Nineteen years after playing in the first ArenaBowl, Mike Hohensee finally wonone, as coach of the Chicago Rush
In the spring of1987, 26-year-old Mike Hohensee, a former USFL and CFL quarterback, was makinghis living delivering containers of Coca-Cola premix to bars, schools andcarnivals in the Washington, D.C., area. There's nothing wrong with this job,he told himself. It's a perfectly decent way to make a buck. But when he got acall from a former coach telling him that a new pro football league--this onewith the goofy idea of staging its games in hockey and basketball arenas--washolding tryouts at the Boys & Girls Club Sports Park in nearbyMitchellville, Md., "I couldn't get out there quick enough," Hohenseesays.
He impressed theleague's scouts, and within weeks he'd ditched his job and signed on to playfor the Pittsburgh Gladiators in the Arena Football League for $500 a game.Before the start of the AFL's inaugural season Jim Foster, the league'sfounder, addressed the players and told them they were pioneers. "We werekind of looking at each other like, Right ... just make sure we get ourpaychecks," Hohensee says.
Hohensee led theGladiators to that season's ArenaBowl, where they lost to Denver 45--16. Herecalls scrambling for 26 yards on one bootleg that day, the play coming to anend not with a tackle but with him tripping on the uneven turf at Pittsburgh'sCivic Arena.
Hohensee, who hasbeen in the league for all of its 20 seasons, finally made it back to theArenaBowl on Sunday--this time as coach of the Chicago Rush--and with a happierresult. Not only did the Rush defeat the Orlando Predators 69--61, but theturf, and just about everything else about the league, was of considerablyhigher quality.
Look at the AFLnow: Its games have been aired on NBC for the last four seasons, it has its owndevelopmental league (AF2) and an EA Sports video game, and it has grown fromfour teams to 19 (including New Orleans, which returns in 2007 after takingthis year off because of Hurricane Katrina). Five of the teams are backed byNFL owners. And in the week leading up to this year's ArenaBowl in Las Vegas,the league staged lavish parties and held an Oscar-like awards ceremony at theMandalay Bay Theatre--hoopla unimaginable 19 seasons ago.
Of course, no onewould mistake the AFL for the NFL. At the Super Bowl they don't have mascotsthrowing free T-shirts into the stands or swaths of unfilled seats. (The crowdat UNLV's Thomas & Mack Center appeared smaller than the announcedattendance, 13,476.)
The Rush, though,was glad to still be playing, and it made a fitting anniversary champion forthis league of castoffs, because it had been written off after starting theseason 4--8. Chicago then won three of its last four games and made thepostseason thanks to the AFL's generous playoff format, in which 12 teamsadvance. The Rush even came in with a little swagger, thanks to the late-seasonaddition of wide receiver Bobby Sippio, who joined Chicago in Week 12 afterbeing waived by the Tampa Bay Storm following a dispute with coach Tim Marcum.Sippio, a 6'3" playmaker, made an instant impact, catching 17 touchdowns infive regular-season games.
Chicago also gotkey contributions from one of Hohensee's favorite players, widereceiver--linebacker DeJuan Alfonzo, who was on the field for nearly everypossession as the Rush racked up three playoff road wins. "The kid neverhad respect from anyone," Hohensee says of Alfonzo, whom he picked up in2003 after Alfonzo had been cut by the Indiana Firebirds. "He wasn't thefastest or the strongest player, but he was smart, and a tough, tough kid."Alfonzo is also the rare AFL player who doesn't need the job; he makes moremoney from his off-season business--buying and rehabbing properties for sale inIndianapolis--than he does from football. "I would play for nothing,"Alfonzo says. "I love the competition, running around hitting people. I'mdoing something that hundreds of thousands of people would love to do, and I'mtaking full advantage of it."
Before Sunday'sgame, Hohensee huddled privately with Alfonzo, briefly tearing up as he askedhis team leader for one more tireless performance. "He knows a lot of guysrally around me," says Alfonzo. "He said, 'You pick them up, and we'llget the job done.'"
Chicago held asizable lead over Orlando through most of the second half, thanks to a strongperformance from quarterback Matt D'Orazio, who threw for six touchdowns andran for two more. But three times in the game's final four minutes thePredators closed to within eight points--a precarious lead in a league whosefield is only 50 yards long. After each late-game score Orlando went for anonside kick. The first time Chicago got the ball on a penalty, and the next twotimes Alfonzo made leaping grabs to help seal the victory. After one of hiscatches, Alonzo was plastered against the side boards by an Orlando player andlay on the field for a few seconds, looking dazed. "I wasn't hurt,"Alfonzo said later. "Just showboating a little." With 27 seconds left,Alfonzo broke open for a 15-yard touchdown reception, the last score Chicagowould need.
After the gameHohensee accepted the gleaming AFL championship trophy, which is named for JimFoster, the man who had praised his and his compatriots' pioneer spirit 19years ago. Then Hohensee made his way slowly across a field strewn with silverconfetti, stopping every two feet because everyone had a hug for the guy whohad waited so long to be a champion. At the press conference afterward hedeflected the praise toward his players, who, like him, hadn't belongedanywhere else. "How we got here is typical of Arena football," hedeclared. "You do it the hard way."
A New TV Deal
Whether the AFLcontinues to thrive for the next 20 years may well be determined by what itdoes in the next few weeks. The league's contract with NBC expired afterArenaBowl XX, as did deals with OLN and Fox Sports Net, which provided regionalcoverage.
Under the previousdeal the AFL and NBC split ad revenues 50-50 after production costs werecovered. In the next few weeks the AFL and NBC should decide if they'll carryon together or part ways. Commissioner David Baker says he is "veryoptimistic" the AFL will have a strong TV presence next year. "If itdoesn't happen [with NBC], I think we're well-positioned to work with someoneelse," he says.
> More fromBill Syken at SI.com/scorecard
AFL by theNumbers
Franchises: 19,with New Orleans scheduled to resume play in '07 (an expansion team planned foreither South Florida or Boston will likely make it 20 next season)
Average franchisevalue: $20 million
Salary cap: $1.83million per team
Average playersalary: $80,000
Averageregular-season network TV rating: 0.9
EA Sports AFLvideo game sales: 350,000