Desperate Measures

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

White admits that when offered the Rattlers coaching job a decade ago he took it with no small amount of reservation. "Like most, I'd never even seen a game in person. And, frankly, in those first few years I was in the league, it was not much more than a series of long passes in the hope you connect on one for a touchdown. Now, though, there is a growing sophistication in strategy. Players are working year-round to get ready for the season, and fans have become increasingly knowledgeable."

And the April-to-August exposure that the new network television contract promises, he says, can now elevate what has been generally viewed as a regionally supported league onto the national sports scene.

And expand the visibility of its players.

The Desperados quarterbacking corp of Bryan Snyder (12), James Kubiak (14) and starter Andy Kelly (8) talk preseason strategy during minicamp.
Mark Graham
The Desperados quarterbacking corp of Bryan Snyder (12), James Kubiak (14) and starter Andy Kelly (8) talk preseason strategy during minicamp.
Desperados head coach Joe Avezzano addresses the team after a minicamp at Texas Stadium.
Mark Graham
Desperados head coach Joe Avezzano addresses the team after a minicamp at Texas Stadium.

Like Briggs, Desperados quarterback Andy Kelly is comfortably settled into life in the AFL. Though judged one of the premier passers in the league's history, his impressive statistical record has yet to earn him the cover of Sports Illustrated or an invitation to appear on SportsCenter. He did spend the summer of '94 in the Pittsburgh Steelers' training camp, then a couple of years in Europe where he set passing records for the NFL Europe's Rhein Fire, but the University of Tennessee-ex never earned the high praise of NFL talent scouts. So, over an eight-year Arena League career, he's thrown a record 382 touchdown passes, once leading the Nashville Kats to the league's championship game.

"This," the 34-year-old quarterback says, "is what I do. And I hope to continue doing it as long as I'm healthy, enjoying it--and someone wants me.

"When I came home from Europe after that '96 season," he says, "I had just turned 26 and knew that it wasn't likely that any NFL team would seriously consider someone of my age and experience. For a while, that bothered me because I honestly felt I could play."

It was a struggling AFL franchise in Charlotte that offered him a chance. Yet what he found when he reported for his first practice didn't exactly trigger long-range optimism. "Back then," he says, "everyone in the league had a full-time job just to make ends meet. We had a couple of schoolteachers on the team, a guy who ran a car wash, a prison guard and a fella who worked in a men's clothing store."

When Kelly noticed that a jock strap was not included among the equipment passed out, he purchased his own.

"We didn't even have a permanent place to practice," he remembers. "One day we'd be in a park, the next at some high school stadium. When the weather was bad, we worked out in a gym. I remember one of the standing jokes went something like, 'Well, if you're practicing in an elementary-school gymnasium and wearing equipment you bought out of your own pocket, you must be in the Arena League.'"

He estimates that during the early years of his career he saw at least a dozen franchises fold. "But, fortunately, there was always someone else waiting for the opportunity to buy his own football team."

By the late '90s, after he'd moved to Nashville, things took a turn for the better. The teams that had managed to survive were better financed, and the quality of players coming into the league began to dramatically improve. "Arena ball began moving toward a point where it was no longer looked down on by those playing it. The guys began to realize that what we were doing not only was of high quality but also a lot of fun. And if you stayed up late enough at night, you could even catch an occasional game on ESPN."

Too, the salaries, while still far from staggering, began to improve to a point where a second job during the season was no longer a necessity for many. The league minimum salary for a rookie player today is $1,484 per week. And now, as part of their contract agreement, the Desperados, like other AFL teams, pay the lease on players' homes during the four-month season.

"If things like that hadn't happened," Kelly admits, "I'd have probably given it up and gone looking for a coaching job somewhere." Now, though, he plans to fulfill the three-year contract he's signed with the Dallas team. Then, when the time comes to retire, he hopes to coach an AFL team or, perhaps, work in the league's front office.

"The atmosphere of this game," he says, "gets into your blood. Even those who still aspire to make it in the NFL no longer turn their nose up at arena football. Today, you're not going to find anybody who feels the need to apologize for playing in this league."

That's not to say that there aren't those who wish it to be only a brief stop on their career paths. Some were among the 1,000 who showed up for an open team tryout last January, hoping against hope that old high school or college skills hadn't rusted too badly to prevent their impressing Avezzano and his staff. Others have come to redeem failures in bygone pro tryouts. Former Cowboys No. 1 draft pick Shante Carver is returning to the site of old triumphs and disappointment. After four years during which his performance seldom reached Cowboys expectations, Carver was released in '98 and faded from memory. He resurfaced briefly last spring, playing defensive end with the Memphis Maniacs in the XFL before the league abruptly folded.
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