Search

Happy On The Inside Short on millionaires but long on thrills and spills, the expanding, in-your-face Arena Football League has found its niche

June 21, 1999
June 21, 1999

Table of Contents
June 21, 1999

Happy On The Inside Short on millionaires but long on thrills and spills, the expanding, in-your-face Arena Football League has found its niche

Your money is no good tonight, George LaFrance is told. Where
would you like to eat?

This is an article from the June 21, 1999 issue

Given carte blanche, the Jerry Rice of the Arena Football League
cocks an eyebrow and asks, "Are you sure?" Moments later he
steers his car into the parking lot of a Red Lobster.

There is much to love about the cramped, curious species of
football that LaFrance plays: cheap tickets; a Fans' Bill of
Rights; seats so close to the action you can hear the breath
whistling out of a player's lungs as he is mashed into the wall;
a Chewbacca-sized commissioner who hugs everyone, enjoys the
works of O. Henry and composes country-music lyrics.

But the best thing about this resilient, 13-year-old, 15-team
league is its labor pool. Four or five players per 24-man roster
make $50,000 to $60,000 for the five-month season. The rest earn
closer to 20 grand. No one is getting rich. No one has a
wardrobe consultant. Many hold down second jobs during the
season. A big night out is dinner at Red Lobster.

LaFrance is an offensive specialist for the Tampa Bay Storm,
meaning he's one of two players on offense (the other being the
quarterback) who don't play both ways. In the Arena off-season
he coaches high school football and counsels students on the
Navajo reservation in Chinle, Ariz. Tonight, he has 90 minutes
to eat and get back to his apartment in Tampa. At 10 o'clock his
wife, Darlene, is calling. On this night she is driving 30
minutes from the couple's work-in-progress dream house to use
the pay phone at a convenience store. "If I miss that call,"
says George, "I'm in trouble."

The AFL was in its second season in 1988 when LaFrance, not long
after playing at tiny Baker University in Baldwin City, Kans.,
signed on with the now extinct Detroit Drive. After helping the
Drive win ArenaBowl II, he reported in the summer of '88 to the
camp of the Green Bay Packers, who had signed him as a free
agent. Two weeks later he was cut.

"They kept a bunch of old vets and one rookie, Sterling Sharpe,"
says LaFrance. He sighs, exhaling a decade's worth of what-ifs.
"But that's history. I have no bitterness, no regrets." What he
does have are 10-plus seasons in the AFL, 16 career league
records, four ArenaBowl rings and a spot awaiting him in the
league's Hall of Fame, in Des Moines. "I feel like the most
fortunate person you've ever met," he says.

He is one of the toughest. At Chinle High, LaFrance not only
coaches football but also presides over the internal-suspension
room. That means the students with whom he spends much of his
day are doubly surly: They've been suspended, but their
transgressions have been deemed so severe that they don't get to
serve out their suspensions at home. "George is good with those
kids," says Darlene, who clerks for two judges at the tribal
court. "He can talk to them. If they're losing hope, he reminds
them how close they are to graduation. He shows them a little
light so they can go on." Not all of them see the light, she
admits. "Eventually, I see half those kids in my court."

She is a sharp-tongued, full-blooded Navajo who met her future
husband at Eastern Arizona College, a juco where he played
before transferring to Baker. They have two daughters: Ahsaki,
8, and Nizhoni, 6. While their dream house is being built in
Beshbetoh, about a 90-minute drive from Chinle, the LaFrances
live in an apartment in Chinle.

Unbidden, George has brought to dinner a photo album containing
pictures of the work in progress. The house should be finished
by next summer. This month the log siding goes up and the
electrical wiring goes in. Construction can't go any faster.
"We're paying as we go," he says. "When we're done, we'll have a
house! It'll have five bedrooms, three bathrooms, 4,700 square
feet. See, you don't have to be a millionaire to build a house
like this. It's not how much you make, it's what you spend it on."

All this talk of fiscal prudence, of paying as you go, would be
music to the ears of...

The Commish

No one makes frugality sound so sensible and appealing as David
Baker, the AFL's consensus-building, sun-eclipsing commissioner.
A power forward at UC Irvine from 1971 to '75, Baker stands 6'9"
and is, in his words, "a biscuit shy" of 400 pounds. "Remember
the Biblical admonition that the love of money is the root of
all evil?" he asks. "I think there's a lot of evidence in sports
today to support that. When you've got guys turning down $100
million contracts, there's a disconnect from reality."

Check out the commish, running a little smack! Now in his third
year, Baker has a spring in his stride. His league, once
synonymous with fly-by-night, has turned a corner. Potential
owners are lining up to pay the $7 million franchise fee, but
Baker isn't afraid to say no to ownership groups he believes are
not financially sound. The Los Angeles Avengers will begin play
in 2000, and over the next several months Baker is expected to
announce at least two more expansion teams. Long relegated to
stepchild status on ESPN's programming list, the AFL is being
wooed by other networks. In February the NFL purchased an option
to buy up to 49.9% of the league. While that would mean added
stability and credibility for the indoor game, it would also
mean that the days of bikini-clad beauties in hot tubs hard by
the end zone--a promotional staple at many Arena arenas--are
numbered.

What does the NFL see in this odd offshoot? Why not merely crush
or ignore it? "Our goal is to support football at all levels,"
says Paul Tagliabue, Baker's staid NFL counterpart. "This deal
helps us in the growth of the game, which has been an important
issue for this office," said Roger Goodell, the NFL's executive
vice president of league and football development, when the
partnership was announced.

Indeed, while high school football programs around the country
are going belly-up (SI, Nov. 16, 1998), the AFL is moving ahead
on plans to start arenafootball2, a regional minor league for
small to medium-sized markets. The 12-team league, scheduled to
launch next spring, is merely the beginning. "There are more
than 100 minor league hockey teams in the United States," says
the big-thinking Baker, whose ardent desire is to see "at least
that many" arenafootball2 teams within the next decade. All this
expansion begs the question: What do you call it when a minor
league spawns a minor league? "Please," says David Cooper, the
AFL's vice president of media services. "We prefer to be called
an emerging league."

The NFL sees a day when its emergent cousin will catch on in
Europe, where its outdoor game has received a mixed reception.
"Our vision," says Baker, "is to have fan-friendly, year-round,
worldwide football for a new generation."

He disgorges that mouthful while seated in the front row at the
Nashville Arena, awaiting kickoff of the Nashville Kats' game
against the Storm. On the field, 15 feet away, Baker sees Kats
wide receiver Cory Fleming and calls his name. Fleming, a former
Dallas Cowboys wideout who was suspended by the NFL in 1996
after a third positive drug test, has turned his life around in
the AFL. In addition to leading Nashville in receptions and
touchdowns, he talks to schoolchildren about the dangers of
drugs and alcohol. He spots Baker and walks over. The commish
throws an arm around Fleming and tells him what a great job he's
doing.

Before the night is over, Baker will greet most of the players
and coaches and a good number of the 12,080 fans in the
building. He is as smooth as a politician, so it's no surprise
to learn that he served four years as an Irvine city councilman.
In 1988 he ran for Congress, losing narrowly in the Republican
primary to Christopher Cox.

"Everything happens for a reason," says Baker. "If I were in the
House, I'd probably be spending all my time raising money. Now I
go to games for a living."

While his indoor warriors will never command seven-figure
salaries, Baker envisions a league in which all the players can
make at least $50,000 for five months' work and spend the rest
of the year in some other virtuous pursuit: in a mentoring
program or an internship, or working on a graduate degree. "I'm
big on personal growth," he says.

He is not big on hot tubs in his arenas. Moments before kickoff,
spotlights lock in on a trio of bathrobe-clad blondes descending
the steps to the hot tub. The commish looks pained as the women
prepare to unveil their bikinis. Such promos, he fears, do
nothing to boost the credibility of his league. A week earlier
he was watching the nationally televised game between these same
teams when an errant pass sailed into the hot tub in Tampa's Ice
Palace. The ball was fished out by a woman clad in a canary
yellow bikini, who, as the camera zoomed in, jumped ecstatically
up and down. Says Baker, "I remember thinking, Please, God, let
Tags be watching the hockey game."

The Coach

Somebody needs to be keeping a closer eye on the Kats-Storm
game, because a pair of intruders has come out of the stands and
is on the field as play begins. When a reporter attending his
first AFL game brings this security breach to Baker's attention,
the commissioner patiently explains that each team is allowed to
have one coach on the field during play. It's one of the things
about Arena ball--such as guys playing the ball off the netting
in the end zone, uprights that are nine feet apart (less than
half the width of the NFL's), no punts, no egos run amok--that
takes some getting used to.

With his sharp ensemble and carapace of heavily gelled hair,
Tampa Bay coach Tim Marcum looks not unlike the used-car
salesman he was in 1987, when Mouse Davis called and changed his
life. Marcum, a native of West Texas, had been defensive
coordinator for the USFL's San Antonio Gunslingers in 1985 when
that league took its last breath. Two years later he was selling
cars outside Phoenix.

Davis, a fellow USFL refugee and the inventor of the
run-and-shoot offense, had signed on as director of operations
for a football league that intended to play its games indoors,
eight guys to a side, on a field 50 yards long by 28.3 yards
wide. Did Marcum want to coach in it? Said Marcum to his old
friend, "Have you lost your mind?"

Arizona lost a salesman, as it turned out, while Arena football
gained the best coach in its brief history. Marcum coached the
first-ever ArenaBowl champions, the Denver Dynamite, in 1987,
and over a six-year period in the late '80s and early '90s he
took Detroit to five title games, winning three. After spending
the 1994 season as an assistant coach with the Atlanta Falcons,
Marcum took the Storm by storm, winning the championship in '95
and '96 and playing in the title game last year.

He knows the indoor game inside out. He knows how to find talent
and shares this secret: He doesn't bother calling guys who have
been out of the NFL for only one year. "Those guys all think
they're going back next week," he says. "I wait until they've
been out of the league two years."

Sometimes you have to gamble on a guy. Marcum knows that, too.
After going through two equipment managers in the first month of
the '98 season, he needed a third, fast. He got a call at home
from Dan Cleveland, a Storm season-ticket holder who spent his
nights as a security guard at the Ice Palace. Cleveland didn't
have any experience as an equipment manager, but a desperate
Marcum hired him anyway.

He ended up with a perfectly competent equipment manager who
doubles as an extra coach. This, anyway, is how Cleveland
perceives his role. When not attending to his duties on the
Tampa Bay bench, he is incessantly exhorting Storm players, at
least several of whom pay attention to him. To Robert (Pig)
Goff, a lineman and former New Orleans Saint, he repeatedly
hollers, at the top of his lungs, "Build a house, Pig!" So
enthusiastically was Cleveland shouting that phrase early in the
fourth quarter of the game against the Kats that his chewing gum
flew from his mouth, landing squarely in the middle of a
reporter's notebook.

It was only during the ensuing conversation that SI learned of
Cleveland's unlikely route to the AFL. "That's what's so great
about this league," he said. "One day you're a fan, the next day
you're an equipment manager."

The Fans

Here's something else great about this league: its Fans' Bill of
Rights, a list of 10 truths the league holds to be self-evident.
As the AFL sees it, fans are within their rights to expect,
among other things, a "wholesome environment" in which to take
in an affordable, "total entertainment experience"--which
apparently means that no stoppage of play, however brief, shall
be allowed to pass without the staging of some cacophonous
spectacle.

As long as we are celebrating Arena football fans, let's meet a
couple. Tampa Bay fans Charlie (the Sign Man) Simons and his
friend, Jim Tyson, have flown to Nashville for tonight's game.
They are wearing identical yellow-and-navy-blue shirts.
"Everything we wear is yellow and navy," says Simons. This
tradition began three years ago, when Simons showed up at
ArenaBowl X in Des Moines with signs disparaging the hometown
Barnstormers. "I was showered with beer," he says. Now, when he
ventures into a hostile arena, he wears a yellow hooded rain
slicker.

Why is he so drawn to Arena football? "Name a game more
exciting," Simons says. "I mean, you get up to go to the
bathroom and you've missed two touchdowns." He also appreciates
the AFL's policy of allowing fans who catch balls that go into
the crowd to keep them. "Last year I got six," he says.

You sense that he is leaving something out. Sure enough, when
the Storm is on the road, Marcum invites Simons to ride the team
bus. During walk-throughs, he shags balls off the net for kicker
Matt Huerkamp. Sometimes he stands on the bench, fetching water
and clean towels for the players.

Only in Arena ball.

"The players aren't the richest guys in town," says the Sign
Man, "but they sure are the nicest."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB ROSATO Wide open AFL teams, which play eight to a side, like to stretch the tight 50-yard field by going to the air.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB ROSATO Up close and personal Tampa Bay's Tommy Henry took a seat in the front row after absorbing a hit from Fleming (12).COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB ROSATO Sure hands LaFrance is the AFL's Jerry Rice and has the rings and records to prove it.

The Wall-to-Wall Brawl
A Primer

AFL founded: 1987, six years after Arena ball inventor James
Foster conceives the game while doodling on a manila envelope at
an indoor soccer game

Price of a charter franchise: $125,000

Price now: $7 million

Average ticket price: $12

Average attendance: 10,236

Average player salary: $22,000

Average head coach's salary: $50,000

Field: 50 yards long by 28.3 yards wide, surrounded by
four-foot-high walls covered with high-density foam rubber.
("First you get hit, then you hit the wall," says Nashville Kats
offensive specialist Tyronne Jones. "It's like adding insult to
injury.") The end zones are eight yards deep. Eight feet off the
ground in each end zone are two 32-foot-high rebound nets. When
a kickoff or a pass bounces off a net, it's a live ball.

Average total points per game: 95.9 ("Some NBA teams don't score
as many points in a game as an Arena team does," says AFL
commissioner David Baker.)

Rules: Of a team's eight players on the field, six must go both
ways. Quarters are 15 minutes. Time runs continuously, with a
24-second play clock; only in the final minute of each half does
the game clock stop for incomplete passes and out-of-bounds
plays. Three points for a field goal, four for a successful
dropkick. One receiver can go in forward motion--but not past
the line of scrimmage--before the snap. The offense has four
downs to gain 10 yards and a first down. No punting allowed.

Postgame: Players are obligated to hang out on the field for
half an hour, mingling with fans and signing autographs.

--A.M.

As the camera zoomed in on a bikini-clad hot-tubber, Baker said,
"Please, God, let Tags be watching the hockey game."