NEWTON —On Saturday afternoon, defensive lineman Rodney Smith played in his 19th game for the Kansas Cougars, a semi-professional football team that plays its game at Fischer Field in Newton.
But Smith, a 2005 Southeast graduate, doesn't think in those terms. It wasn't even two years ago that Smith was serving his fifth and final year in prison and his life was in disarray.
He needed a second chance, not in football, but in life. That is the type of person that Marcel Wash, the Cougars' owner, was targeting to make up his non-profit football team.
"This right here helps me take my mind off doing anything else," Smith said after the Cougars' 38-20 loss to the Arkansas Warriors. "All I'm doing is working, staying out of trouble, playing football and keeping my eye on the prize."
Wash has made it his mission to use the team as a haven for players whose lives have gone off course. Now in its fifth year, the team has successfully sent 22 players back to college and several others have moved on to bigger football leagues.
It's been successful — the Cougars won the 2010 Central Football League, and was ranked No. 5 in the latest minor league football poll entering Saturday's game.
"This helps you have a positive look about life," said fourth-year receiver Raphael Stokes. "You don't have to go back to being in trouble. You can come here as a refuge. We're one big family here."
Wash has instilled a family environment on the team. Most players are like Smith, looking for second chances in life. Some are still passionate about playing the game. Backgrounds are irrelevant.
"Everybody gets a chance here," said running back John Collins, a 2002 West graduate. "Nobody is seen for what their past is; it's what's in their future and what they're trying to do with their lives now."
No one gets paid, not even the coaching staff. The team practices twice a week in Wichita at Barry Sanders Field, all on the free time of everyone involved.
"If I'm able to help one person turn a life around to make them a better person, I'm satisfied with that," coach Marvin Hicks said.
Smith credits Hicks with redirecting his life.
"He's a mentor, he's my friend, he's a family member," Smith said. "All of those rolled up into one. Without him, I'd probably be back in jail."
The loss on Saturday tested the strength of the motto Wash has adopted for the team: "United we stand, divided we fall."
The team may have lost the game, but Wash said it was all about perspective when it comes to winning and losing with this team.
"That's what life is all about," Wash said. "How do you win in life? What is your definition of winning? We all have our different standards. In order to be a winner, you have to understand how to lose.... That's what motivates you to continue to win."