By Zach Alvira, GSN Sports Editor
Some guys just can’t give it up.
Even into adulthood, when some are beyond college age, playing tackle football still gives them a thrill.
That there are leagues for this is a well-kept secret, a function of many league owners being oblivious to the benefits of marketing. That there are enough people interested to warrant forming entire leagues, much less a team or two, is an equally well-kept secret.
But there is demand, and the hundreds of men across the East Valley who are involved in adult amateur tackle football take it pretty seriously.
With the recent cancellation of junior-college football programs across Arizona, the demand soon could grow still more.
Matt Archer recognized a business opportunity when he saw one, and he strives for the new league that he has created to be an upgrade from others that essentially are adult Pop Warner football.
The emphasis of his Cactus Football League is on player development and on creating rules that allow participants to retain eligibility to play college football as a next step if given the chance.
For others, who might be older and for whatever reason have no hope of playing at a higher level, it’s the place to go to continue to knock the crap out of the guy across the line.
The idea came to Archer two years ago, shortly after he and the Arizona Spartans – an adult tackle-football program in the East Valley – lost in the semifinals of the Gridiron Football League.
Archer had joined the ownership of the Spartans a month before the season. Short on offensive lineman, he played to help his team. He was 35 years old at the time.
“I had tears in my eyes and I told the guys that I would fix everything that we didn’t have go well that season,” said Archer.
It wasn’t his play that disappointed him. As Owner of M.A. Designs in the East Valley, Archer always emphasized marketing his business. He made that clear with the Spartans, especially for the few players who were looking to use the organization as a steppingstone to the next level.
“I didn’t even get from the stadium to my house and I was already thinking of ways to fix our team,” Archer said. “But everything we wanted to fix stopped at the league. From a business standpoint, it was tough to see.”
The Gridiron Football League was among three amateur adult football leagues in Arizona at the time.
First, there was the Arizona Football League, which began more than 20 years ago and still is in business.
The AZFL once was the most competitive in the state but the balance of power shifted to the GFL. Then, Archer’s vision, along with that of his business partner, Rafiel Ashante Lee, came to reality.
“Myself and Raf started putting our heads together and we came to the conclusion that we had to run a league in order to get things fixed to make it better,” Archer said. “We initially wanted to run the operations side of the GFL, but that didn’t end up working.”
So the Cactus Football League was born.
Archer, Lee and the rest of the CFL front office announced their plans last May after the GFL season ended. During their announcement they emphasized player development for those hoping to move on to the next level.
Before August, more than 10 teams had agreed to join the inaugural season that opens in February. Now, 16 teams are locked in.
“The whole mission is to help the players,” Archer said. “A lot of players get missed because there aren’t resources within leagues to market them, with stats being huge. That’s what schools look for. I owed it to the players to fix everything they didn’t get before and try to give that the opportunity to get to the next level.”
CFL teams are located across the Valley. The Spartans, Scottsdale Crusaders, East Valley Vipers and Ravens, Tempe Owls and Chandler Jaguars encompass the East Valley.
Eight other teams are near central Phoenix and the West Valley, and two are in Tucson.
The league is home to players who have landed there for various reasons, whether to keep playing a game they love or for those who are fresh out of high school or college and looking for a steppingstone to the next level.
Seniors in high school who have finished their football seasons are allowed to play in the CFL. Because players are not subsidized and must pay their own fees to the league and to the team they join, they maintain NCAA eligibility.
In the future, Archer plans to regulate this even more but he said that coaches are aware that even giving a player a helmet can jeopardize his future eligibility.
“Our focus is to at least give the kids an opportunity to play,” Archer said. “We are giving them the tools, whether it be Hudl for film and updated stats or just giving them a chance.”
Archer plans to promote the league to high schools this spring and will even look into junior-college players whose careers may have hit a wall with the recent cancellation of all juco football programs in Arizona.
Part of that promotion comes with a top-notch website, something into which the CFL has invested thousands of dollars. It gives each player his own page for statistics, to be updated weekly.
Archer’s upgrades of amateur developmental football in Arizona do not stop there.
Every Game of the Week will be live streamed on Facebook and other online platforms, providing an opportunity for family members in other parts of the country to tune in.
“That was one of my big things, to give those family members the ability to watch these guys play,” Archer said.
The league will play in high school stadiums during its inaugural season.
Archer brainstormed building his own facility. After about a month, he received a phone call to meet with developers who potentially could bring his plan to light.
“Come to find out it’s a $250 million project,” Archer said. “I was skeptical at first but it turns out (another group is) already building it and they want people to jump in on the project. What we are working on now is to lease the three high school fields and to control the recreational stuff that happens in the future.”
Because negotiations are ongoing, Archer declined to comment on the location and name of the complex. But if all goes well, the CFL will have its own dedicated field in the Valley with marketing and a synthetic playing surface showcasing the league’s logo.
Archer is hoping for all of these plans to become reality in 2020 for the CFL’s second season.
The league has seen exceptional growth in its short life. With everything appearing to be falling into place, the CFL could attain Archer’s goal of improving the landscape of amateur adult developmental football across not only the state but perhaps even the nation.
“Until I really use our platform to go somewhere that is when it will hit me” Archer said. “I’m excited. I’m ready to go.”