Desperate Measures

Welcome (again) to the Arena League, where Desperados are kind, giants are invisible and rock concerts turn into football games

But by the time Anaheim sent him packing, Briggs had concluded that it was high time to put football behind him and get on with life in the real world. Then, to his surprise, he learned that shortly after his release from the Piranhas he'd been picked up by a team in Portland that called itself the Forest Dragons. "I thought about it," he says, "and finally decided, OK, one last shot."

Briggs not only earned a roster spot but quickly mastered something many players wouldn't even attempt in this modern era of specialization. In arena ball, where active rosters are limited to 20 players, everyone except the quarterback plays both offense and defense. One minute you're pass-blocking; the next, you're trying to sack the other team's passer. If you're an offensive wide receiver, you're expected to also play defensive back. In between, you run down on kickoffs and block for or rush against field goals.

A second-team all-AFL selection in 2000, Briggs has adapted to playing both ways better than most.

In addition to coaching, Joe Avezzano, might provide a little musical entertainment at games.
Mark Graham
In addition to coaching, Joe Avezzano, might provide a little musical entertainment at games.
Players such as Tom Briggs and D.J. Cooper will do double duty on offense and defense for the Desperados.
Mark Graham
Players such as Tom Briggs and D.J. Cooper will do double duty on offense and defense for the Desperados.

"In this league, you're put to a real stamina test," he says, "and I immediately fell in love with it." Never mind that his initial salary was coupon-clipping small or that the dismal attendance at the Portland games soon caused the franchise to move to Oklahoma City. Forget the OKC days when the team's training facility was located next to a dog-food factory and the smell that blew into the locker room sometimes caused players to lose their cookies before practice. Never mind the visits to a drafty old building in Des Moines where mean-as-hell fans of the Iowa Barnstormers--the team once quarterbacked by the league's greatest success story, Kurt Warner, who graduated to the NFL and led the St. Louis Rams to a Super Bowl title--routinely doused visiting players with beer as they made their way to the field. Ignore a jillion other ego-wounding inconveniences that AFL players of bygone days encountered.

Sitting in the visitors' locker room of Texas Stadium, awaiting the catered lunch he and his teammates are being served during a recent break in minicamp practice, Briggs waves a long, muscular arm at his surroundings. "Just look at this place," he says, his voice turning almost childlike. "Those of us who have been around the league for a while make sure that the younger players know just how nice this is, how far things have come."

And it's not just ample elbow room and free lunch, showers with endless hot water and the best equipment money can buy. "When I came into the league," he confides, "the top players were making $40,000 or so." Now, he says, six-figure salaries, even for linemen, have become increasingly commonplace. Like its major-league counterpart, the AFL now has its own Players Association. Teams currently operate under an annual $1.6 million salary cap budget that includes payment to players, housing expense, insurance, benefits and workman's compensation. And there are ambitious plans for continued expansion and a newly signed revenue-sharing contract with NBC-TV that is scheduled to go into effect in the summer of 2003. NBC will share advertising revenue with the league and, in return, will see financial benefit from increasing franchise values as the AFL growth continues.

Valued at $400,000 just five years ago, the worth of an AFL franchise has now climbed into the $12 million range. And in the event those figures continue to rise as teams are sold and new expansion franchises are purchased, NBC will receive a portion of the profits.

Add the fact that seven other NFL owners have followed Jones in purchasing AFL franchises that will begin play in the near future and one can see that the cash flow is likely to increase dramatically. The NFL is currently considering an option to purchase 49 percent of the indoor league.

"The big thing the Dallas franchise has going for it," says former Cowboys quarterback Danny White, coach of the highly successful Phoenix franchise for the past 10 years, "is the money and marketing know-how of Jerry Jones."

The lack of that magic combination, he suggests, was what caused Dallas' first and all-but-forgotten attempt at the arena game to fail a decade ago. It was in 1990 when Reunion Arena was home to the Dallas Texans, owned by East Texas oilman Lanier Richey and coached initially by ex-Cowboys assistant and NFL Hall of Famer Ernie Stautner, then former All-Pro wide receiver Drew Pearson. For a time the curious came. The team won, and Stautner was even honored as the league's Coach of the Year in his debut season.

"The Arena League was a lot different back then," remembers KTCK-AM producer Mike Fernandez, who served as the Texans' do-everything director of operations. "The big thing now is that you rarely see a team with a single owner. They're owned by groups of investors and the Jerry Joneses who can make participation in the league financially attractive."

That first year, Fernandez remembers, the Texans won a number of close, exciting games before eventually falling to Detroit in the championship. Crowds of 10,000-12,000 in Reunion weren't unusual. "But in the second year things didn't go well," he says. "Our quarterback, a popular guy named Ben Bennett, had left, and we didn't win much." Attendance dropped dramatically. "If your team isn't good, all the promoting in the world won't put people in the stands," Fernandez says.

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