It has been five months since the Super Bowl, and NFL training camps won't get into high gear for another three weeks. So where can a fellow go to get a football fix this time of year? Last week he could have gone to the Rosemont Horizon auditorium just outside Chicago to watch the Chicago Bruisers play the New England Steamrollers in an Arena Football game. The Arena Football league calls its show the War on the Floor, and, you know, it's not half bad. Except Eve got a better name—Six No-Trumps. The league has six teams, and not one of them is owned by Donald Trump. That's the first thing I like about Arenaball.
"Yeah, we've flushed out the big ego guys," says Arena commissioner Jim Foster. "We tell 'em, "Look, you don't own the team, you rent it.' That gets rid of the Donald Trumps right away."
The league is a modest outfit with modest aspirations, the most prominent of which is to entertain. It's a nice-guy league, and the commissioner's office controls everything, including the pay scale of the players and coaches. "Your teammates are good guys," says Jim Rafferty, a wide receiver and defensive back for New England. "You don't have people walking out of meetings. Somebody gets arrogant, you tell him, 'Look, we're not in the NFL. We're not even close.' That brings him down to earth. Plus, we're all getting paid the same, so no one's jealous."
The second thing I like about Arena-ball is that they usually don't play the national anthem before games. They like to play America the Beautiful, which is a much nicer song. "I just like it better," says Foster. "When I hear it I think of the Statue of Liberty and of my grandparents coming to Ellis Island and seeing it for the first time."
July 10, 1988
O.K., they did play The Star-Spangled Banner on Friday night before the undefeated Bruisers—they're 10-0 now—beat the Steamrollers 68-25. But they played America the Beautiful, too. And the P.A. announcer, Wayne Messmer, sang both of them. Then, during the game, he announced, "Ladies and gentlemen, as you know, smoking is not permitted in the arena." Pause. "And the wave is not permitted."
So everyone did the wave. Messmer was putting 'em on, see. That's the kind of night it was at the Horizon—loose, friendly, relaxed. Chicago quarterback Ben Bennett, who set four NCAA career records at Duke between 1980 and '83, signed autographs and chatted with fans during the game. So did Bruisers coach Perry Moss.
"So how do you like our little ol' game?" Moss asked me at one point. As we were talking, a wide receiver was tackled on the sideline and crashed into the padded board—kerwhump—three feet away from us. That's how close I was to the action, three feet. The only time I was ever closer to a game, I was in it.
I like it, coach, I like it. What's not to like? No one's faking it; everybody runs hard and hits hard. O.K., so it's not the NFL. Arenaball has different rules and differently shaped people playing different positions.
The field is only half the length and just over half the width of a standard football field, each team has only eight players on the field, and everyone but the quarterback, his replacement on defense, and the kicker plays both ways. The running game, 50-yard passes and chippie field goals are all but nonexistent. In their place are gimmicks: drop kicks, which are worth a point more on extra points and field goals than placements; boards along the sidelines ("No place to hide," says Los Angeles Cobra wideout and cornerback Cliff Branch, the former Raiders All-Pro receiver); and nets. That's the wildest gimmick of all. Kickoffs and missed field goals bounce off a pair of 30-foot-wide nets strung taut beside the goalposts, and the ball is live, which sets up all sorts of interesting plays.
Chicago's 5'4", 170-pound Reggie Smith, who was nicknamed Super Gnat in his Atlanta Falcon days, is a great net player. On Friday night he returned two kicks for TDs, after having caught the ball off the net. "It's like an outfielder learning how to play the wall," says Smith. "If the ball hits high on the net, it'll drop straight down. If it hits low, it'll come out farther, and if it hits the metal on the side, it could kick out 20 to 25 yards."
Smith plays wingback, kind of a slotted wide receiver, on offense. On defense he plays something called the J position, which is more or less a weakside line-backer. There's also the M, or Mike, linebacker, who blitzes. The J position is where you put 5'4" supergnats who have no pass-coverage skills. "I sort of stand around and watch out for guys sneaking through the line," says Smith. But I saw him step into the hole and bring down New England's 238-pound running back, Cletis Jones. "'Yeah, you can do it, if you put yourself in the right frame of mind," Smith says.
You see some strange things in Arenaball. The Steamrollers ended the game with Frank Bianchini playing the J linebacker. I was fascinated by Bianchini, who's listed at 5'8" (and 190 pounds) but looked about 5'6". His pads seemed too big, and so did his uniform. Standing on the sidelines I had trouble seeing him through the bodies. His bio says he played for the Brooklyn Mariners of the Mid-East Football Conference and the Parma Panthers of the Italian Football League, the good old IFL. He seemed to be enjoying himself immensely. I had the feeling that if I had stepped onto the field, held up a hand and said, "Hold it, I want to see Frank Bianchini blitz on this next series," the coaches would have said, "Yeah, O.K. Frank, you blitz from now on."
The one problem with Arenaball is that you have to be there. On TV it's a bore. "I watched it the other night," says Allie Sherman, the former coach of the New York Giants, "and after about five minutes I started losing interest." Me too. Arenaball on the tube can hold me for only five or 10 minutes. Then I get antsy and flip the dial to see what the Aussie footballers are up to.
"You see it on TV, it's like a fly on your shoulder that you brush away," says Bennett's father, Al. "But in person, it's a completely different feeling—once you get over the postage-stamp aspect. It's the intensity that gets you."
On television you don't hear the thump when a defensive back drives a receiver into the boards. And the gimmicks, the boards and the nets and what have you—which, like those steel cages in pro wrestling bouts, are designed to keep the action going—lose their impact on TV. "What really upsets me is when people write that it's a made-for-TV game," says Foster. "We need television for money, visibility and credibility, but anyone who's watched this game knows that it's much better in the flesh."
I can hear the purists: Enough about the ambience, tell us about the actual game. How good are the players? Some of them are pretty good. Bennett made the rounds of pro camps a few years ago and looks as if he could make it in the NFL. So does the Steamrollers' 6'4", 215-pound wideout, Jim Hockaday, a possession-type receiver with moves. Says New England coach Babe Parilli, who was a pro quarterback for 16 seasons, "I'd say each team has one or two players who could make an NFL roster."
Some of them already have. During last season's strike, NFL teams were loaded with Arenaball players, and some of them stuck with their clubs. The Dallas Cowboys had three former Arenaballers starting at the end of the season. "Sometimes NFL football makes you scratch your head," says Bennett. "You see guys who are deserving, and they're packing meat somewhere. And guys who should be driving a cab are starting at quarterback."
Arenaball games consist almost entirely of short passing. The patterns are timed off short drops—one, two, three steps and the ball is gone. Nothing much happens deep because the field is short, and if a defensive back gets beaten, he simply grabs his guy. The penalty for pass interference is only eight yards. The receivers are two wideouts and a slotback, who's often in motion. Sometimes all three line up on one side, and picks and crossing patterns form a big part of the offense. Receivers work against defensive backs who are generally wide receivers by trade and who, according to the rules, must play man-to-man.
"Let's face it, if the quarterback gets protection, I'm going to get beat," says Branch. "I can backpedal O.K. for the first three or four steps, then I'm running flat-footed."
The narrow field makes the running game all but useless, although Chicago has had some success with draws. Running the ball can be effective in short yardage and goal-line situations, because the three defensive linemen are basically pass rushers, who aren't used to stopping the run. If you like the nuances of offensive and defensive line play, Arenaball is not for you. It's a pass-block, pass-rush game.
That's right, it's not good old football as we know it, but it's still a kick to watch. With eight men per side and the two-way rule, you see a lot of nifty run backs, not to mention runbackers like Smith. "I was made for this game," he says.
In Arenaball a carefully crafted offense doesn't always win. The Steamrollers were moving the ball smartly against the Bruisers en route to building a 19-7 lead. Then all of a sudden, in the second quarter, Chicago erupted. Boink! Ball off the net, and Smith returns to set up a touchdown. Then a fumble return for a score. Then another Smith return to set up another TD. Then, in the third quarter, a kickoff return and a missed-field goal run back for a pair of TDs. The Bruisers scored four times in the third quarter without running an offensive play. The scoreboard was going like a pinball machine, and before you could catch your breath, the game was over. In Arenaball everything is fast-paced. The clock doesn't stop, except during the last minute of the half and the final minute of the game. A non-TV game lasts a little more than two hours.
"When the game gets into one of those frenzy situations, we win," says Chicago running back Osia Lewis. "We've done that three times this year."
To its credit, Arenaball has no wish to compete with the NFL. It will keep its game indoors and during the spring and summer, and Foster says if a team draws 9,000 fans per game it will make money. The league average is 8,245. Base salaries are $1,000 a game, plus $150 for winning. A panel of league officials watches films of each game and awards bonus money for noteworthy individual performances.
The players do all they can to help promote the game. They mingle with the fans and sign autographs. Players and coaches from both teams, as well as the commissioner, were in a hall across the street from the arena after the Chicago-New England game. All fans were invited to attend—for free. Have a beer with your favorite Bruiser or Steamroller. Talk football.
Al Bennett got to watch films with the Bruisers at their first practice after the game. The quarterback's father in the film room—what would Vince Lombardi have said? "I've never seen anything so loose," Al says. "I laughed till the tears rolled down my face."
So how can you knock it? The players have a good time, both the young ones, who are showcasing themselves for a shot at the NFL, and the old ones like Smith, who says, "I have no more NFL aspirations. None." Fans who go to the games and postgame parties certainly have a good time. I had a good time at both. Arenaball isn't big-time football, but it's something that's perhaps a bit more important. It's fun.