Ryan Stark has unfinished business on the gridiron.
While 30 years have passed since Stark first lined up on the Boys & Girls Club of Seymour’s flag football field, he has never lost passion for the game.
At 37 years old, the defensive end’s football career isn’t slowing down — it’s speeding up.
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After stepping away from the field for more than a decade, Stark has returned to the game at the semi-professional level.
Traveling across state lines on the weekends, Stark’s dreams are as big as they’ve ever been.
“I’ve always enjoyed playing football, and felt like I didn’t finish my career,” Stark said. “I don’t have it out of my system yet. Football has been a big part of my life that I was trying to get back to.”
Stark, a Seymour native, has always held high expectations on himself when it comes to football.
After playing at the Boys & Girls Club for several years, Stark participated on organized teams.
“(I) joined the fourth-grade team at Immanuel Lutheran Elementary School under Hersey Mangles,” Strark said. “I played at Immanuel from fourth grade until sixth grade, mainly playing as a really small running back.
In the seventh and eighth grade, I would take a bus from Immanuel to Seymour Middle School after school to play outside linebacker with them. I believe we went undefeated both years. I then joined the Seymour High School football team as a freshman.”
As a 5-foot-6, 120-pounds freshman, Stark was asked to join the varsity football team for the high school playoffs.
Stark then went on to play full-time on varsity for the next three seasons.
For the Starks, football has always been a family affair.
Ryan’s older brother, Brad, was a star fullback and middle linebacker when he was a freshman and sophomore at Seymour.
His younger brother of three years, Andy, was a star middle linebacker that went on to play at Ball State University on scholarship.
In his senior season, Ryan had grown to 6-feet, 190-pounds, and started as a fullback and defensive end.
A broken wrist and sprained ankle gave Stark trouble his final season, but the team went on to win sectionals.
Out of high school, Stark went on to play at Franklin College as a defensive end.
However, injuries shortened his career, as he played from 1998-99.
“I had to wear a cast and could not heal it,” Stark said. “I had a broken wrist for a 1½ years and then had surgery. After the surgery, I quit football and took a rest.”
From 1999 to 2013, Stark watched football on TV on Saturdays and played tackle on some Sundays with friends at Jackson Elementary School.
By ’13, Stark knew he needed to get back on the field in some capacity.
Living in Lexington, Kentucky, Stark helped out with the Class 6A Paul Laurence Dunbar Bulldogs as a freshman and junior varsity lineman coach.
He was also on the booster club, and filmed varsity games.
“When I was coaching, you get those feelings but it’s not the same,” Stark said. “Getting to compete is why I’m here.”
It was at that time that Stark decided it was time to play competitively again.
“I joined a competitive flag football league in Lexington where I started to meet some really good athletes,” Stark said. “Being around football and athletes again made me want to start to get back into shape.
The Friday nights under the lights filming just gave me the old feeling of playing. It brought back all kinds of memories of playing Seymour High School football with all of my friends and coaches like Joe Goodman, Jeff Richey, Greg Prange, and Chris Rose. This gave me the drive to start going back to the gym.”
Lifting weights and playing basketball, Stark quickly got back in shape.
It was at that time he met Michael Chandler, a former Cambellsville University safety, who was working on trying to get picked up by a couple Canadian Football League Teams so he could get paid to play.
The two became friends, and started lifting weights at 5 a.m. each day.
“One day (Chandler) mentioned to me that his friend J’Michael Collins was playing in a semi-pro football league in Tennessee,” Stark said. “ I told him about wanting to play football again so bad and he told me he had come across this tryout for semi-pro football. He pushed me to go to the tryout, so I did.”
A new opportunity
The two drove four hours to a work out in Paducah, Kentucky for the Western Kentucky Thoroughbreds, of the Gridiron Developmental Football League.
Stark, now 6-feet, 235-pounds, made the team in October of 2016.
The semi-pro leagues plays by NFL rules, and the players outfit themselves with full pads and play at various high school fields each weekend.
Players are unpaid, but play for the exposure in hopes that a much bigger semi-pro team or Canadian Football League, Arena Football League or even NFL organization takes notice.
Telling his other friends about the opportunity, players starting jumping on board with Stark.
Each Saturday they drove the four hours to get to Paducah.
They drove from January to April before hearing about a team 20 minutes away from Lexington that had just started: the Sterling Trojans.
Burnt out from the drives, Stark’s crew left behind Paducah for the Paris, Kentucky-based Trojans.
The Trojans, a first-year team, play their home games at Bourbon County High School and are members of the Mid-South Football Alliance League.
The MFSA is divided into four divisions with 17 teams hailing from Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee.
Thus far this season, the Trojans are 6-0, with seven games remaining in the regular season.
There’s a postseason and All-Star game at the conclusion of the regular season.
The Trojans are made up of players in their 20s, 30s and some in their 40s.
Stark said that the most teams have a mix of experience.
Stark said that the Trojans have played teams that have former players from the NFL Washington Redskins and Baltimore Ravens on their rosters.
“Those types of (NFL) players are out there, but usually what you face is high-level college players,” he said. “Those rest of us just enjoy playing football again.”
That first time Stark got back on the field, all of his old feelings rushed back into his system.
“I was extremely nervous,” Stark said. “It had been 15 years since I had last put on pads in college. I was nervous but very excited. After a few hits, all the feelings came back.”
Between the practices and games, Stark has put his name out into the pro realm.
“I have just recently found out about paid leagues besides the CFL and NFL,” Stark said. “You can play in a league called the RPFL in the US in Michigan and Florida. This league boasts 4-year contract deals at $301,000 over those four years based on a stat driven pay scale.
I also got more information on playing overseas. Anyone can put a free profile on Europlayers.com and coaches can recruit them to play for their teams overseas.”
Stark said he has spoken with teams based in both Israel and the Netherlands about playing overseas, but nothing has come to fruition yet.
Should Stark accept a role on a team overseas, he could split time between numerous organizations throughout the year.
“I know a guy who plays for three teams overseas and gets paid for all of them,” Stark said. “Then in his offseason, he comes here to the US to play semi-pro ball. Some NFL players are chosen from Americans who play overseas ball, some are chosen from the CFL, but the majority come from the select few that come out of the college draft.
If a person didn’t make the college draft or even go to college but they have dreams of playing, semi-pro would be the first start with either a jump to overseas ball as the next step, Arena ball, or the CFL. The CFL holds tryouts a couple times a year and you can get a yearly salary from $50,000 up to $400,000 a year to play for them but you need film.”
Getting the word out
Seeing the benefits from playing semi-pro football, Stark wants to get the word out.
“We (Sterling Trojans) are always looking for good talent on our team and I would be more than happy to help people interested in playing again get information to make our team or put them in contact with other teams too,” Stark said.
Stark hopes that some of his old teammates from Seymour will jump on board, too.
“I’ve talked to a few old teammates,” Stark said. “There were some interested in coming, but it was too late in the season for them to join. They weren’t ready just yet. I think that there are some people that could come out of Seymour that still have a lot of athletic talent in them.”
When looking at joining a team, Stark says it’s important to research the program to its fullest.
He said that many teams will fold within a year or two due to bad business practices.
“One of the most important things is that you’re involved with a great team with experience and good organization,” Stark said. “After that, you need to decide what level you want to play at and if you’re looking to travel. Try out for a team you’ve researched, and be sure to be comfortable with the owners of the team.”
On Saturday, the Trojans look to remain perfect as they host the Hurricanes from Louisville.