Life in the Arena Football League: The VooDoo and a prayer
NEW ORLEANS -- The season is lost. The numbers don't lie: Defeats to teams from Georgia, Oklahoma, Illinois, Arizona, two places in Pennsylvania and three in Florida, one of them twice. Shut out at home, in The Graveyard. Yes, there have been turnovers. Yes, there have been injuries. Yes, there have been transactions. Lord have there been transactions. On the active roster of 24 players, 11 remain from training camp, some of whom joined through open tryouts at City Park, paying $60 for the chance, which was all they were ever promised, a chance, that and a T-shirt. The latest addition is 37 years old. He's a skill player: A defensive back.
Maybe these are just the breaks of Arena Football, the bouncehouse sport of also-rans. Maybe this is just the function of a bankruptcy reorganization designed to concentrate power in the league office. Maybe this is just the fate of an expansion team, even one with a venerable name bought and paid for. These men earn $7,200 for the season -- $3,690 below the federal poverty level -- plus any treatment that counts as sports medicine from Tulane and complimentary lodging at the Magnolia Ridge Apartments between I-10 and the Causeway in Metairie. Their coach, Derek Stingley, still in the game despite what it takes away from his family, or maybe because of what it already has: He rides the sleeper bus too. Their quarterback, Danny Wimprine, the hometown ace out of John Curtis Christian School, a minor folk hero in a town with more of them than it can use; he gets $400 a game too.
But who among us isn't making a last stand? Who isn't doing more with less? Who didn't chase the dream, settle for the dream job and keep on humping when it hardly even qualified as a job anymore? Who isn't leaving the voice mails, demonstrating the functionality, leveraging the deliverables, flying back on the redeye, tweeting the tweets, taking out the trash and praying to God this is as bad as it gets?
"People come see me: 'Oh, hey, Danny, how's football?' That's how they relate to me," Wimprine says, pumping three-and-a-half-dollar unleaded into his white Nissan Titan, the one with the team logo window sticker, as he juggles sales calls for his father-in-law's sanitation business. "I'm not relying on that anymore."
The city was lost. By 2008 the population had stalled, according to the most optimistic count, at 70 percent of what it was before the storm. The murder rate led the country, unless the population figures were wrong. Vacant houses stood waiting for teardown; people were sleeping under the CCC Bridge. The Saints were done in for the year after finishing 7-9.
But the VooDoo were ascendant. No, better: Transcendent. They were the boys of football-country summer, offseason royalty in a place not unwilling to be charmed. Under the indulgent ownership of the Benson family, they lifted weights in an NFL gym, dined in an NFL cafeteria and mended their wounds in the care of NFL doctors. And, yes, they won football games. Lined them up and knocked them down. At home they dispatched the Orlando Predators, the Tampa Bay Storm, the Cleveland Gladiators, the San Jose Sabercats and the Utah Blaze all in a pretty little row. Friday nights at the New Orleans Arena, 16,000 customers would pay $8 apiece to watch them come crashing through their pyrotechnically armed inflatable mausoleum with their cheerleaders flinging beads at the slightest provocation and Rita Benson LeBlanc orchestrating the whole football-as-Mardi Gras spectacle from the skybox where her shrimp cocktail spread went untouched. Young Danny Wimprine would fire touchdown after gratifying touchdown and pose with the VooDoo Dolls and sign autographs for the kids and then go back to his bedroom at his parents' house and think not much at all about what could have happened if he'd grown a few inches taller or played at LSU.
So you could say they had their fun. Yes, the streak ended. Yes, Mr. Benson folded the team. Yes, the league ceased operations not long after. Danny Wimprine found a desk job at River Parish Disposal, married his high school sweetheart, took out a mortgage, moved on with his life.
And who needed them anyway? Diligent recitation of The Pledge of Allegiance to the Saints, posted above the bar at the Chart Room, soon paid out Super Bowl winnings. A new mayor took office. There were blighted neighborhoods to restore. There was an oil spill to survive. The city moved on.
The coach was lost. After quitting major league baseball, playing some arena ball and taking his best shot at the NFL, Derek Stingley had spent the better part of his 30s in the AFL's development league, which was ... the AFL's development league. At the end of the 2008 season, he was named defensive coordinator for the beloved but suddenly bewitched VooDoo of New Orleans. The gig promised a bigger market, a more serious athletic proposition and a much shorter commute to his wife and family in Baton Rouge. His father would have been proud. His father had been his most trusted coach, in life and football both. His father had patiently explained what he could never demonstrate: How to shadow a wide receiver. How to respond to a coach. How to know what's important. From his wheelchair, he'd advised Derek: "You don't have the technique, but you have the speed, so if you mess up you can catch up."
But the VooDoo folded before Derek could even report to work. He took a job at a gym. He was considering an offer from a refinery when the call came: The Bossier City/Shreveport Battle Wings, his most recent development league employer, would move up to New Orleans, acquiring the name, logo and "history" of the VooDoo out of bankruptcy. The old head coach, the one who'd recruited golden boy Danny Wimprine, was employed as a scout for the Saints. The job was his.
Derek brought along his boys, old arena ball hands from all over the country: receiver P.J. Berry; defensive backs Roland Cola and Alvin Jackson; linemen Moqut Ruffins and Tommy Taggart; fullbacks James Harris and Jason Schule; and a quarterback, D. Bryant, familiar from his South Georgia Wildcat days.
The quarterback is lost. Danny Wimprine has lined up behind seven centers in three months. He has been sacked more often that he cares to remember. He lost count after seven times in the first game alone. Has he been forced to scramble? At one point he trailed the team rushing leader by three yards. He has on occasion been benched in favor of D. Bryant and even Chris Wallace, who had been a standout at Toledo -- in 1997.
Now he parks his Titan under a familiar landmark -- "Our Business Stinks, but It's Picking Up," -- amended in LED to wish: "Good Luck #18 Danny Wimprine." He looks in on his pregnant wife, wrapped in her blue Snuggie because the office temperature never feels right. It's a boy. They aren't telling names, except that he doesn't want a junior.
They've been together since age two or three. They both graduated Curtis High, where he won back-to-back state championships and nobody ever forgot. She drove up from Baton Rouge on weekends when he was playing for the other Tigers in Memphis. He never rhapsodized on delusions of NFL grandeur, though he told people he could scrap his way onto a practice squad and leg it out and make the third string and catch a break and be one of those guys who got a few seasons in.
You don't take five concussions for fun. But football did what football does. Football came and went and he counted himself lucky when it came back and went again in Arena form. After the excitement of the 2008 season faded, River Parish Disposal made him sales manager. On Jan. 9, 2010, he married the former Ashley Frommeyer in front of 520-some people at St. Louis Cathedral.
He'll be 30 in August. Renovations to the house have dragged along -- contractors, architects, a lawsuit, money -- but he's got a good tire swing branch picked out on the shady oak around back. When the newly reorganized VooDoo came calling, Ashley said go ahead. Her dad said sure, he could work around practice.
With a comfortable day job and a home of his own, Danny turned down designation as one of the team's three "marketing players," a distinction worth an extra 250 percent in salary ("I want three other studs coming in here to help us win a championship," he said). The sanitation company signed on as a principal sponsor. Four clients -- Phil's Grill, Koz's Po-Boys, Nacho Mama's and Jaeger's Seafood -- gave the team weekly meal vouchers. And the whole family started showing up at The Graveyard.
"You'd be better off standing on Airline Drive trying to dodge cars," said a salesman, Bill Lafitteau.
"The best thing that can happen to you is you'll break your leg so you won't get killed," said Danny's dad, Ronnie.
"We're not getting any younger," said his brother-in-law, Weldon Frommeyer (who has four sisters).
"It gets a little upsetting," said Ashley. "Everybody wants to see them win, but then you have some idiots in the stands who start cursing at the players when you've got your niece and nephew there."
Dressed in his VooDoo T-shirt, Wimprine settles into a doorless office with room enough for a desk, some pictures of his 160-pound Boerboel Mastiff and an inscription from Jeremiah 29:
It's a competitive business, hauling garbage in a city recovering from a big hurricane, but he has it down. He rattles off the environmental fees of competitors. He bangs on a calculator to humor a client on the speakerphone, though he already has the numbers figured in his head. He gives out his cell phone number, with the 504 area code, because it's different from calling some national rep in Nashville who doesn't know where Tchoupitoulas Street is and doesn't even know how to spell Tchoupitoulas. Look: The phone's ringing already.
"Hi, this is Danny, how can I help you? ... For this weekend? ... Where you gonna be located? ... Magazine and Napoleon, that's where that little nun's convent used to be ..." He chats for awhile, but the woman on the other end only wants to compare prices, so he rings off: "Just give me a call back. My name's Danny."
The season is not lost. Nothing is lost. Not the coach, not the quarterback, not the city or the country either. Yes, the Army Corps of Engineers missed the June 1 deadline for its hundred-year floodwall. Yes, the Census Bureau counted a long-term decline worse than places like Youngstown, Ohio, and Detroit, Mich. Yes, the National Football League remains locked down and out, just like everybody else.
But if you got into the car one morning last week, tuned into WWOZ while Laura Dedleaux was spinning the Onward Brass Band's rendition of "Just a Little While to Stay Here," drove out to the Alario Event Center in Westwego and made your way past a display case full of eight-year-old basketball memorabilia to a low-slung gym marked "Welcome to Hall B," where artificial turf still printed with the logo of a defunct development-league team had been rolled out in five-yard increments to provide a substitute practice space necessitated by the recent arrival of the Ringling Bros. -- this is what you would have seen: You would have seen Stingley's seasoned road warriors running drills with guys from Kentwood and Kenner, Carencro and Harvey, Lutcher, Garyville, Westwego, Metairie and New Orleans, Louisiana. You would have seen the VooDoo.
If you hung around long enough, you could have watched them all board a bus to someplace in Georgia to take another beating and come back home to New Orleans, where their giant inflatable mausoleum set has been retrieved from storage. Where two home games still remain. Where they are set to play the Spokane Shock, reigning champions of the Arena Football League, on Saturday night.
As the last practice of the week drew near an end, Coach Stingley gave his quarterback a free hand. Wimprine called an audible, barked a hut and started heaving up his dazzling arena best, the wing-and-a-prayer long bombs that lead to quick laterals that lead to a great downpour of Mardi Gras beads. Then he took a knee. The team gathered behind him, all for one and one for all, for another couple weeks at least. When Coach Stingley had said his piece, he asked whether anybody else wanted to talk. The new guy answered the call, Damon Mason, the 37-year-old defensive back out of LaPlace, La.
"My career's done," Mason said. "I'm just happy I have a chance to be here again in my hometown. But what you put into it is what you get out. Y'all is auditioning for a job." Nothing is guaranteed, he went on, using a curse word, "because there are a lot of hungry brothers out there. A lot of them. Don't take it for granted."
Then the $400 football players joined hands and bowed their heads and prayed to the Lord, all the way through the part that says "for thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, forever and ever, Amen."