The North Bay Rattlers are a pretty good semipro football team, but they slither mostly below the radar (even in the pages of the Press Democrat), perhaps because semipro football isn’t much of a thing these days.
The Rattlers are trying to finalize a game for Aug. 22, and should they win that one, I’m told by assistant coach Mike Ervin, they’ll play for the semipro national championship in Las Vegas in late December. (Yes, FOUR months later.)
When I hear of the Rattlers, I can’t help but think of the Twin Cities Cougars, the football team that briefly expanded my small Sacramento Valley universe in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Marysville, my hometown, didn’t have many positive claims to fame in those days. We called ourselves the Peach Capital of the World – and honestly, they were spectacular – but the area was better known for epic floods and the Juan Corona murders, which happened just across the Feather River in the fields outside of Yuba City, the other half of the “Twin Cities.”
Then this semipro football team sprang to life, the Cougars. Somehow, they were really, really successful. And when Pro Football Weekly, one of a 9th grade boy’s lifelines to the outside world, began publishing national minor-league football rankings, something remarkable occurred. The Twin Cities Cougars were at or near the top every week for most of three years. All of America could now share in Marysville’s glory without biting into a peach.
I remember very little about what the Cougars did on the field, though I went to a bunch of games. I know they played at the Marysville High School field, the same field where I would stand on the sidelines for freshman and JV games before realizing that football practice is really hard and baseball is a much better idea.
I know that their star player was quarterback Fred Besana, who played behind the great Joe Roth at Cal, then kicked around a little with the Buffalo Bills and New York Giants before settling for the Cougars. Besana would then go on to some renown with the Oakland Invaders of the USFL. I know now that Ed Rodgers played guard for the Cougars; his son Aaron would be born a couple years later, and would develop into a fairly decent QB.
The Cougars’ peak would come in 1980 when they hosted and defeated a team from Delavan, Wisc., for the semipro national championship.
I came across a game recap from the Milwaukee Sentinel’s Nov. 17, 1980 edition, which included this summation from the visiting Red Devils quarterback, Joe Grafenauer: “They talk about biorhythms and everything. … They caught us on a good day.”
Sweet 1980 quote, Grafenauer.
Way more of my Cougars memories have nothing to do with the football. My friends and I used to spend much of each game declaring which of the cheerleaders we’d like to “romance.” As if we had any idea how to “romance.”
I recall one game when the Cougars hosted a team from Pittsburgh. Like, the one in Pennsylvania. That in itself was mind-boggling to a young Marysvillain. With the game winding down and another Twin Cities victory in hand, I heard a fan tell his buddies, “I’m gonna talk some crap and get somebody kicked out.” Sure enough, he yapped at this big lineman from Pittsburgh so steadily and aggressively that the guy came after him and had to be restrained by teammates.
Mostly, though, I remember the mornings after. The Cougars played on Saturday nights, and I learned that I could pedal my bike to the stadium on Sunday mornings, hop the fence and enter a Forty Thieves’ Cave of discarded game programs, pom-poms and, especially, football pads. Elbow pads, knee pads, forearm pads, neck rolls. “Game used,” as the memorabilia dealers say. My friends and I weren’t exceptional athletes, but we were the best-padded kids in town for our weekend schoolyard football games.
Those discarded pads made me feel like a real football player. And the Twin Cities Cougars made me feel as though I was an inhabitant of the world of sports, and not an alien viewing it from a distant planet.