WASHINGTON, D.C. – The dream seemed within reach. After a standout football career at Massachusetts, Tracy Belton showed up at a one-day tryout with his hometown Washington Redskins in 2007, optimistic. The Largo High School graduate simply needed a chance. “I thought I was doing pretty well, too, but they didn’t keep me,” Belton said. […]
WASHINGTON, D.C. – The dream seemed within reach.
After a standout football career at Massachusetts, Tracy Belton showed up at a one-day tryout with his hometown Washington Redskins in 2007, optimistic. The Largo High School graduate simply needed a chance.
“I thought I was doing pretty well, too, but they didn’t keep me,” Belton said. “At the time, we had a lot of (defensive backs).”
A decade later, Belton is finally playing pro football locally in front of family and friends.
The 33-year-old defensive back has followed a winding path to the Washington Valor of the Arena Football League. He’s played for indoor teams in Arkansas, Wisconsin, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana and Pennsylvania on the way to this opportunity.
Belton hit the free agent market after helping the Philadelphia Soul to an ArenaBowl championship last August. It was an easy decision to sign with the first-year Valor, which plays its home games downtown at Verizon Center.
“It’s been wonderful,” said Belton, who now lives in Crofton. “I love it a lot. The fans here are awesome. I didn’t think the fans were going to show up the way they do cause it’s the first season, but they’ve been great.”
Belton has made quite a rise to become one of the indoor circuit’s top stars.
His start came almost by chance.
After his failed bid to make the Redskins, Belton kept training and waiting. Soon, then-UMass Coach Don Brown called to ask if he’d want to join the Minutemen staff as a graduate assistant.
Belton said he wasn’t ready to hang up his cleats just yet. It was Brown who had a connection with the Arkansas Twisters of the second-tier AFL2 and got him on the roster for the 2008 season.
In 2010, Belton graduated to the top league’s Milwaukee Iron. He’s more than proved he belongs, now in his ninth AFL season with his seventh team. The highlights include a trip to China with a group of all-stars in 2013.
“I love the game,” Belton said. “I’ve always said I’m going to play until I can’t play anymore.”
It takes more preparation to get his body ready for action these days. He makes up for lost quickness with an encyclopedic understanding of opposing offenses. He’s essentially a coach on the field, responsible for identifying formations before the snap and positioning his teammates accordingly.
“It’s a fast game – everything happens so fast,” Valor Coach Dean Cokinos said. “He really sees the game slow. I think he just puts himself in good positions.”
The results have never been better. Last season with Philadelphia, Belton posted nine interceptions, 90 tackles and 20 pass breakups to go along with three defensive touchdowns. It was good enough to earn the league’s Defensive Player of the Year honors.
He credits intensive film study and the right attitude for surviving an often-thankless position in a pass-happy league.
“You can get scored on three, four times in a game, but if you make that one play, you’re a superstar,” Belton said. “You have to understand that.”
When Cokinos started assembling the Valor roster last fall, he targeted Belton right away.
The veteran coach had worked with Belton with the Georgia Force in 2011 and 2012. He never took it for granted that the defensive back would want to be part of Washington’s building process.
The pitch to join the Valor included a couple Wizards games and a meeting with owner Ted Leonsis.
“Coming off the year he had, he deserved to be recruited a little bit,” Cokinos said.
Belton did not need much convincing. He wanted to stick close to his 7-year-old son Amir and continue to grow his side job of training youth players with an eye on coaching once he’s done playing. His father, Darryl Hamilton, is a long-time football and track coach in the county.
The Valor have made sure to highlight Belton’s local connections whenever possible, starting with a memorable home opener April 7. Belton had about 75 family members and friends among the 15,579 fans at the Verizon Center for a 51-38 win over Baltimore.
“Everybody’s shown me a lot of love, a lot of support,” Belton said.
It’s been a good match so far. Washington sits at the bottom of the AFL standings at 1-7, but Belton is tied for the league lead with three interceptions. His 38.5 tackles are also a team high.
He probably leads the Valor in autograph requests, too. It’s good to be the hometown hero.
“I think I’ve signed the most in my career this year,” Belton said. “It’s really nothing to me because I love what I do and I love who I’m doing it for.”