UpClose at the ArenaBowl

July 04, 2004

You are looking at a person splattered in beer, blood, spit,
sweat and champagne. I feel like Robert Blake's bathrobe.

That's because I spent the last five hours inside the San Jose
SaberCats, your ArenaBowl XVIII champions. We in the Arena
Football League are big on two words becoming OneWord.

Still, you've got to love a league in which the average salary is
$42,000, the players go home in crummier cars than the fans and a
desperate reporter's question--"Hey, would you be dumb enough to
let me go anywhere I want during the game?"--gets a resounding,
"Sure!"

12:45 p.m. MST--I've seen better Dumpsters than the locker room
the SaberCats have at America West Arena in Phoenix. Each player
gets a chair. That's it. All their crap is piled around the
chairs. Keyshawn Johnson would sue.

Yet to these guys, this game against the Arizona Rattlers might
as well be the Super Bowl. Veteran back Barry Wagner wants to win
so badly that he's pacing crazily in a circle, hugging himself as
though he were in a straitjacket and crying. "Don't nobody gonna
come take this from me!" he yelps, then collapses on his hands
and knees. Winning team's share: $0.

1:08--It's time to get ready for the kickoff on the SaberCats
bench, except there is no bench. The boundaries of the playing
field are the hockey boards, so the players usually sit behind
them on a hockey-style bench. Except San Jose doesn't even get a
hockey bench. Twenty-five huge men and one annoying sportswriter
will stand in an area about 3 feet by 30 feet. Has anyone seen a
deodorant vendor?

1:17--Because the fans are so close to the action, AFL personnel
are supposed to get fined a minimum of $500 every time they
swear. But I've already counted $146,000 worth of fines in the
first three minutes. And that's just the coaches.

1:39--It's still the first quarter and it's already 14-14.
Usually you have to go to a Ron Jeremy shoot to see scoring like
this. But it's so crowded in the holding pen that it becomes even
money whether the PAT unit will all be able to squirt out of the
little gate and get onto the field in time.

Watch it! Move! Lemme out!

At one point a lineman's chin strap snaps off while he's trying
to get by me. I notice it and heave it to him on the field, where
he buckles it on just seconds before the play starts. You think
they'll vote me a ring?

2:04--When exhausted players come off the field, they have
nowhere to sit and rest. Meanwhile, fans slouch happily in cushy
chairs two feet behind the players, eating nachos and guzzling
beer. When a woman gets up to leave, lineman Sam Hernandez
sideslips the railing and sits in her seat. He gets four minutes
there until she comes back. "Excuse me," she says, a little
annoyed. "Sorry," he offers and goes back to the cattle pen.
Can't you see Terrell Owens doing that?

2:20--The AFL has absolutely no clue how to be Gen-X hip. The
halftime show doesn't have a single grabbed crotch, flag-draped
rock star or exposed breast. In fact, there is no halftime show.
Sheer bliss.

2:41--There's so little room in the sideline cubicle that
335-pound San Jose lineman Devin Wyman has found a space-saving
idea. He has an Arizona fan hold his helmet. "If I were a real
fan," the guy admits, "I'd hide it."

3:05--Cushioned or not, those are still walls the players crash
into. SaberCats receiver James Hundon slams one so hard, he
breaks his nose. But soon after the team doctor resets it, Hundon
scores a 33-yard touchdown to give San Jose a 56-49 lead. "I got
a broken nose, and I'm still ballin'!" Hundon screams to nobody
on the nonbench. And I'm thinking, So what? If I had a broken
nose, I'd still be bawlin' too--three days later.

3:55--This is it. San Jose leads 63-62 with 31 seconds left.
Rattlers coach Danny White calls for an onside kick, but it hops
straight into the mitts of San Jose's Chuck Reed, who runs it
back for a touchdown. Oops. He was supposed to fall on it,
allowing San Jose to run out the clock. When San Jose misses the
PAT, Arizona, down 69-62, suddenly has one last chance to tie
or--gadzooks!--even win on a two-point conversion.

"You moron!" Arizona fans behind the San Jose bench are screaming
at Reed. "You idiot!" they say, slapping him mockingly on the
shoulder pads. Reed looks as if he'd very much like to enter the
witness protection program.

3:59--The Rattlers' last pass clunks to the ground. GameOver!
Suddenly, it's as though Meatloaf has just passed gas in a
crowded elevator. SaberCats are crawling madly over each other to
get out of the box and onto the field. Reed, off the goat hook,
leads the way.

4:22--In the tiny locker room the new AFL champs soak themselves
in cheap champagne, delivery pizza and unvarnished joy. As you
watch them crying and hugging--not one of them a dime or an
endorsement richer--it hits you: This sure as hell isn't the
Super Bowl.

Right now, it's better.

COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER

If you have a comment for Rick Reilly, send it to
reilly@siletters.com.

You've got to love a league in which the average salary is
$42,000 and the players go home in crummier cars than the fans.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)