The Johnny-come-lately to the sport has aspirations of taking it to a higher level

MILWAUKIE - Rami Awad, a 2001 graduate of Milwaukie High School, can't stay away from the sport of football.

'I just really can't get away from it,' said Awad. 'It's all I really want to do.'

This spring Awad signed on to compete with the Oregon Thunderbolts, one of the most successful teams in the Northwest Semipro Football League. It's a team that has advanced to postseason play in 14 of its last 15 seasons.

'I like everything about the game,' said Awad, who starts at offensive tackle. 'I like hitting people, getting hit, practices, and basically [the team] coming together as a family.'

Thunderbolts coach David Brannon is so impressed with Awad that the 6-foot-7, 350-pound tackle never leaves the field when the Thunderbolts are on offense, or when their field goal and kick return teams take to the field.

'Rami is a big part of our football team,' said Brannon. 'He's a big, talented offensive tackle who's come a long way in a short amount of time. He's put a lot of effort into get better and he's been an excellent role model, as far as leading by example.'

Awad did not play football before high school, and because of that he's still learning a lot about the game.

'I was more interested in playing basketball until a got to Milwaukie High School,' said Awad.

Milwaukie High line coach Roland Aumueller was an early influence on Awad and his love for the game.

'Roland played for the Houston Oilers, and we're both big guys,' said Awad. 'I love that guy. He's the best coach you could ever have. He knows so much about the game and he's just a great guy!'

Awad started at Milwaukie his senior year, but because of his late introduction to the sport and Milwaukie's lack of success in the win-loss column, he never earned any league all-star recognition.

'Rami's one of the nicest people you'd ever meet,' said Aumueller. 'But he was pretty happy-go-lucky in high school. He didn't apply himself. For Rami, football was more about hanging out with friends and having a good time.

'I wish I could have gotten him to be one of those guys that was dedicated. If he'd gotten serious about it and applied himself in the weight room - with his size, he would have been just flat-out terrifying.'

Before joining the Thunderbolts this spring, Awad played flag football two years in a Portland League. He also played for the Oregon Panthers semipro team for three months, 'but I had to quit to get a job.'

Athletes who play semipro football don't get paid for their efforts. They play for the love of the game, or with the hope of someday playing at a higher level. Many have already played at the collegiate level.

'I'm still young,' said the 23-year-old Awad. 'Maybe two or three years down the road I can go try out for a college.'

Awad, who has lived in Milwaukie since he was a toddler, attended Clackamas Community College for two years, but the college does not have a football program.

Since he is not getting paid to play football with the Thunderbolts, he still has four years of eligibility remaining to play college football.

'Maybe I'll got back and study law enforcement or something,' Awad says.

Awad, who works in loss prevention at Sportsman's Warehouse, said he turned out for the Thunderbolts because, 'I heard they were one of the best [semipro football teams].'

'I look at Rami as a project-type of person,' said Brannon. 'If he gets some games under his belt [playing semipro football], I could definitely see him playing at the next level. I could see Rami getting himself into a junior college through football.'

'Rami's matured a lot since high school,' said Aumueller. 'He's still a happy-go-lucky guy, but he's a lot more mature. He's a man now. If he spends some time to learn more about the game and spends some time in the weightroom, I could definitely see him playing at the next level.'

Although the Thunderbolts suffered losses in their first two Northwest Football League games, Awad insists the Thunderbolts have the potential to be one of the top semipro teams around.

'We may have gotten blown out by the [West Sound] Saints in our first game, but it was 14-9 at halftime,' said Awad. 'We made a lot of mistakes [penalties and turnovers] and self-destructed in the second half. They didn't beat us; we beat ourselves.

'In my opinion, we're a better team [than the Saints]. We've got a lot better talent. There's just some little things we need to work out as a team.'

The Saints, of Bremerton, Wash., were national champions in 2005.

The Thunderbolts' other loss came in a close game with the Willamette Valley Raiders, a Portland area team that was a playoff team in 2005. Untimely penalties and turnovers also cost the Thunderbolts in that contest.

The Thunderbolts play their home games at Milwaukie High School. Thunderbolts owner Mike Erickson has donated all gate receipts and concession money to Milwaukie High School and the North Clackamas School District, in exchange for use of the field.

'I basically want these stands full of people [for home games],' said Awad. 'I want it to be loud. We need as much support as we can get.'

Remaining regular season home games are scheduled next Saturday (July 8) with the Multnomah County Buccaneers; Saturday, July 29, with the Washington Cavaliers; and Saturday, Aug. 19, with the Renton Ravens. Gametime is 6 p.m.

The admission fee for Thunderbolts games is $5, with students admitted free

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