ST. PETER - Prior to this spring, Garrett Mensing was given the opportunity to play football again, by far his favorite sport at Blue Earth Area high school, where he graduated from in 2008.
He didn't even give it a second thought and quickly decided he was going to play for the St. Peter Panic, a semi-pro football team in the Southern Plains Football League (SPFL).
Mensing and the Panic are part of a nine-team semi-pro football league that is trying to make a name for itself. While the league is still growing, the Panic are doing well in their first year of existence and have been a popular ticket in Nicollet, where the team plays its home games.
The St. Peter Panic logo
As for Mensing, the opportunity came to him to suit up in pads again after he left college at the University of Minnesota-Morris. He moved to Mankato and he jumped on the chance to play right away.
"Football is my passion, when my friend suggested it, I was like yeah, immediately," Mensing said. "I didn't have any second thoughts about it."
Mensing played running back and safety at BEA. After deciding he wanted to play for the Panic, he made the switch to quarterback after the Panic's quarterback at the time had other commitments and couldn't play.
The team is co-owned and co-coached by Nate Showalter and Stan Legg. Showalter didn't play organized football at any level but he's been a big fan of the sport ever since he can remember.
Legg is a graduate from the University of Iowa. He played wide receiver and defensive back for Brunswick High School in Brunswick, MD. He also played receiver for a small stint at Arizona State University as well.
"We helped out with a team last year, and toward the end of the season we realized we didn't want to put a whole lot of time into it because it was so unorganized," Showalter said. "We decided to purchase our own team this coming season and that's how it all came to be."
The League itself
The SPFL has been in existence for 16 years and it currently has nine teams, meaning one team has a bye week while the other eight teams play on Saturday nights. The league is an Adult 9-Man full contact football league based primarily in Minnesota. In the past, it has been known as the Windom Football League, Great Plains Football League, and now the Southern Plains Football League. Teams for past seasons have come from all over Southern and Central Minnesota, as well as Eastern South Dakota, and North Central and North Western Iowa.
The teams are the Buffalo Ridge Wildcats (Lake Benton, Minn.), the Dodge County Outlaws, the Tri-State Buffalos, Minnesota River Valley Shock, North Iowa Bucks, St. Peter Panic, Albert Lea Grizzlies, South Central Hawgs, and the Steele County Warriors.
Most of the players played in high school and some have college experience. The players range in age from 18 to their 40s.
"It's a little bit of everything, we have a few kids who played college football and we have a lot of high school standouts, and there's even some who haven't even played organized football before," Mensing said.
It's also a nine-man league, meaning there are two less players on the offensive line, something that took a little while for Mensing to get used to having never played nine-man before.
"It's just really a smaller line," Mensing said. "I'm used to having five guys on the line and instead I only have three. It's a little bit quicker, a standing quarterback gets three or four seconds in the pocket and it seems like its even less than that because there's so much less congestion in the middle."
The Panic play on Saturday nights and then get together as a team on Sundays to relax. It's a form of team bonding that is necessary for everyone.
"Our team jells pretty well," Mensing said. "Everyone gets along really well actually. On this team, sometimes you're like a player and a coach. If you have something to suggest or something to show somebody, you have to take it upon yourself to do it and teach them."
The regular season started April 27 and it goes until June 22. After that, the SPFL playoffs are held and then the winner of that qualifies for the national tournament.
Bringing a team to St. Peter
Showalter said that once he and Legg knew they wanted to have a team, they had to move on to the next step. Legg owns Bright Idea Marketing Agency in St. Peter and has done plenty of work with marketing through television and radio, which gave him and Showalter a leg up, so to speak, in getting the team's information out there and available to the public.
"We had to apply for a team and talk to the commissioner of the league and show them that we have all of the things necessary to have a team," Showalter said.
They began to roll the dice to make the sure the team could happen.
"Basically, right after the end of the season last year, I got ahold of the commissioner and I said Nate and I wanted our own team," Legg said. "The league's been around for 16 years, and until the Panic came around, nobody's really heard of this league [in the St. Peter area]. You have to be able to prove you can get 25 guys on a roster."
The Panic next had to get a field in which to call home. St. Peter's football field wasn't available until June, so they had to find another site to play. They picked Nicollet, which has a strong high school football following and has a nine-man high school team.
The team drew 560 fans and Legg is thinking that drawing 2,000 people to a home game is realistic.
Weekly practices and game preparation
The Panic try to have an organized practice every week of some kind. They don't make it physical at all so injuries can heal and bodies can stay healthy. The biggest challenge is finding a place to practice every week.
"Sometimes we go out to Stan's house and practice out there, but it changes almost every time we have practice," Mensing said.
No doubt, injuries tend to pile up in football. The Panic don't hit in practice much during the regular season and with good reason.
"Now that the season started up we stopped hitting so much," Mensing said. "We need to keep guys healthy, but in the first couple of weeks they were pretty hard-hitting practices."
Mensing is only 23 years old, pretty young by football's tough standards. But even he feels the pain after a Saturday night game on Sunday morning.
"It feels like it did in high school, but it hurts a little more," he said. "During the game, you don't feel anything and after the game, that's when you feel the soreness."
Game night is also a big event for Legg and Showalter. Since they're in the business of marketing and promotions, there's a minor-league baseball sort of atmosphere for the Panic's home games.
"We run ads with Radio Mankato every week, we run fliers and we purchased a canon so we shoot out merchandise - t-shirts, hats, all kinds of stuff to the fans all game long," Legg said.
The cost to attend the game is cheap too.
"We only charge $2 to get in so it's affordable for the entire family," Legg said. "When you come to the gate, we give you a ticket and we have drawings all night long and we try to keep the crowd involved all game long."
The Panic got off to a fast start, jumping out to a 4-0 record to start the season.
"I think its a combination, we have some younger kids and we don't have the biggest kids, but we're pretty quick and everybody is adapting pretty quick," Mensing said. "All the guys are there and they help everybody and its a big part of our team - everybody gets along and everybody likes each other. We do everything we can to make this team better."
The Panic also has pretty good fan support.
"I haven't been [to all of the other cities that have SPFL teams] yet, but I think we have the most respectful fans in the league right now," Mensing said. "We had a bunch that traveled down to Lake Benton. The atmosphere they provide us, I think it's number one. I don't think anyone can really match that.
"It's a big thing for the fans, we do this because of a love for the sport, and we have the local community supporting us," Mensing added.
Mensing is having a lot of fun in his first year with the Panic. There's little doubt that he'd like to do it again.
"Yeah, we came together as a family and everybody on the team and my family has been right there with me and supported me," Mensing said. "I don't think I would've played for anybody else, I would just like to stay here. If I can't play next year, I'd like to help out and maybe coach."