Riverdawgs up and running

Semi-pro team presents another opportunity for players

Naugatuck Valley Riverdawgs captain John Esser, right, gives instruction during practice last week at Buck Hills Park in Waterbury. The Riverdawgs, a semi-professional football team based in Naugatuck, are preparing for their first season in Major League Football. –SPENCER DREHER

Naugatuck Valley Riverdawgs captain John Esser, right, gives instruction during practice last week at Buck Hills Park in Waterbury. The Riverdawgs, a semi-professional football team based in Naugatuck, are preparing for their first season in Major League Football. –SPENCER DREHER

In the Naugatuck Valley League, high school football means a lot to its current and former players. But what about when the games comes to an end? If players don’t go on to play in college, where can they go?

John Sanders found an answer for these players.

Sanders has formed the Naugatuck Valley Riverdawgs, a semi-professional football team based out of Naugatuck that plays in Major League Football.

With a roster of 45 players, Sanders believes he can create a successful team that can stand the test of time because of his experience playing for the Waterbury-based team, the Brass City Brawlers.

“I played for the Brass City Brawlers for two years and when the opportunity took, I decided to make my own team,” said Sanders, who is also one of six captains for the Riverdawgs. “I am trying to get something together that will last forever. I have been at both ends. I have won a national championship but I have also been on a team that went 0-10. I know how a successful team runs.”

With the football talent that has come out of the NVL, Sanders thought Naugatuck was the best location to base his team. The team also presents a second opportunity for local players who felt they did not get a fair chance in high school.

“Naugatuck and the Valley is all football, right?” Sanders said. “So that is why I wanted to bring it there. I wanted to make a second chance for guys who didn’t really get a chance in high school to get that look from colleges and stuff.”

One of those players who is embracing his second opportunity is wide receiver and fellow captain, Marcus Daniels.

“I have known John (Sanders) ever since I was 18 and he’s been like family to me ever since,” Daniels said. “This team makes me feel a lot better because I never had the opportunity that I have now. In high school, I wasn’t a starter. Now I am starting. I got the opportunity now so I am going to take advantage of it.”

While the Riverdawgs present a lot of opportunities, it wasn’t easy for Sanders to get the team off the ground. However, Sanders has been successful in getting some sponsors on board.

“Wing-It-On is our main sponsor, which is great,” Sanders said. “The YMCA has been huge for us. Team Image, who does all the sports stuff for the local high schools, will be selling our gear for us.”

Sanders said a lot of the team’s funding, however, is coming out of the players’ own pockets.

“Every single one of my guys have to pay to play,” Sanders said.

The Riverdawgs are also seeking donations online for practice equipment and gear at www.gofundme.com/naugatuckvalleyriv.

The Riverdawgs will open their regular season in Major League Football on Aug. 6, a home game at Naugatuck High School. Their schedule will force them to travel to Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey.

Captain John Esser, who played linebacker and fullback for Naugatuck and Woodland, said the MLF is a great league.

“This league does everything,” Esser said. “They track your stats, your hits, your carries, and all of that. It is a lot more than I ever expected. We get to play on TV now. It is like college ball but it is kind of the backdoor to the NFL in a way.”

So after figuring out funding and scheduling, there was just one more question: how did the team name come to be?

“The team name actually came from Esser,” Sanders explained. “We wanted to stay the ‘Naugy doggy’ theme. I know that there is a rivalry between Naugy and Torrington and the loser gets called the ‘river-rat,’ so we thought we would call ourselves the Riverdawgs.”