ONE THING'S FOR SURE: This activity called Arenaball that went on in Denver's McNichols Arena on Saturday night and drove 12,634 fans borderline bonkers is not football. Oh, sure, it looked like football. It was played with a football; the players wore football uniforms and represented the proud football cities of Denver and Pittsburgh; and football terms like "first down" and "pass interference" were used. Afterward, one fan even asked his young son, "How did you like the football game?"
But if this was football, what were those big nets doing out there? And why were balls bouncing off the nets at unpredictable angles, creating chaos? And where were the rest of the players? What Arenaball really is, is football with a smirk. The officials wear short pants and knee socks. Cute.
Indeed, this Arenaball stuff is either an enormous put-on or a wacky, weird and wonderful idea that demonstrates how wrong the NFL plays the game and how terrific it could be with a little forward thinking. Says Chris Brewer, a running back and defensive back for the Denver Dynamite who played a year for the Broncos, "It's Reader's Digest football. Everything is condensed."
The field is 50 yards long instead of 100, which means a team is always in scoring position. The field is only 28.3 yards wide, slightly more than half the normal width, which makes running nearly impossible. The goalpost crossbar is 15 feet off the ground instead of 10, as it is in the NFL, and only 9 feet wide instead of 18½. If a field goal attempt caroms off the nets on either side of the goalposts, the ball can be recovered by the kicking team for a touchdown or run back by the defense. O.K., laugh, you cynics, but then consider how boring a missed field goal is in the NFL, unless you have bet on the game.
There are other differences between Arenaball and Rozelleball. Each side has only eight men: The offense is missing the two tackles and a tight end, none of whom anybody ever watches anyway; eliminated from the defense are a couple of linebackers and a down lineman, which doesn't make any difference, either, except to their mothers. Only one player may blitz per play, and six of the eight players must play both ways. Everyone on offense is eligible to catch a pass except the center and one of the interior linemen. Punting is banned, as are zone defenses. These factors combine to produce amazing scores. A fortnight ago Denver edged Washington 73-57 in a game in which winning quarterback Whit Taylor threw 10 touchdown passes. Losing coach Bob Harrison groused, "When you score 57 points, you generally expect to win." Not in Arenaball. Nothing is expected in Arenaball, except the unexpected.
"It still is football," says the Arena Football League's executive director, Darrel (Mouse) Davis. "Guys get knocked on their butts and it looks like real football." So why have this knockoff product? "Because people laugh and scratch and scream and yell and have fun," says Davis.
Indeed, if you go to the game with the proper party attitude—i.e., if you leave your NFL seriousness at home—Arena-ball is exciting. It's a splendid summertime filler. In Denver the Pittsburgh Gladiators whipped the Dynamite 49-32, but even the losers had fun because it was fast-break football. It was, said Pittsburgh coach Joe Haering, "two and one-half hours of two-minute drill."
Arenaball is the brainchild of Jim Foster, 36, a former promotion manager with the NFL and executive with the Arizona Wranglers and Chicago Blitz of the USFL. What Foster has tried to do is eliminate the boring aspects of the sport and accentuate the positive ones. Hence, he has created a game that features throwing on almost every down (between them, Pittsburgh and Denver passed 73 times and ran nine times) and big wallops by defensive backs.
Somewhere George Halas is smiling just a little over Arenaball. Vince Lombardi isn't, but he has sent word that he likes the one-platoon, tough-guy nature of the game. According to Foster, the two-way provision guarantees that the league will attract "undersized, well-rounded overachievers who don't fit into the specialization of the NFL." In short, he says, Arenaball marks "the return of the iron man to pro football."
You have to hand it to the Arenaball folks for putting a new spin on an old idea rather than blindly pouring more money down the Rozelleball rat hole. Arenaball doesn't try to compete with the NFL. It is, as one writer put it, "flea market football with everything reduced." It also is, pure and simple, entertainment, a classic example of something to do when there's nothing to do and something for ESPN to put on the tube instead of another fishing show.
Arenaball is a grandly socialistic venture. Its four teams are league-operated. "We thought we should protect the sport from the damage a maverick owner can do," says Foster, recalling all the problems the NFL and USFL have had with independent-minded owners like Al Davis and Donald Trump. Foster runs the league like a corporation, with the teams functioning as separate divisions answerable to headquarters for major actions. Salary decisions, arena leases, TV contracts, sponsorship deals, etc., must be agreed upon by the league's board of directors. Starting players get $500 per game in the six-game season, reserves $350. The starters on the winning team get an additional $100, the substitutes another $75. Says Pittsburgh's Haering, "After sex and fear, money is the greatest motivator."
So, too, is the realization that if you weren't playing Arenaball, you would be playing noball. These players are no-no-no-no names, too small or too slow for the NFL. Nary a one has an ounce of marquee value. Says Brewer, "I love this game so much, I'd play for free, and I'm about doing that."
Consider that a week before being summoned by the Dynamite, Taylor, the 10-touchdown phenom, was selling lumber for a Nashville yard. A Vanderbilt grad who set 17 school records, Taylor, 27, balding and paunchy, languished in the USFL for three seasons and tried high school coaching for a year. He also flunked a workout with Winnipeg of the CFL. When Dynamite coach Tim Marcum phoned, Taylor was stunned. "Somebody had called and wanted me," he says. "It had been a long time."
Taylor threw another four TD passes on Saturday before a concussion sidelined him. "Really," he says, "this game almost gets down to backyard football." He's right, and its helter-skelter nature—Brewer calls it "electric football"—is its charm: Hey, just run down to the sign for Doug Moreland's Cherry Creek Dodge, cut left, and I'll hit you.
If the league hopes to develop its own stars, it would do well to start with Pittsburgh wide receiver/defensive back Russell Hairston. Going into Saturday's game, he was the league's top scorer with 10 touchdowns in three games. He grabbed another six touchdown passes against Denver. Hairston also leads the league in receptions, with 46 for 842 yards, and in interceptions, with four.
Russell, a cousin of Cleveland Browns defensive end Carl Hairston, was an excellent defensive back at Kentucky and figured he would be picked no later than the seventh round in the 1986 draft and sign for around $80,000 a year. He was not, and he did not. After failing to impress the Giants, the Patriots or the Bengals in tryouts, Hairston took a job outside Washington, D.C., this spring with Stride Rite Bootery, a children's shoe store. What did he learn? "If you keep the kids occupied, you can get the shoes on 'em," he says. "But sometimes I would have liked to have broken their little feet."
When Hairston asked for a leave of absence to play Arenaball for two months, Stride Rite said no. So he told the shoes to take a walk. We're talking football. Serious football. Well, sort of serious football.
Asked to explain his six touchdown receptions against Denver, Hairston said he couldn't. A helpful listener said, "Blind, stupid luck might be it." Hairston laughed and accepted that theory. When you have been selling kids' shoes and promising them balloons for good foot behavior, you don't get uppity with reporters.
The Dynamite tried a variety of defenders, but couldn't contain Hairston, who was voted MVP for the third time this season. "They just kept stickin' fresh legs on me," he said.
The league still must work out several kinks. For example, penalties will have to be made more severe; eight yards, even on a 50-yard field, for a pass-interference infraction means nothing. And 2½ yards—remember, Reader's Digest football—for offsides is ludicrous. The league also has to consider how much scoring it wants. Already, it seems to be OD'ing on touchdowns. Are we talking offensive gluttony? We want action, but how much?
It's easy to ridicule Arenaball. But the game clearly has something going for it when 12,634 fans are willing to spend from $6 to $16 to pass a summer evening inside watching a sport that has rules they don't yet understand and players they have never heard of. Before the game, Brewer spoke of the differences between Arenaball and Rozelleball, but concluded, "It still hurts when you lose. I don't see any difference."
4-foot-high foam rubber barrier
Rebound nets hang from ceiling