On Sunday, August 28th, the Hernando County Hawks semi-professional football team held their second of three tryouts. While twelve men attended the first of these in July, a total of 50 prospective players were out on the practice fields outside the Jerome Brown Community Center on Sunday. The young men were tested in agility drills, the long jump, and electronically timed in the 40-yard dash to assess their skills.
After the county’s previous semi-professional football team, the Brooksville Ballers, disbanded in 2013, there has not been any such organization to fill that role. The Hawks’ owner Austin Webster, General Manager Paul Vermeulen, Head Coach Eric Riggins Sr., and the rest of the staff are looking for their team to take up the mantle and “bring football culture back to Hernando County.” While the team and staff await their exact schedule from the Elite American Football League, the Hawks plan to start their season in February of 2023 at the Hernando High School football field.
Not just a general manager, Paul Vermeulen wears a variety of hats as he is also director of operations, sales, promotions, and public relations. This sees him finding food trucks, looking for entertainment, hiring people to move the down markers, securing a playing field, and hiring referees among many other tasks. On top of his aforementioned litany of roles, Vermeulen was out by the field hours before tryouts greeting people, helping players sign in, and even offering drinks to help everyone stay hydrated in the sweltering mid-day sun. This is part of the staff’s desire to promote a tight-knit family atmosphere among everyone in the organization. The family attitude extends to the sponsors, of which Vermeulen has already secured commitments from Terlep Chiropractic, A Team Real Estate, and Whittel & Melton, LLC.
“If somebody wants to be a chiropractor, can I take them over to Terlep Chiropractic?” Vermeulen asked. “They’ve already said, ‘Yes.’ Maybe they could take them under their wing and if football don’t work out, maybe he becomes a chiropractor. Maybe somebody wants to study law… Maybe he becomes a lawyer. So, there’s things that I want to try to do, the organization wants to try to do. Keep these kids straight, on the right path… Maybe this will prevent somebody from going down that path where they just end up ruining their entire life.”
Through the team and its affiliates, players will have the opportunity to seek new careers should they desire so after they are finished with football. Being part of the team not only helps them have a healthy outlet for their extra time and avoid getting into trouble, but it provides them with the most obvious benefit: the ability to continue playing football. The impetus behind the establishment of the team itself was due to Webster, the team’s 22-year-old owner, wanting to play football again.
That sentiment was echoed by many of the players trying out on Sunday as well. Out of Taylor County High School in Butler, Georgia, Keyshawn Gaddy played running back, kick returner, free safety, and linebacker. Though he is currently working as a sales consultant for Apex Roofing, Keyshawn’s love for the game brought him to the field Sunday. “I got a background in football,” Gaddy said. “Being from Georgia, I played a lot of football. So, it was only right when I seen it online on Facebook to just go try out, join the team, because I know what I can bring potentially, and I know that I have passion for it. So, it’s going to come easy for me. So, it was always a passion. So, it was kind of an easy decision to just play football.”
Brandon Ermon, a former wide receiver for the Springstead Eagles, felt much the same way. A crew trainer at Zaxby’s, Ermon was elated to get another chance at playing football. “My dream came true with the Hernando Hawks,” Ermon said. “Once I heard that it was on the news and stuff like that – well I heard before the news – but it made me to think that ‘Wow, I can really do this again.’”
Yet another player who wished to return to the sport, Josh Hicks, has worked as a mechanic after graduating from Hudson High School where he played running back. Hicks’ desire to play was so strong that he left his job to pursue this opportunity with football when he was not given the hours that would be necessary to balance both endeavors. “I’m in search of a job right now because I just left the other one to specifically come play football,” Hicks said. “Ever since I got out of high school, I’ve been wanting to play again. There’s not a lot of options to play… I’ve been waiting for a team to open up near me so I could play actual tackle.”
For these players, the allure of lacing up the cleats once more was too powerful to ignore. With the roster yet to be finalized, there are many more players whose stories are yet to be told. For those looking to join the fledgling football team, the registration fee for tryouts is $25. The final opportunity to tryout for the Hernando County Hawks will be at noon on Sunday, September 11th.