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PLAYERS LEAP AT ANOTHER CHANCE TO GAIN A FOOTHOLD IN FOOTBALL : 75 Aspiring Rhinos Turn Out for Tryout

Times Staff Writer

Seventy-five men showed up at Cypress College Saturday afternoon to try out for a semiprofessional football team called the Orange County Rhinos. Most of them arrived alone, clad in what they had been instructed to wear, a pair of cleats and a T-shirt.

Any other luggage, whether it was material (surplus pounds) or ethereal (dreams of the NFL destined to remain dreams) was left to the individuals. What mattered were the 40-yard dash times and agility drills, football’s means of selection.

The drills took more than two hours to complete. Prospects got a couple of chances at each, then were left to size up the complete strangers around them.

The worst kind of nervousness is not knowing.

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And so 75 men went about trying to concentrate on themselves, all the time eyeing the others, whose performances ultimately influence their own chances of making this team, which was called the Cougars last season.

The Rhinos had been a legendary semipro team. Their games were televised locally in the 1950s, including a 72-0 loss to the Rams in a preseason scrimmage in 1958. In 1981, Charlie Cowan, a 15-year Ram veteran, was the head coach, but after the 1982 season, the team folded.

Another semipro team, the Cougars, was established in 1981. Barry Robinson, who owns a sporting goods store in Brea, became the owner of the Cougars this year, which means he took upon himself the responsibility of organizing practices, games and team fees. He also acquired the rights to the name Orange County Rhinos.

So the Cougars, who were 8-3 in 1986 against other semipro teams from as far south as San Diego and as far north as Hayward, became the Rhinos.

“People hear that name and it means something,” Robinson said.

The players don’t get paid. In fact, if they make this team, they must pay a fee of $106 to help pay for referees, equipment and field. The Rhinos will open their season at home at Cypress College Aug. 23 against the Riverside Rams and will play 11 games. Playoffs begin in November, and a semipro bowl game will be played in Las Vegas in mid-December.

But Saturday, all that didn’t seem to matter. This was a tryout for a football team. Only 30 of the 75 players would be asked to come back. Those 30 will be cut about in half, to combine with the 30 holdovers from last season’s Cougars.

The packet each prospect received including an inspirational poem and advice: “The more you sweat in training, the less you bleed in war.”

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Some things never change. Neither do people or dreams.

Mike Cunningham is a natural for this team. No matter that he hasn’t played football for three years, or that his time in the 40 was just under seven seconds or that he found out about the tryout about 18 hours before it happened.

Mike Cunningham was meant for this team because of what he is--312 pounds.

“He told me he was 312 pounds on the phone,” said John Baker, who is a co-coach with Robinson. “My mouth dropped. Then I started to think about him on goal-line defense. Oh, that will be beautiful.”

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Cunningham, 23, lives in Buena Park and played football at Sunny Hills High School and Fullerton College. He concedes that his sporting activities as of late have been limited to remote control buttons.

“I’ve watched sports instead of playing them,” he said. “But then someone mentioned this to me Friday night and I got all excited. . . . I guess I’ve always thought if I could get down to about 280, get pretty mean, maybe I’d have a chance at the NFL.”

Ah, the dream. Of course, the immediate goal was to persuade management that although his athletic skills may be rusty, he can still help this team.

“I know I’m a bit out of shape, but I’m not William Perry, either,” he said.

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Oh, but how he’d like to be.

Darryl Green looked at the other 74, looked back at the person who had asked the question and said, “I’m a cinch.”

The question being, “What are your chances of making the team?” Green, 26, who lives in Anaheim, was easily the focal point of the tryout because of his body (muscular), hair (aerodynamic) and credentials (impressive).

Green played football at UCLA from 1978 to 1981. His sophomore year, he shared tailback duties with Freeman McNeil, now of the New York Jets. But when Kevin Nelson showed up, Green’s time went down and soon he was out.

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What followed was a stint with the Edmonton Eskimos, a tryout with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, and two years with the semipro California Wolves.

“It’s kind of a depressing way to live,” Green said. “You work out and try to make teams. Agents say they’ll call you with information, but they rarely do. You just work out and hope.”

The Rhinos are a steppingstone for Green and other players of his caliber. It is these players who have transformed many semipro teams from being excuses for men to get out of the house, to what Baker hopes will one day be a bona fide minor league pool of talent.

“We want this team to be considered by the Rams, Raiders and Chargers anytime they need someone to fill in,” he said. “We want to be able to become legitimate in their eyes so they feel they can depend on our players.”

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All Green is looking for is a little green.

“If someone gives me 50 grand, I’ll play,” he said. “They don’t have to worry about me renegotiating. Just give me 50 grand and I’ll do whatever they want.”

Nerves usually make a person very quiet or very loud. Saturday, most people were very nervous and very loud.

Someone just didn’t do a good job, they did a “GOOD JOB!” or “A GOOD JOB, BABY!”

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Complete strangers became instant friends, slapping hands with bone-shattering force. Those shouting compliments usually kept an eye out for the coach. Enthusiasm is a virtue.

People congratulate the people who beat them in drills. A good attitude can win a man a job.

Quoting Rhino text, “Life’s battles don’t always go to the stronger man. Sooner or later, the man who wins is the man who knows he can.”

Heavy stuff. Football stuff.

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