When Ron Meehan, head coach of the Baltimore Mariners professional indoor football team, lost his top running back early this season, he turned to an unlikely talent pool for a replacement: the Howard County Recreation and Parks Adult Run & Shoot football league.
As the head referee for the league, which plays on Sundays year round at Cedar Lane and Rockburn Branch parks, Meehan had an inside edge on scouting the prospects, and knew that it was no ordinary rec league.
And as one of the most talented athletes in the competitive league, Atholton grad Matthew Winger caught Meehan's eye.
"There's a lot of good talent in that league, and Matt fit the mold" for the Mariners, said Meehan, who was named American Indoor Football Coach of the Year after his team won the championship in mid-June. "Matt was in the right place at the right time."
Winger, who was named the Howard County Offensive Player of the Year as a senior at Atholton High School in 2005, played only one year of college football at Louisburg College in North Carolina before joining the Army.
Now a vice president with Howard Bank, Winger felt the itch to get back onto the field.
"I still wanted to play and I knew I had only four or five years left," he said. "I decided to give it one last shot."
At the time Meehan came calling, Winger was in the process of trying out for the Arbutus Big Red, a semiprofessional team in the Mason Dixon Football League.
"He said that he heard I was in pads again and wanted me to come out," Winger said.
Although Meehan had no doubt about the speed and skills on display in the Rec & Parks touch football league, he says that putting on pads can be a whole different story.
"I knew that Matt could catch the football. I knew that he could run, because I had seen him playing for a few years," he said. "I didn't know that he could run that well with pads on."
When Winger came to his first practice to try out with the Mariners, he says that it was an eye opening experience.
"I told my girlfriend (Lauren) that when I walked up it looked like an NFL combine," said the 5-foot-10, 220-pound Winger. "In indoor football they can sacrifice speed for size."
The Mariners boast some of the most imposing players in the American Indoor Football league, including offensive linemen Scott Burley (6'6", 315, Woodlawn High/University of Maryland), Leo Davis (6'7", 360, Frederick High) and Adam Hoffman (6'5", 380, Thomas Johnson High/Shepherd University). Other local players on the Mariners include second-string quarterback Kevin Ford (Howard High) and wide receiver Daryl Disbrow (Long Reach High).
And with his compact frame, strength, and quick burst, Winger became a perfect fit in the Mariners offensive scheme, which included more running plays and tosses to the flat than most other high flying indoor teams. In arena football, the field is only 50 yards long and 28 feet wide.
"In indoor, typically the run game isn't too prioritized. Thankfully for me, the Mariners are pretty diverse. We ran the ball 40/60 or even 50/50," said Winger, who rushed for more than 2,000 yards and 20 touchdowns as a senior with the Raiders in 2005. "I relied on my speed a lot in high school and college. In indoor you really don't have that opportunity. The physicality was the biggest thing I had to get used to. Just hold onto the ball and don't turn it over.
"I caught the ball out of the backfield a lot this year, running up the boards."
With Winger effectively moving the ball behind a mammoth offensive line, the Mariners — who won a league title in 2010 before taking a three-season hiatus — had all the pieces they needed to make a title run, but it would not be an easy road.
Since joining the AIFL in 2012, the Cape Fear Heroes out of Fayetteville, NC, had gone 15-1, winning the title in 2012 and losing in the 2013 championship to the Harrisburg Stampede.
Cape Fear also has a fervent fan base.