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The competitive juices still flow for Dexter McCluster . So he's back to playing pro football — in the National Arena League.
Earlier this month, the former NFL running back and kick returner with three teams following a highly productive college career joined the Massachusetts Pirates of the six-team league. In his first appearance, he scored a touchdown and the Pirates got their second victory after four defeats, taking down the New York Streets 70-51 At the Westchester County Center in White Plains, New York.
"Physically, I wasn't that sore after the game," McCluster says with a laugh. "Now, thinking about it, maybe I can go a little harder the next time."
Going harder always has been an apt description of McCluster, whose dynamic style should fit well in the indoor game. Think Tyreek Hill on the field: short, compact, with light-it-up speed and moves. During his years at Mississippi, he was among the nation's most dangerous players with the ball in his hands.
McCluster notes he still has those attributes as he approaches age 31.
"After playing seven years in the NFL and being around all of that talent and all of those professionals, I kind of paid attention and took heed of how they doing it, keeping their bodies in shape," he says. "I tried to do that myself, and I work out like a maniac. I feel 22. For me to be able to compete at a high level, my key is I never let up.
"I'm not old at all ... but I am not 22 anymore. It goes to show if you have the competitive edge and still want to chase your dream or compete in the game you love, take care of your body."
It didn't take long for McCluster to show he can help the Pirates — and the NAL, which is in its third season. He scored on a 40-yard reception built on speed against New York.
And speed is what this sort of football is all about. Played on carpet on a relatively narrow 50-yard field with walls on the sidelines — it is indoors, after all — the game takes some adjustment. McCluster, who spent 2018 in the Canadian Football League after sitting out 2017 to be home with his wife and four daughters, recognized that before signing on with the Pirates, who play out of Worcester, Massachusetts.
"It's definitely different, more condensed," he says. "You score faster and more often, you get open quicker. Me coming in at the bye week was an extra advantage to get used to it, acclimated to indoors, learn the playbook and allow me to have a pretty good game.
"But walls? Ray Lewis is the hardest wall I ever hit."
McCluster's immediate adjustment surprised his coach, Anthony Payton.
"He is the perfect body type, brings an added element to the game the way he can find spaces," Payton says. "This is a guy who can make you miss at the level he has done it before, that's almost impossible to find. I was eager to see how he'd respond to the walls, and the first catch he made, no problem. I am waiting for him to take a shot and he ran through the guy. I was impressed by that.
"Dexter brings an element you don't see much. He has all you need because he can run around, through and by people."
There's another element that Payton and McCluster himself believe can be a critical component for the Pirates: leadership.
"He has that on the team and off the field," Payton says, "and the bigger thing I am seeing is the players are starting to move around faster with him being around. Dexter is a no-excuse kind of guy. When I have to correct him on anything he does wrong, which is hardly anything, the way the players see him respond, it kind of humbles them a little bit.
"He is all ears, and wants to be the best player in this league."
McCluster sees leadership as a major contribution he can make. He has designs on a coaching career after he's finished playing, and already has done some high school coaching.
"Leaders can come in all types of different ways," he says. "You can be vocal, or lead by example, and I kind of find myself as doing both. Early in my career would kind of lead by example, let guys see how hard I work to compete on a high level. Now I will speak up when something needs change or something is being taken for granted. I feel I can bring a competitive edge and show these guys what it is like to be a pro."
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