Valley Mustangs split time between life, football

Justin McMath was ready to go. He’d put in the practice time, gotten to know his teammates and coaches, and was all pumped up for some minor league football action with the Valley Mustangs last year.

Justin McMath was ready to go. He’d put in the practice time, gotten to know his teammates and coaches, and was all pumped up for some minor league football action with the Valley Mustangs last year.

Then, McMath got the call – though not from the NFL.

This call came from the U.S. Army, which was shipping him to the Philippines with his Special Forces unit.

“I also was just having a son, so (the deployment) kind of threw me for a loop a little bit,” said the now 25-year-old McMath, who’s a second lieutenant off the field and a quarterback on it. “But I was able to come back this season, and now it’s time to build on that relationship.”

John Poore is still in that building process. Then again, that’s to be expected for a guy who had never played organized football – not Pee Wees, not high school – not anywhere.

But after swinging a competitive tennis racket at Jefferson High before graduating in 2006, Poore longed to give it a try. That he’s now strapping on the pads for the Auburn-based Mustangs as a sticky-fingered receiver was the ultimate case of right place, right time.

“After high school, I started looking for pick-up games, and started playing all over the place,” Poore said during a brief break from practice on Tuesday at Olympic Middle School in Auburn. “Eventually, we had a game (at Olympic) on a Saturday. I had been looking for a semipro team, and when I saw (the Mustangs practicing), I came straight over and asked if I could play.”

That happened just a few months ago, and head coach Tim Gilmore was more than happy to welcome Poore to the team.

Matter of fact, Gilmore welcomes anyone who brings the right combination of desire, positive attitude and team-player mentality to the field. Because like most other teams, the Mustangs, who play their North American Football League home opener tonight at 7 at Auburn Memorial Stadium against the Kent-based King County Jaguars, know how other things occasionally take precedence over donning the team’s green helmets.

Sometimes, it’s real-life stuff – such as military duty, or having to pull some OT at work. Sometimes, even football can get in the way. Several of the Mustangs also play for the Tacoma Invaders, a Cascade Football League team whose schedule starts in the spring and concludes later this month.

They’re all about team

As a result, the Mustangs, ranging in age from late teens to 40-something, brought just 17 guys – McMath and Poore among them – to Medford last weekend for the season opener against the Southern Oregon Renegades. The result wasn’t pretty – the Renegades won, 66-0. But Gilmore, his players, and even the officials liked what they saw.

“I don’t have a bunch of ‘me’ or ‘I, I, I’ guys,” said Gilmore, adding that his roster eventually should be in the mid to upper 40s after the players on the Invaders finish their schedule and can join the Mustangs. “The game last weekend, I’d say, ‘I need a football player,’ and a guy would throw on his helmet and go out there.

“The ref came up to me after the game and said, ‘What an amazing bunch of kids. Here they are getting their butts kicked and there’s no griping, no attitude, and they’re coming to the line with a smile on their face.’ ”

McMath certainly is smiling. Now based at Fort Lewis, his competitive drive to play football still was burning strong when he wasn’t deployed elsewhere in the world.

“I needed something to fill my time while I was home and do something that I love,” he said.

Even when things aren’t going well, McMath holds himself to the highest of standards, whether it’s game time or practice time.

“Justin is a very skilled player. He’s so adamant about being perfect,” Gilmore said. “He’s very meticulous about his play. And he never puts down another player. He always says, ‘We’ll get it next time, we’ll get it next time.’ ”

When McMath flings it, Poore – definitely a lanky one by football standards at 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds – is one of the guys most likely to catch it.

“Right now, he can’t miss a football,” Gilmore said. “The difference between the day I (first) saw him down here and today is amazing.”

Poore might use the term “amazing” to describe the feeling of finally getting to play organized football for the first time in his life.

“It was rough at first,” Poore said. “Being comfortable with playing is different than being comfortable with fundamentals. Whenever practice is going on, I’m always talking with them, asking questions.”

Poore even recalls (with a smile, no less) a “welcome to football” moment.

“I got cracked in the back pretty well at one of the practices,” he said. “It felt good, actually. But it was one of those things where you go, ‘Oh, crap, did something break?’”

Forward progress

Just as Poore has come a long way, so have the Mustangs. In 2006, playing in the Pacific Northwest Football Conference, they won just one game. Last year, then went all the way to the conference final before falling short.

Now, they’ve moved up to what is regarded by many as the top minor league in the country, one with about 120 teams, including two in Canada.

“Some of the teams started dropping out (of the PNFC) and we didn’t think we’d have a lot of games,” Gilmore said of the decision to move up to the NAFL.

With a roster that’s still short on players, the Mustangs have found the early going more than a little rough. But Gilmore has no shortage of confidence that things soon will be changing for the better.

And not just because more talent will be coming aboard.

“The great part about this team,” he said, “is everyone backs everyone.”

That’s no surprise to a guy like McMath, who, by the very nature of his military duty, is well acquainted with the team-play concept.

“It’s a very good league with very tough, competitive players,” McMath said. “A lot of these guys are ready for the next level.

“And they’re all around a good bunch of guys.”


July 12 S. Oregon 66, Mustangs 0

*July 19 vs. King County Jaguars 7 p.m.

*July 26 vs. S. Oregon Renegades 7 p.m.

Aug. 2 @ B.C. Spartans 7 p.m.

Aug. 9 @ W. Sound Saints 7 p.m.

Aug. 16 BYE WEEK

#Aug. 23 vs. N. King Cnty. Wildcats 7 p.m.

#Sept. 6 vs. B.C. Spartans 7 p.m.

#Sept. 13 vs. Kitsap County Bears 7 p.m.

Sept. 20 at King County Jaguars 7 p.m.

Sept. 27 at E. County Blackshirts 7 p.m.

* At Auburn Memorial Stadium.

# At Sunset Chev Stadium (Sumner HS).

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