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SEMI-TOUGH : Burbank Bandits Develop a Crash Course for Winning in High Desert Football League

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The High Desert Football League always conducted business on the ragged edge, somewhere between an organization and just several hundred really heavy men looking for a reason to plow into someone. It was referred to as a semipro league, but that was not the case at all, not any more than a man who pays you $100 a month to mow your lawn has the right to call himself a professional landscaper.

But those days are mostly gone. The players in the High Desert Football League no longer have to take money from their pockets to defray the cost of competing, as they once did.

And in a league in which players have used electrical tape to support their ankles instead of the more costly white medical tape and quarterbacks once bragged that the balls they threw weren’t flipping end over end nearly as much as they used to, a team has emerged.

A real team.

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The Burbank Bandits, a subtle blend of former big-time college players whose football dreams have gone bust and guys who are living their dreams right now just by playing organized tackle football, have simply steamrolled the eight-team league this season.

The Bandits are 11-0 and have had only a few games in which the opposition made it anything even resembling a contest. They have a quarterback who has thrown 35 touchdown passes and a receiver who has caught 25 of those. They play today in the second round of the HDFL playoffs, a mere formality really in that they already have thrashed the opponent--a team from Antelope Valley--twice this season. The championship game follows next Sunday, and that, too, should not be much of a contest.

So who are these guys?

* Ed Blount--A standout quarterback at Blair High in Pasadena, Blount went on to become one of the top passers in the Pacific 10 Conference as Washington State’s quarterback. His 1986 passing total of 2,065 yards ranks ninth on the now-pass happy school’s single-season list. In 1987 he broke onto the NFL scene during the players’ strike and played four weeks with the San Francisco 49ers and a fifth with the Seattle Seahawks. From there, he went to the British Columbia Lions of the Canadian Football League for a year and then played a year of American football in Italy.

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And now he’s a Bandit.

On semi-lighted fields around the Valley, he throws footballs to Kenny Sanders--he of the 25 touchdown catches--and other teammates at late-night practices. He still can make the ball hiss as it goes by, the spiral as tight and as perfect as ever. And during the games, nobody can defend against his arm.

“I had a hard time getting a real chance in the NFL,” said Blount, who also had a tryout with the Los Angeles Raiders last season. “I still hope someone is watching, (that) some team in some league might come to see me, but now it’s not my life anymore. I went to the tryout for the World League of American Football last Sunday and thought I did real well, better than anyone else, but they sent me home.

“But I’ll play football for the rest of my life, if I can. I’ll play until my body gives out. I love football. That’s all. The Bandits give me a chance to keep playing. I guess that’s enough.”

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* Dede Moore--A star athlete at Muir High in Pasadena, Moore preceded Blount at Washington State where he earned a starting position at receiver in 1983 and also earned a berth on the Philadelphia Eagles team in 1987. But he sustained a pinched nerve in his neck and was released before the NFL season ended. He is possibly the Bandits’ best athlete and has served as a quarterback, defensive back, running back and even the kicker this season.

“Since the Eagles let me go, I have made few real attempts to get back into the NFL,” Moore said. “When they released me, I filed a grievance against them. After that, a lot of doors were slammed in my face. After that, I was angry for a year and a half. I didn’t talk to anybody. I was so mad and so frustrated. The Bandits. . . . this is my therapy. And I just love the game. I can’t imagine not playing football.”

* Ed Gillies--The 26-year-old defensive end also played at Muir. He later played four seasons at Cal State Fullerton and one in the Arena Football League in 1988. He has spent the season knocking offensive linemen into next week.

“This is a BYOB league. . . . Bring Your Own Ball,” Gillies said. “And bring anything else you might need too, because they provide few supplies and no pay. Anyone out here is out here because they want to play. But I want to go on. Maybe this new world league or the Canadian league. But I want to go on somewhere.”

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Gillies, a muscular 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds, admits to starting three bench-clearing brawls this season.

“I know we had three of them, and I know why too,” he said. “Because of me. I sparked all three of them. Thought the team needed a little lift. But the real reason is, I have a temper. Sometimes, I have a bad temper.”

* Levi Dukes--Dukes, in his third season with the Bandits, starred at Poly High and at Texas A&M; as a running back. He played in several games for the San Diego Chargers during the 1987 strike season and played a season with the Houston Gamblers of the now-defunct United States Football League.

“Fun. That’s all this is,” Dukes said. “You’ve got to be having fun to keep doing this. But let me tell you something: This isn’t a Sunday-morning, two-hand-tag league. You can get hurt in this league as quickly as in the NFL or at any major college. And it hurts just as much. This league has some hits, some big, big hits.

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“And I keep thinking someone will notice me. A scout for the Canadian Football League or the NFL or even the world league will come and check us out. I guess I still dream.”

For others, the dream is now.

* Jim Fox--The 240-pound offensive guard never played a down of tackle football until last season with the Bandits. He had lied, however, and the coach guessed as much when contact drills began and Fox started spending way too much time airborne.

But his speed, combined with a deep knowledge of the game garnered from endless weekends playing flag football, was blended with a ton of determination. And for two seasons, Fox has been an integral part of the Bandits as an offensive lineman.

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“I had this football dream all of my life,” said Fox, 35, who found the Bandits through a newspaper ad while working in Burbank. “But I was always too small. When I bloomed later in my life and added a lot of size and strength, I figured by then it was too late. But then along came the Bandits, and I got my chance. I just wanted to be a football player, and they let me try it. At first, I got knocked down a lot. I mean really a lot. But they taught me the techniques and I worked hard at it, and now I can play on this level.

“There are a lot of guys on this team who are better than me. A lot better than me. But no one has more fun and no one tries any harder than I do. But this will be it for me. I won’t be back next season. This was my dream of dreams, to play real contact football on a fairly high level. I wanted to know if I could do it. You know what? I did it.”

* Rick Hinojosa--The 6-1, 290-pound center from San Fernando High is another without a dream of being noticed by a scout. His dream, like Fox’s, already has come true.

“I was on my varsity football team in 10th grade, but I never played in a game,” Hinojosa, 25, said. “That was it. That was my only attempt at football.

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“Then I saw the ad, that the Bandits needed players. So I came to a practice and they started teaching me. And I started one game last year. This year, I have started every game. I like the contact, but I especially like just being part of something like this, part of something good and something productive. I’m pretty proud of myself.

“I hear these guys talk about playing at this university and for that pro team and I just smile. Because, before the Bandits, I played nowhere.”


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