By Jim Schutze
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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.
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."