By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
"Sometimes it gets a little crazy. A couple of years ago, our owner hired this guy to ride a buffalo onto the arena floor every time we scored a touchdown. We forgot to tell our players about it, and one of them got run over. Busted a couple of his ribs, and he was out for three games. That's Arena League Football..."
In all likelihood you haven't heard of pro football player Tom Briggs. There have never been screaming headlines announcing his being signed to a megamillion-dollar contract; he's never smiled from the TV screen, pitching breakfast cereal or a great deal on a rental car. No picture on a Wheaties box or a trading card, no adoring fan clubs.
Take the old axiom that a lineman, even if he stands 6-foot-5 and weighs 270, is the game's invisible man, lend it several degrees of intensity and you've been introduced to the Syracuse, New York, native who labors in the obscure trenches of a hybrid game that is soon coming to Dallas.
Say hello to a smiling, easygoing 30-year-old athlete whom the Arena Football League would do well to use as its poster boy. His story--of early stardom, dashed hopes, frustration and, finally, a warm and fuzzy happy ending--is that of every man who has chased professional sport's brass ring.
When the Jerry Jones-owned Dallas Desperados make their debut in the stylish American Airlines Center next month, amid a carnival atmosphere of flashing lights and fog machines, cheerleaders, a goofy-looking mascot, rock music, gimmicky fan contests, strange rules and mile-a-minute game action, Briggs will be among the 20 new faces introduced by the public address announcer.
And, unlike some of his younger teammates who view playing indoors on a 50-yard field as an audition for big-time pro football, Briggs is a man content with where he is. As he enters his sixth AFL season, he does so entertaining no dreams of landing a spot on some National Football League roster. He's a man happy to have found his place in the sports world's pecking order.
"I don't want to sound too boastful," he says, "but I'm the best there is at what I do."
There was, however, a time when he wondered if he'd ever have the opportunity to prove that. Quickly, he ticks off the lowlights of his athletic career:
There was that dark afternoon in May 1997, his birthday, when the coach of the Anaheim entry in arena football summoned him to his office. "I was young and naïve," Briggs remembers, "thinking that the coach was going to wish me happy birthday. Instead, he handed me a one-way ticket home."
That's how he learned he'd been unceremoniously cut from the preseason roster of a team with one of the strangest nicknames he'd ever heard--the Piranhas.
"It was one of the lowest points in my life," he says. "I remember wondering how I was going to tell my friends and family that I couldn't even make it in a league that, at the time, didn't exactly have the greatest reputation in the world."
The Piranhas are long gone now, folded into obscurity like so many of the come-and-go franchises that have attempted to lure fans to the miniaturized version of professional football that a man named James Foster is credited with inventing. As legend has it, while watching an indoor soccer game in Madison Square Garden in the early '80s, Foster sketched an outline of a football field that could fit onto the space of a hockey rink. From that brainstorm, jotted onto the back of an envelope, arena football was born. And, where other attempts to launch new pro leagues--the World Football League, the United States Football League, the XFL--have been short-lived and financially disastrous, the 23-team Arena League will enter its 16th season this month.
So much for the dream of Sunday glory and celestial paydays. Briggs settled into work as a substitute teacher and volunteer assistant coach of a Catholic high school football team in his hometown.
"I'd pretty much put the idea of ever trying to play again out of my mind," he says, "until an old college teammate of mine started calling me. He was playing arena ball with the Tampa Bay Storm and kept telling me I was exactly what the league was looking for. At first, I didn't think much about it, then figured, what the heck."