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.
"It was definitely a bigger spotlight than at Louisburg," said Winger, of the comparison between the AIFL and the NJCAA competition. "Cape Fear had a pretty big following. It was a packed house (at the Cumberland County Crown Coliseum). Those fans were brutal."
When the two teams met in mid-May, Baltimore was 5-0 and Cape Fear was 5-1. The Heroes won the game, 57-47.
The next time the rivals met was on Saturday, June 14, in Fayetteville for the AIF Championship. Cape Fear took an early lead, eventually building to an 18- point advantage with less than 10 minutes to play in the game. The deficit seemed even more daunting with Winger sidelined with an injury sustained early in the game, and starting defensive back Richard Johnson (Milford Mill High/Virginia Tech) under center after the first and second string quarterbacks were both injured earlier in the game.
"We had a lot of adversity, but these guys believed in one goal and every game was a different chapter," Meehan said.
The Mariners eventually got the ball back on the Heroes 11-yard line, trailing 44-39 with 11 seconds left.
With two seconds to go, Johnson lobbed a pass to receiver Aaron Yarbough (Virginia Military Institute/Mount Vernon High) as time expired for the 45-44 championship win.
Although Winger was not on the field for the final play, he was key to the Mariners' championship run. While the league does not keep official statistics, Winger says he scored 15 touchdowns in the five games he played in after joining the team three games into the season, and was recognized by the league as a member of the 2014 All AIF Team. He was one of only eight offensive players selected, and the only running back.
"Matt was a big piece of getting there," Meehan said.
Johnson (MVP), Burley, defensive linemen Shaquane Madison (Lake Clifton High) and Chad Nkang (Northwestern High/Elon University), linebacker Darius Leak (Deep Creek High/Morgan State) and kicker JR Cipra (Ohio Northern University) were also honored on the team, as were Meehan and general manager Scott Garrity.
Winger is already preparing to be a part of the title defense next spring, and has enjoyed reflecting on the experience.
"I took it seriously coming in, but I was not prepared for the size and talent level," he said. "I had high hopes and I was confident in my own abilities because I've been playing football my whole life."
While it took awhile to get traction with a new fan base after their three-year hiatus, Meehan and Winger are hoping that this year's championship will help the Mariners hit the ground running in 2015.
"I'm sure we'll get a boatload of talent," Winger said. "But we were loaded already. Even if we didn't get another guy we'd be fine."
The team has been getting out into the community, and marched in the Catonsville Fourth of July parade. There have even been talks of putting up a Baltimore Mariners billboard alongside I-95 on the way into Baltimore.
"It's professional arena football and Baltimore can hang their hat on" the championship, Meehan said. "We went out and took care of business."