this season."