Derek Diehl (click for larger version)
January 29, 2013 | 05:33 PMWILLIAMS BAY — Last week, the Lake Geneva Generals, the Geneva Lake area's only semi-pro football team, were on the brink of extinction.
Owners Derek and Jeni Diehl said they weren't going to a have a team this year after only two seasons due to financial concerns.
After an outcry from fans, players and others to save the Generals, Derek Diehl, who also is the team's head coach, confirmed Monday afternoon that the Generals are back in business.
"We got some approval for funding," Derek said over the phone. "That was the deciding factor. I didn't want to begin the season owing money. It looked like a dire situation, but the fans supported us. We are going to start fresh and will be a little more frugal with things. The question is if this turmoil will hurt the team? But I think it will bring awareness."
A common misconception with semi-pro football is that it is cheap considering it's not the NFL or a major college program.
Costs can add up quickly, with player fees, field rentals and insurance costs. One season can cost anywhere from $15,000 to $50,000. Each player must pay at least $200 per season to play. Even a practice costs money.
"Whether it's a practice, game, a bus trip or hotels," Diehl said. "We go through a case of tape each game, and that's not cheap. It's $1,000 just to be in the league, at least $1,000 on a game day and $600 for referees. But the league is growing and getting stronger this year. We'll be solid financially."
Last Wednesday, Jeni Diehl, Derek's wife and co-owner of the Generals, said on the team's official Facebook page the team was folding.
By Sunday evening, there was an emergency team meeting in the Bay to gauge who was still with the team. Loyal to their leaders, most players from last year are coming back. This season, the Mid-States Football League is adding several new teams that defected from the Ironman Football League, which includes the Southern Lakes Blue Devils. Derek Diehl said new, local teams like Milwaukee, Madison and Wauwatosa will help reduce overall costs.
"These new teams can bring more fans," he said. "There won't be any more long bus trips. This will mean more local athletes."
The Generals made the playoffs in their first two seasons. With more than 50 players, many of whom have college football experience, the Generals have been a staple in the local community.
Whether it's hosting a community fundraiser, cleaning up at an area event, signing autographs for young children or assisting Williams Bay high school players with lifting and football skills, the Generals provide a positive influence on and off the field.
A lot of guys drive from as far away as Milwaukee to play a game they love for the right reasons.
"We've got a good football team this year," Derek Diehl said. "We lost a couple of key players, but I'd say 90 percent of the guys are back."
The Feb. 9 tryout that was temporarily cancelled last week is back on schedule. It will be from 4 to 7 p.m. at Williams Bay High School. A $20 fee will give participants a free Generals T-shirt. The team is looking for players, coaches, staff and volunteers.
The Generals play their home games Saturday nights in the summer at Williams Bay High School. The cost is $7 for adults, $5 for those with a military I.D. and seniors and free for kids ages 12 and under and all Williams Bay High School students.
While some people donate money, the Generals sell merchandise at games and online at www.lakegenevagenerals.com. Coach Diehl, or "the General" as wife Jeni affectionately calls him, promises a worthwhile experience at home games.
"It's kind of a hard sell," he said. "But we have good sponsors. We need more support. Please support us during our home games."
The preseason starts in May, and the regular season runs from mid-July to mid-September.
But the four-month schedule, which can include up to a month of playoffs, was very close to not happening.
Jeni Diehl declared the team was finished Jan. 22 on the team's Facebook page.
"It is with a heavy heart, Derek and I announce that we are folding the team," Jeni Diehl said. "Thank you to all who have been a part of semi-pro football with us. We will be selling Generals uniforms and apparel for a week to players, friends, family and fans. After that, we will sell the rest on eBay."
Citing financial woes, Jeni Diehl added the ownership could no longer use personal money to cover bills.
The General's loyal soldiers
The news prompted several players to step up and show their love for their team. Receiver Mark Chambers helped rally his teammates to save the Generals.
"If we can get some help that would be great," he said in an e-mail. "We have a bunch of players fully committed to our team and we have what it takes to win the MSFL."
Players poured their hearts out on the Generals Facebook page.
One player said the Generals were the only good thing going for him right now. Several more said without the Generals, they will be forced to retire.
David Byerley, a former quarterback who is joining the military, said the team was "my life."
Adam George summed up the class of the organization.
"You gave me a chance again with football," he said to the Diehls. "You expanded my mind and playing ability and are truly the best coaches and owners in any sport I've played."
Michael Rice thanked the Diehls for always going above and beyond.
Jeni commented that this isn't the end for the players.
"It was something special, but you all have been on other teams, and you will play again," she said. "We will come watch and cheer you on."
There's no denying what the Generals have done for the community of Williams Bay along with the Geneva Lake area in general.
Several former Badger, Big Foot and Williams Bay football stars are on the team. Also, it gives former college and even NFL stars a chance to continue their dream of playing football.
Shane Crawford, a former Walworth County Public Works Director, joined the team in 2011. Playing football for the first time in his life, Crawford was enamored with the sport and even traveled from Florida to play in one final game last season.