Mountain Pine hosts a competitive minor league football team

Founded in May 2020 and based in Little Rock, the Arkansas Punishers participate in a developmental football league that prepares athletes for the next level in their careers in college or professional football.

The Punishers hoped to play their 2022 season primarily at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock. However, there were scheduling conflicts.

After missing the Little Rock Rangers Soccer Club for War Memorial, games were to be played in the Pulaski County Special School District. However, scheduling problems arose again. Still looking for a place to play and already rescheduling the first week game, a small school in Garland County came in handy.

“We started calling all the schools less than an hour before here and Mountain Pine answered and said, ‘We don’t have a problem with that,'” Punishers general manager Chris Goodman said.

To accommodate the team, the Punishers reached an agreement with Mountain Pine where the Red Devils could manage the concessions and keep the profits of this company.

“We drew a pretty good crowd there for being an hour and a half from Little Rock,” Goodman said.

The Punishers are part of the Amateur to Professional Development Football League with 32 teams that play a mix of NFL and NCAA rules of play.

After just one season in 2021, the Punishers won the Southwest Minor League Classic championship undefeated.

There are different levels in minor league football, just like baseball.

“None of us get paid,” Goodman said. “We started in single A, only playing teams from Arkansas, and then last season we progressed. We’re better than we thought.”

Moving on to triple A, which spans the entire Southeast, the Punishers finished 7-4, losing to the eventual National Champions in the playoffs.

Being a development league, salaries are not allowed for players as some of them are still college eligible and they want to go back to college to improve their draft stock. NIL trades are allowed in NCAA standards.

Minor league football is a second chance for unsigned high school, college or undrafted players to take the next step

“We help guys who are in summer school get their GPA, and they can still play football with us,” Goodman said. “We film them and prepare them to send them to the coaches.”

After their inaugural season, the Punishers had two players get preferred offers through the Kansas junior college ranks.

They had more players wanted for professional offers, Goodman said.

This year, linebacker Kyle Gates was invited to an XFL showcase, and two defensive linemen and a linebacker had the opportunity to play in Mexico’s professional soccer league.

Punishers head coach Terry Jordan played his high school ball at Little Rock Mills High School, and his coaching debut came when he started his own team in Cabot called the Bucks in 2016.

The Cabot Bucks lasted three years and won a championship, but he decided he no longer wanted to own, operate and coach.

An opportunity presented itself with the Arkansas Hawks through Reggie Arnold, who had played for Arkansas State University.

Jordan learned as he went along as a coach.

“I probably learned the most from Reggie,” Jordan said. “Probably the best football brain I’ve ever met in my life.”

As a group, Jordan and his team decided to go to the Punishers and bring something special to Arkansas State beyond semi-pro football.

The Punishers lead the air raid attack made famous by Mike Leach at Texas Tech, and the team’s skill helps carry out the attack successfully.

“People just aren’t used to an Arkansas team having so much talent,” Jordan said.

Even Eric Musselman, head coach of Arkansas Razorback men’s basketball, famous for his support of various teams and other sports, took an interest in the Punishers. Musselman was seen on social media wearing a Punishers shirt.

On the defensive side of the ball, Jordan runs a multiple defensive set. The basic defensive set for the Punishers is 4-2-5.

“On the defensive side of the ball, we have guys who can do it all,” Jordan said. “I have a guy, Martin Montgomery, who is 6-foot-4 and 325 pounds, who could probably play running back if he wanted to. He’s that type of athlete, and we have 18 of those guys. in a team of 50 men.

The defense likes to play in space and use their speed on the field. With speed on the list, they use man cover like bread and butter.

Last year’s campaign roster included former Arkansas Razorback wide receiver Kaelon Kelleybrew and a slew of University of Arkansas Pine Bluff players, including defensive lineman Nick Williams. Williams currently plays professionally in fan-controlled football league.

When Jordan made his transition from the Hawks to the Punishers, a core group of players came with him.

“We definitely have a lot of guys from Pine Bluff,” Jordan said. “At the Hawks, we played at Watson Chapel High School. We had guys who had finished their senior season, but they still wanted to play.”

From year to year, there have been 10 to 20 players each season who have retired or moved on to play professional and collegiate ball elsewhere. The Punishers hold recruiting camps to fill the gaps left every year, and their roster ranges from guys in their 20s to men retiring at 35.

The youth began to take over Jordan’s roster.

“Last year was by far my youngest team, and they are go-getters in this area, but my personal focus is usually for guys trying to improve, two years is the longest they’ve been going. should be in the program,” Jordan said. .

Jordan helped players go to arena football, get back to a professional level and college football

“It’s always a personal goal for me, it’s player development,” Jordan said.

Last season’s most valuable player was Little Rock McClellan’s tight end Terrence Ingram. Ingram signed at linebacker, but he lined up anywhere from quarterback, left tackle and even corner.

“At the end of the season,” Jordan said, “he became our most productive running back.”

With work and some going to school in the 50-man squad, the usual turnout is 30 players. However, Jordan has a hard core. One thing he noticed about Ingram was that he never missed a day.

The Punishers’ first set of tryouts will take place on August 27 at Henderson Middle School in Little Rock.

“We give everyone a report date which is two months before the season,” Jordan said. “It gives them time to diet and train. We have partnerships with Athletic Republic of Little Rock that help our guys.”

The transition from semi-professional football to minor league football can be difficult.

Most minor league players are practice squad players who fell out of the NFL. Jordan said most of the players they’ve seen have gone to places like Alabama and LSU.

The minor league football season begins in March and ends in June.

“They say the league we play in is the Southeastern Conference of Minor League Football,” Jordan said. “Going to the playoffs and finishing 7-4 isn’t too bad, is it?”

One player stands out the most from Jordan.

“(Kelleybrew) played in Arkansas,” Jordan said. “He started at Mississippi Valley, a historically black college and university. He’s one of the most influential players on our team. He made the All-Star team as a catcher.”

Jordan and Goodman want to do what’s best for the team, and improving attendance is always a driving force.

Maintaining ties with the Hot Springs area is important to the team, whether it’s a scrimmage game or playing most of its season in Garland County.

“We loved the community there, and they opened their arms to us when no one else would,” Jordan said.

Fountain Lake’s Landon Roberts plays fullback for the Punishers and is one of their promising new talents, Jordan said.

Goodman noted that Mountain Pine superintendent Bobby Applegate is a fan of the team.

“He’s a huge fan of ours, and we’d like to play at least one league game and/or even a pre-season game,” Goodman said. “We would love to be back there.”

The Punishers hope to revisit Garland County for future seasons as they pursue the league title and a national championship in their journey to help the young men keep their football dreams alive.

Arkansas Razorback men’s basketball coach Eric Musselman wears an Arkansas Punishers jersey. – Photo submitted

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