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Peoria Punishers football team eyes chance to play for a national championship at an NFL stadium

The Peoria Punishers semi-pro 8-man football team will bring a 43-game winning streak into next month's Pigskin Classic National Championship at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
Melissa Gonzales
Photo courtesy Peoria Punishers
The Peoria Punishers semi-pro 8-man football team will bring a 43-game winning streak into next month's Pigskin Classic National Championship at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

Do you realize Peoria boasts one of the best football teams of its kind in the country?

The Peoria Punishers are the four-time reigning champions of the Mid-American 8-Man Football League, riding a 43-game winning streak that’s afforded them a chance to play for a national title in an NFL stadium.

The Punishers have accepted an invitation to play in the Pigskin Classic National Championship on Sept. 30 against the Minnesota-based Mountain Lake Lakers of the Southern Plains Football League.

“They’re actually a nine-man football league,” said Punishers owner Melissa Gonzales. “Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of eight-man leagues left, and the ones that are, we either had people not getting back to us or there was potentially a safety risk.

“So this was the most comparable league to what we do, with the exception of they have a few different rules. But nothing we couldn't live with.”

Justin Miller, the Punishers’ general manager who’s also a former co-owner and remains a current player, said it's a pretty special opportunity.

“It's hosted by the SPFL and they're actually holding it at US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, which is where the Minnesota Vikings play,” Miller said. “So that's a pretty cool thing; there's not very many people that are going to be able to say that they've played in an NFL stadium. Just the atmosphere would be amazing.”

Calling the former Woodruff High School field their home turf, the Punishers play full-contact football on Sundays from March through June against opponents hailing from Bloomington, Champaign, Springfield and elsewhere around central Illinois. The team’s 40-man roster consists primarily of former high school and college players.

“You have to be 18, and you can play until you don't have it anymore,” Miller said. “We've had guys in their late 30s playing, early 40s. It just all depends. A lot of people want to get back out there after being away from the game for so long, and it just makes them feel good."

“We've had former NFL players in our league before. So basically, from all walks of life. I mean, you get them all.”

However, making the trip to Minneapolis comes with a hefty price tag and the team is working to secure the needed money. Gonzales started a GoFundMe campaign with a $5,000 goal.

“It's $3,500 just to play in the game, so we're kind of in the midst of that right now,” Miller said. “We're in discussion with their league officials about rules, and we're currently trying to fundraise money to help us get to the stadium.”

Gonzales said they’ve already raised a $1,000 down payment to secure the invitation and receive a block of tickets from the SPFL that they can now sell.

“I feel like if we have tickets in hand, people are much more likely to buy tickets than if we say, ‘Oh, we'll get you those tickets,” she said, later adding they still have “a ways to go” to guarantee the trip will take place.

Miller said the team has been in existence for nearly 20 years, but had limited success in its first few seasons.

“We really started to have our success Rick Remelius became the owner and he essentially started revamping the team,” Miller said. “My first season of playing was in 2018, and he asked me to co-own the team in 2019. We made the championship of our league and we lost; in the final seconds, they scored a touchdown and we lost by, I think, four points. Then the rest really has just been lights out football.”

Gonzales first became associated with the Punishers when her husband Adrian joined the team two years ago.

“He had been on many previous teams before. We've been a part of other organizations; my husband has been playing for well over a decade in this league, specifically,” she said. “When my husband started, everybody was super-welcoming and just made my family a part of their family.”

Since Punishers players don’t get paid to participate, Miller said it’s all about a passion for the sport.

“One-hundred percent, playing for the love of the game. I know it helps me stay in shape,” he said.

“And to not lose their skill set and talents,” Gonzales interjected, “because a lot of them are extremely talented at football.”

Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.