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Football ‘humanizes’ policemen, firefighters who play for Cobras

You can tell before the Charlotte Cobras practice at Holy Trinity Middle School that they like each other. You can tell as they slide down the metal bleachers away from the glove worn by Jason, a Charlotte police officer who plays guard.

Jason says he washes the glove. But the words teammates use to describe the glove’s stench include "miserable" and "despicable."

Does head coach Eddie Levins want to step in to defend his guard? Levins steps away. He says that’s what the huddle does when Jason enters.

The Cobras are made up of police officers, firefighters and a Federal agent, and most work in and around Charlotte. (To protect their identities for security reasons, I was asked not to use the full names of Charlotte police officers).

Almost every police officer I talk to says that they play because they love the game. We are a football-loving country, and they hope people see that they are not so different than the citizens they serve.

"It humanizes us," says J.D., a Charlotte detective and a former Cobras safety who is the team president.

If football doesn’t humanize the officers, making fun of a teammate with a glove that could have come from a landfill should.

Saturday at Providence Day School the Cobras play the San Diego Enforcers for the championship of the National Public Safety Football League.

Charlotte has twice played for the championship (once in Division II) but lost each game by a touchdown, most recently to NYPD in 2013.

Like San Diego, typically a league power, the Cobras are 4-0 this season. Unlike San Diego, they have yet to allow a point. The average score: Charlotte 41.5, opponent 0.

On the Charlotte roster are three former NFL players. Kevin, a kicker, is a police officer who played for St. Louis and Atlanta. The other two play on the defensive line. It is a good defensive line.

Defensive tackle Damane, a police officer, played for East Carolina, the Carolina Panthers, the New York Giants, San Francisco and New England.

At defensive end on the other side is 6-foot-3 Kemp Rasmussen, who played four seasons with the Panthers. In his second season he backed up Julius Peppers on the team that lost by a field goal to New England in Super Bowl XXXVIII.

Rasmussen played for the Seahawks in 2006 but was injured and returned to Charlotte to rehabilitate. He began to work out with a Charlotte firefighter in the gym. A kinesiology major at Indiana, Rasmussen thought he, too, might like to fight fires. He was hired in 2009.

You didn’t do it to play football, did you?

"No, but it’s a great perk," Rasmussen says.

The Cobras are 10 years old. Their first team did not include former NFL players and, in many cases, former high school players. The first game was at Memorial Stadium against a semi-pro team from Georgia, and they were destroyed.

"We probably had at any given time three medic trucks at the stadium," Levins, the team’s head coach since its inception, says over sushi at Bahn Thai. "We were all getting IVs. But something happened and people said, ‘This is pretty cool.’ "

One of those people was Charlie, a police officer and receiver with good speed and crisp routes.

Charlie is 42, and this is his final season. I ask him to talk about his job, and it’s as complex and demanding as any I can envision.

"With the way things are today its very stressful," Charlie says. "We’re constantly second guessed and third guessed and Monday morning quarterbacked, and now guys are starting to second guess themselves, which in this line of work isn’t the best thing to do."

And then Charlie, who played high school football in Greenwood, S.C., with the uncle of the Panthers’ Josh Norman, puts on his red and black cleats and steps onto the soft grass. Everything changes.

"Oh, man, it’s like going back to high school or college," Charlie says. "Man, I can almost do whatever I want to do. I can be a kid again."

How do you replace a player such as Charlie?

"Well, we recruit," Levins says. "When the Panthers released Armanti Edwards I thought, ‘You know. I think he could be a heckuva firefighter.’ "

It works for Rasmussen, who says the firehouse reminds him of the locker room -- the camaraderie, teamwork and laughter.

Rasmussen is 36, and has four sons, the oldest of them 6.

I ask him what stepping onto the field at Providence Day will mean to him.

"I savor every moment I play football," says Rasmussen. "I love football. It’s been there all my life and I’m getting near the end. There’s no pick up football at the Y. So this might be the last time I put on the pads."

Mark Brown, a Charlotte firefighter, is still getting accustomed to those pads. Brown, 28, played point guard at USC-Aiken but until last season had never played football.

He was such a good athlete that he was inserted at quarterback. He admits he could be overwhelmed. He also admits he hates to lose.

So he began to train at D1, the Matthews gym owned by Steve Smith Sr. and Josh McCown, the Cleveland and former Panthers quarterback. McCown began to work with Brown. McCown is a very good basketball player, and he applied basketball techniques to football.

Why does an NFL quarterback spend so much time with a newcomer?

McCown thinks for a moment and says: "It’s for the purity of it and the love of the game."

If the Cobras had a team motto, the last sentence is apt. Nobody is paid to coach or play. The Cobras, a tax-exempt nonprofit organization,have raised more than $85,000 for local charities since 2007.

The championship starts at 4 p.m. Tickets are $10 (for more information go to www.charlottecobrasfootball.org) and nobody will be asked to sit near Jason’s glove.        

Sorensen: 704-358-5119; tsorensen@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @tomsorensen

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