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Hard-hitting, Public Safety Football In Charlotte

Ben Bradford

While the Carolina Panthers and the UNCC 49ers take a break for the off-season, another team is playing football in Charlotte—the Cobras, a team of policeman, firemen, medics, and other area emergency responders.

The scoreboard at Jerry Richardson Stadium displays blue and red, rather than the 49ers’ green and gold. An American flag hangs over the field’s back wall, suspended on the crane of a fire truck sitting outside. Pump up music builds over the stadium’s loudspeakers. The crowd waits for the home team to take the field.

More than 60 hulking men, wearing full pads and uniforms run out as the announcer yells over the loudspeaker: “Here they are, your Charlotte Cobras!”

The Charlotte Cobras formed in 2007; the team is part of the National Public Safety Football League—entirely made up of active law enforcement, fire, or other emergency responders.

College referees officiate hard-hitting, hard-nosed football, which follows NCAA rules.

“This is semi professional football, and in the league we’ve got everything from former NFL talent, Division 1 talent, all the way down to high school and your weekend warrior type who just can’t give up the game of football,” says J.D. Furr, the team’s general manager and president, and a sergeant in the homicide division.

“It’s fun and all. I come out and still play hard, I don’t take it as a joke,” says fireman and former Carolina Panthers defensive end Kemp Rasmussen.

Credit Ben Bradford / WFAE
Firemen Antoine Calloway (#15) and Stephen Pritchard (#12) on the sideline.

About 200 sprawl across one section of the 15,000 seat stadium. Many wear Cobras merchandise. Most have a connection to the players, but there are some first-timers.

“A friend of mine heard about it, on Facebook, actually,” says Jessica Zimmer. “I have a little kid who likes football, and here we are.”

Sponsors provide all the funding, about $80,000 this year, according to the team president. And the money raised from $5 admission tickets and Cobras merchandise goes to various charities.

“A lot of my old teammates they ask me ‘why are you doing this?’ and I tell them it’s because I love football,” says Rasmussen. “I want to still play. I know the toll it takes on my body and all that.”

Rasmussen is sitting out today with a back injury, and players go down throughout the game. Furr says they are generally assigned to desk jobs while they recover, but they are taking a risk that can cost them.

“Not only money for health care, but money for that they could be making on the job,” says Furr. “But they do it because they love the game.”

Credit Ben Bradford / WFAE
A fire truck flies an American flag over Jerry Richardson stadium at UNCC, during the game.

After the game, the teams gather in the middle of the field. The Cobras recognize two Fire Department players who rushed into a building to help a wounded fireman before the game.

The Cobras return to their regular field at Hough High School in Cornelius on May 31. They play the D.C. Generals at 1:00 p.m.