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Former players relive gridiron glory

Riverview’s Lucas Heakins ended his high school career as the Alle-Kiski Valley’s all-time leading rusher with 4,276 yards.

That feat still wasn’t enough to keep Heakins from donning the pads and helmet nearly 12 years later.

Heakins, 29, will lead a contingent of former Raiders against Springdale alumni Thursday evening in one of 18 Pittsburgh-area games organized this fall by Alumni Football USA.

“I’ve had my time, but you know what it is• It’s the guys you wished you played with, both younger and older friends,” Heakins said. “We’d be sitting around watching old (game) tapes and my friends would say, ‘That hole would’ve been bigger if I was blocking for you.’ So, it’s a dream to get to actually play with these guys.”

In the next two weeks, Alumni Football USA and state director Rob Bishop are pairing 36 Pittsburgh area school districts to face off in games with full pads, helmets, officials, lights and even public-address announcers and concessions.

Player range in age from 18 to the upper 40s. There will be no crack-back blocking, and teams aren’t permitted to rush more than four defenders. Other than that, high school football rules apply.

Nearly 1,700 players have signed up — a new regional record for Bishop’s business, which produces games in several states.

“When we did Belle Vernon-Ringgold as one of the experimental games in July, there were grown men crying when the game was over. I mean, they didn’t want to leave the field and they hung out in the end zone until midnight,” Bishop said. “Up until now, we thought the standard was West Texas, but the dynamic here is insane. It’s the people who live in small towns or come back to visit small towns who have more pride, attachment and sense of community, and it shows.”

The Pittsburgh-North portion of the schedule kicks off with Freeport vs. Apollo-Ridge at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Owens Field.

“Apollo-Ridge has a full roster, which is incredible considering it’s such a small area,” said Bishop, a Sto-Rox graduate who has personally scouted all the local teams. “And Freeport is only dressing 30, but they’re talking smack, saying ‘We didn’t get 500 wins by accident,’ so that’s a good game to start.”

Thanksgiving Day features a triple-header at Highlands: Deer Lakes vs. Burrell at 2 p.m., Valley vs. Highlands at 5 p.m., then Springdale vs. Riverview at 7:30 p.m.

On Dec. 4, two games are scheduled at Leechburg: Ford City vs. Kittanning at 5 p.m. then West Shamokin vs. Leechburg at 7:30 p.m.

Players pay an average of $75. Alumni Football USA supplies a trailer loaded with equipment — purchased from movie set of the “The Blind Side” — stadium rental, lights and, of course, insurance.

All schools have been conducting formal practices; some three days a week, while other have been forced to get creative. Take Apollo-Ridge. Led by player Josh Lipkin and former varsity coach Jerry Moore, more than two dozen ex-Vikings have labored under the lights at The Lions Share, a local driving range owned by fellow player Travis Hall.

“It was the cost-effective way, and by that I mean ‘free,’ to get some practice in,” said Lipkin, a 1997 graduate.

Valley, whose program is in the midst of a 14-game losing streak, boasts an all-Division I NCAA defensive backfield. West Shamokin attracted 42 former players despite not having won a game since September of 2007.

Lipkin said that futility serves as more a motivation than a deterrent to those who hunger for their program’s glory days.

“Just about everybody on the squad has participated with the playoff teams in the mid-’90s, when we were pretty good,” he said. “We always compared stories and argued which team was better and what-if this and what-if that. Now we have a chance to put those what-ifs together.”


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