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Semi-pro Wolfpack plays for the love of the game

By JOHN HABIB
New Hampshire Union Leader

August 06. 2015 7:24PM
Raymond Rizzi, right, runs a pattern against Jason Gagne during New Hampshire Wolfpack practice at West High School in Manchester on Wednesday. (Thomas Roy/Union Leader)

It’s probably the best sports secret going in the Queen City and yet Jim Harmon wants everyone to know about it.

In 2009, Harmon, a graduate of Manchester Memorial, invested his money, time and passion into organizing a semi-professional football team called the New Hampshire Wolfpack.

Today, the franchise, with players 18 and older, is among the top football programs in the New England Football League, which charters 38 teams in the region.

In their inaugural season on the Single-A level in 2009, the Wolfpack beat the Vermont Ravens 21-0 to cap an 11-1 championship season. The following season, they went 9-2, losing in the championship game, 28-7, to the Connecticut Panthers. In 2011, the Wolfpack transferred to the Double-A level and won the title, 27-24, against Western Connecticut. The Wolfpack completed that season 14-0.

From 2012 to 2014, the Wolfpack played at the highest level in the NEFL, the Triple-A League, qualifying for the playoffs in each season.

“We have never failed to qualify for the post-season at any level,” said Harmon. “We really take pride in that.”

Currently the Wolfpack are competing this season at the Double-A level, off to a 3-0 start in the Eastern Division of the North Atlantic Conference Standings. The Wolfpack look to remain undefeated against the Mystic River Tigers (0-3) from Medford, Mass., on Sunday at 4 p.m. at Manchester West, where the team plays its home games.

GM and Coach Jim Harmon during New Hampshire Wolfpack practice at West High School in Manchester on Wednesday. (Thomas Roy/Union Leader)

“People who haven’t seen us play should come out and watch us at least once. It’s really good football,” said Harmon. “Our fan base is around 100 and we’re growing each season. This league is for diehard players, former high school and college players who just love the game and want to keep playing it.”

One of those “diehard” players Harmon was referring to is 42-year-old linebacker Aaron Beineke of Waltham, Mass. “I’ve been playing football since the eighth grade and still love it,” said Beineke. “I’ve been in this league for 13 or 14 years and the nice thing about it is, it offers three different levels. You can pick which level (single, double or triple) that suits your ability and have fun playing football.”

Beineke played high school football for Newton North and moved on to UMass-Amherst, where he said he played seven different positions on defense.

“I played every front-seven position. I eventually got some interest from the Kansas City Chiefs, but that ended when I ran a 4.95 (seconds time) at the NFL Combine in the 40-yard dash. That’s not a good time for a linebacker.”

He said he spent some time in Europe competing for the Copenhagen Towers of the American Football International League and later played in the Austrian Football League with the Cineplexx Blue Devils.

He is currently a certified USA weightlifting trainer and annually works as a trainer with the U.S. Olympic Weightlifting team. He runs his own business, Beineke Strength, located in Lowell and Newton, Mass.. at CrossFit Gym.

Beineke said he’ll keep playing football until his body tells him to stop. “People ask me when I’ll stop playing and I tell them I don’t know,” said Beineke. “I do know this is the end of the line. The beauty of the NEFL is that if you can’t play football anywhere else, you can still play here. I did stop playing for three years a few years back because of injuries, but I came back because I was able to. I still love to play the game.”

Beineke said playing for Harmon makes his time in the NEFL an enjoyable one. “Jim is a natural leader, who has invested his time and money into his organization. I can relate to him because we both are competitive and we both want to win.”

On the other end of the spectrum there are up-and-coming players like Manchester Memorial graduate Raymond Rizzi, a 24-year-old defensive end for the Wolfpack. Rizzi said his goal is to play for head coach Sean McDonnell at the University of New Hampshire.

“I studied general education at NHTI in Concord because my goal is to be a history teacher,” said Rizzi, who played for Memorial from 2005-08. “I went to UNH in Manchester to start building my credits after speaking to coach McDonnell about possibly trying out for the team (in Durham) as a walk-on. But that was put on hold when I started working as a store manager at Kay Jewelers and then got a job as an assistant store manager for K-Mart in Salem.”

Rizzi said he’s played seven seasons in the NEFL, the first three seasons in Manchester. He said he also played for Haverhill, Mass., for two seasons, one season with Leominster, Mass., and returned to Manchester this year.

“Playing for Jim (Harmon), he’s always looking to help you whenever you need it,” said Rizzi. “One time he offered me a job working as an electrician. He has a great program here and the work and time he’s put into it really shows why the Wolfpack organization is one of the best in the league.”

Harmon said he had a passion to start a football team in 2008, paying between $14,000 and $16,000 out of his own pocket to finance the program.

This season he added another $10,000 to start a Single-A franchise, the Northeastern Empire, off to a 2-1 start in the Eastern Division of the Maritime Conference.

Together, the Wolfpack and the Empire are part of the New Hampshire Football Association. Harmon is the only owner in the New England Football League who operates two franchises.

“No one else has done it yet and the main reason is the cost,” said Harmon who said he has invested a total of $24,000 into both franchises. “It took me about three seasons to get my money back on my first investment.”

He generates revenue through ticket sales and player registration fees. The registration fee is $200 for first-year players, $125 for returning players. He currently has 56 players on the Wolfpack roster and 40 for the Empire.

The Wolfpack and Empire practice once a week. The Wolfpack play a 10-game regular-season schedule in Double-A and the Empire compete in an eight-game schedule in Single-A.

“Ron Lotte is the general manager for the Empire,” said Harmon. “Last year we started the team under another name, the New Hampshire Timberwolves. The team finished 6-2 and made the playoffs.”

Harmon said players who failed to make the roster for the Wolfpack this season were transferred to the Empire.

“We supplied the Empire with 25 players this season, bringing their total roster number around 40. After this week, league rules state that we can’t make any more roster changes after the fourth week into the season.”

The Empire are one of four New Hampshire teams in the Single-A League. The others are Port City Vipers of Portsmouth, Granite State Destroyers of Raymond and Monadnock Marauders of Keene.

Harmon said the Wolfpack will return to the Triple-A level next season in hopes of attaining a special achievement.

“No team in the NEFL has ever won titles on all three levels,” said Harmon. “We want to be the first franchise to do it. That would be awesome.”

jhabib@unionleader.com


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