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."
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 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 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.
The Dallas owner's son-in-law Shy Anderson, who will serve as chief operating officer of the Desperados, points to plans for what he calls a "grassroots" promotional approach. "For instance," he says, "we'll have the cheerleaders going to the popular night spots in Dallas, performing their dance routines and handing out information on the team. They'll be at malls, service club meetings, anywhere there are people to talk to about the team." Radio station KTCK, The Ticket, will broadcast games with high-profile morning personality George Dunham scheduled to do play-by-play.
What kind of attendance figure would Anderson consider successful in the team's inaugural season? "We'd feel very good if we average 10,000 per game," he says.
While local fans will have to wait until May 4 for the new team's first home appearance, the season gets under way April 20. Fans around the country will get their first opportunity to see Dallas when it visits Danny White's Rattlers for a June 16 game that will be one of seven Sunday AFL games televised this season by TNN.
Desperados head coach Joe Avezzano, better known as the flamboyant special teams coach of the Cowboys, says he and his Cowboys boss have done their homework. He points to the fact Jones sent him on a fact-finding trip throughout the AFL last year, sizing up the operations of the established organizations. "What we wanted to learn," he says, "was what teams were doing to be successful."
Once Jones made up his mind to invest in an Arena League franchise, Avezzano says, the commitment to success was a given. "That's just the way Jerry does things," he says. Translation: There was the assurance of top money for players, hiring of a four-man team of assistant coaches with extensive AFL backgrounds and a healthy promotion budget. A member of the Cowboys public relations department has been assigned to the Desperados.
"I see myself as a combination coach, flag-waver and promoter of the team," Avezzano notes. "When I traveled around the league last season I always sat in the stands to watch the games. I enjoyed the atmosphere and the energy. Arena Football at its best is a great evening of entertainment, and that's what we plan to provide the Dallas fans. We're not trying to compete against the NFL. We're going to have something unique, something that's going to be a lot of fun."
That, White points out, is the reason his Rattlers play to an average attendance of more than 13,000 in Phoenix's American West Arena. "What we've developed over the years is a real cult following," he explains. "The relationship between the fan and arena football is similar to that you'll find at a really exciting basketball game. Because of the closeness to the playing field there is a connect that you're never going to experience in an NFL stadium.
"I've got a picture hanging in my office that, to me, says everything you need to know about the kinship of the fans and the game they're watching. In it, one of our receivers and a defensive back have their hands high above their heads, going after a pass. Also trying to make the catch is a fan sitting in the front row."
Toss in the fact he's seen as many as eight touchdowns scored in the final two minutes of a game and that AFL rules don't allow for such time delay tactics as running the ball out of bounds, the quarterback taking a knee to stop the clock or half-hearted plunges into the line to protect a lead, and you've got what he calls wall-to-wall action. "One of the best rules we have is that the offense has to always make a genuine effort to score, regardless of the time remaining."
Standard uniforms, a regulation-sized ball and the six points awarded for a touchdown aside, this is hardly your father's football. There are eight men to a side instead of 11 (on offense, for instance, there are four linemen, a quarterback, a running back and two receivers). In addition to being only 50 yards long, the field is just 85 feet wide (visualize playing between the hash marks of a 100-yard field) rimmed by waist-high padding, which a ball-carrier can bounce off of and continue along his way. The goal posts, flanked by wide nets, are half the width of those in the NFL, with the cross bar five feet higher. Any kick or pass that bounces off the nets remains in play and can be fielded and advanced by an opposing player. Punting is illegal, a drop-kicked field goal is worth four points instead of the three awarded the more traditional kick and kickoffs are made from the end zone. Substitutions are allowed but once during each 15-minute quarter, and the clock rarely stops. "During any game," Anderson points out, "there will be as many as a dozen footballs that wind up in the stands. And, like in baseball, any fan who catches one will get to keep it."
All that and more for ticket prices that will range from $25 for a sideline seat to five bucks for an upper end zone view.
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."
Contacted by Cowboys Vice President Stephen Jones after Jones' father had announced purchase of the Dallas AFL franchise, Carver was invited to give the indoor game a try. "So, here I am," he says. "I'm looking at it as a chance for me to prove myself. And, yes, I hope it is my way to play again in the NFL."
Fellow Desperados lineman D.J. Cooper understands. A standout schoolboy player at Mesquite High, then the University of Arkansas, it was only two years ago that he was voted the Cotton Bowl's Most Valuable Player for his New Year's Day performance against the University of Texas. Since then, however, his pursuit of a football career has been a frustrating series of near misses. Signed by the New Orleans Saints, he lasted until the final round of preseason cuts. Later, he caught on with the Chicago Bears and spent a month on their practice squad before he was released. Then, in 2001, he joined the XFL Memphis team where he played alongside Carver until knee problems developed. Before recently signing with the Desperados, he had unsuccessful tryouts with the Cleveland Browns and newly formed Houston Texans.
Needing only six credit hours to earn a degree in criminal justice, he was back in school when Dallas called. "I know the day is fast approaching when I'll put my degree to use," he says, "but for now I'm still not ready to give up football." After signing a contract, he packed a college text he'd been studying and reported for the team's minicamp. His wife and 3-year-old daughter will join him only when the season opens and he's certain he's earned a place on the roster.
"I've never even seen an Arena League game in person," he admits. "But what I hope to do here is become a better football player. Sure, right now I'm thinking of it as a stepping stone. I still believe I can play in the NFL. On the other hand, if this becomes a career for me, that's OK, too.
"I look at it this way: There are a lot of guys who don't even make it to this level."
To Avezzano, the motivations of those he will coach are of no real concern. "I don't care what their reasons are for being here," he says, lapsing into the language of coach-speak, "so long as they do everything they can to help us win. Some, I know, feel they have found their niche; others see it as a continuation of their quest. I say more power to both.
"What I've told them is that this is not minor-league football. Nor is it a feeder system for the Cowboys or the NFL. It's a professional league that has its own unique style and promises an exciting kind of competition."
And with that the energetic coach has smoothly switched into his added role of high-octane pitchman. From Xs and Os, he moves to talk of halftime contests, laser lights and being so close to the action you can hear the quarterback call signals. Sit and listen to him long enough and one gets the impression that an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink brand of entertainment is coming to town.
An amateur country-and-western singer, Avezzano hints that he might even be performing an occasional postgame concert. "We're going to have a good time," he says.
And somewhere in the maniacal mix, he adds, will be a good football team.