From iconic bands like the Grateful Dead and the Talking Heads, to the University of Massachusetts-Lowell hockey team and countless others, the Chelmsford Forum has certainly had a wide array of notable dance partners dating all the way back to when it was first opened as the Tully Forum in 1964.
This April the 3,500-seat venue that sits right on the Billerica-Chelmsford town line will add yet another chapter to that eventful history when it welcomes the New England Bobcats of the Elite Indoor Football league.
Once they melt the ice in mid April, Bobcats’ owner and Billerica native Cynthia Hudson will roll out the turf - and an ambitious 10-game schedule, including a home and away series with a top arena team from Mexico.
The home opener is scheduled for April 28 against the Maryland Eagles.
Hudson is the only female indoor football league owner in the country
“We’re excited,” Hudson said. “We want to base it around family. We’re going to bring in the local Pop Warner leagues, have children performing and children competing with cheerleaders. It’s going to be all based around families.”
Hudson bought the New Hampshire Brigade of the now defunct Can-Am Indoor League midway through last season and quickly realized that she may have bitten off a little more than she could chew.
Hudson said she was saddled with massive debt and was left owning several rolls of artificial turf and plenty of uncertainty.
“It was just too much so I shut it down,” Hudson said. “I said if I’m going to do this I’m going to do it the right way and I started from the bottom up. I got a lot of lemons, but I’m making lemonade.”
With that unwavering resolve, she renamed her team and took her turf to the Elite Indoor Football league (EIF) and began looking for a new home. After an agreement with the Tsongas Arena fell through and a venue in East Boston proved to be too small, Hudson, a proud 1985 alumnus of Billerica Memorial High, decided it was time to come back home.
“It’s very exciting,” she says of bringing professional football to her hometown. “I’m a Billerica girl, all of my roots are there.”
Given those roots Hudson, who also owns a successful fashion business, has already cultivated several sponsors and is also partnering up with several non-profits and community organizations in Billerica and Chelmsford. She has already planned several promotions and community outreach initiatives.
Team shaping up nicely
The Bobcats held the first of three open tryouts in December and first-year coach Bill Savary of Methuen was pleased not to see a reprisal of the open tryout scene from the movie “Invincible.”
“We had over 60 guys come to one tryout,” Savary, one of three coaches for the Bobcats, said. “We had a guy fly in from Chicago and another guy from North Carolina.”
The roster has been paired to 30 and only 20 will dress for each game.
“We have some good players for sure,” Savary said the 41-year-old coach who started playing semi-pro football when he was 19. “We’ve got a lot of young kids who just got out of college and we’ve got some experience with some veterans - it’s a good mix.”
Scoring points on the field at the Forum, which will be the same size as the rink, should not be a problem. The Bobcats were happy to land Chicopee’s Najee Hillman, who went 23-1 and threw 45 TDs in two seasons of semi-pro ball with the Mass. State Wolverines. In the pass-heavy indoor game that features eight players on a side, Hillman will be looking early and often for guys like Taylor Ekstrom.
A former standout receiver at Fitchburg State, Ekstrom played his first year of arena football last year with the Connecticut Chiefs only to see the team fold. Now he looks to be a key cog for the Bobcats and has earned a free trip to Mexico to boot.
“The furthest I have ever traveled is to Baltimore to see my sister - I have never even been on vacation - so I am excited,” Ekstrom said, adding he fell in love with indoor football right from the start.
“There’s a lot more contact and it’s a lot faster,” Ekstrom said. “Receivers can get running starts which I like because it gives us an advantage. I like the field being smaller because honestly any time you throw the football you can score a touchdown.”
Looking to get noticed
Although the pay is minimal and the bus rides are long - the Bobcats will travel to West Virginia and Maryland along with flying to Mexico - many players see it as a golden opportunity to gain exposure from upper echelon indoor leagues, not to mention the Canadian Football League, the planned second coming of the XFL, and, in the best case scenario, the NFL.
“I see this as a great opportunity to get exposure and show off my talents on another level other than college,” Charles Dickerson, a former captain and shutdown corner at Ana Maria College, said.
“I’m just trying to gather up as much film as possible,” added hard-hitting linebacker Ruben Encarnacion. “I want to get to that next level. Whether it’s upper (level) arena football league, the CFL, wherever that next level takes me. I’m still young and I have a lot of gas left in my tank.”
For others like team captain Armando Saez, 32, it’s simply about the chance to continue strapping on the shoulder pads and play a game he truly loves.
“I’m always playing somewhere somehow,” Saez said. He helped lead Worcester’s Mass Fury to the national semi pro championship game in Florida a few years back. “Once this is over I will jump into the semi-pro thing and that goes to November. I just love the sport. It’s my passion.”
A fan friendly product
Savary is confident that fans will fall in love with the high-octane product that often sees scores well into the 50s or more.
“It’s all passing,” Savary said. “You probably will see a run about 10 percent of the time.”
The talent level is top notch as well.
“There’s a lot of former NFL players and players who were on NFL practice squads,” Ekstrom said. “The level of play is extremely good.”
And with fans sitting just on the other side of the padded walls that players torpedo into on nearly every play, there is rarely a bad seat to be found and plenty of souvenirs to be had.
“It’s more interpersonal, the players are right there in front of you and will fall in your lap,” says veteran arena league player Adrian Perez, who now coaches the Mexico team that will be traveling to the Forum in June.
“The big saying in arena football is that if you catch a player you have to give him back, but if you catch a ball you get to keep it.”