There was a time in the not-so-distant past when you could walk to a high-quality football game, purchase a Miller Lite from the concession stand and hurl it at future Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner without seeming entirely out of place.
"Oh yeah," Warner told me this week. "We also sat in a little box on the sidelines [when the offense wasn't on the field] and sometimes fans would offer you stuff, like popcorn, and maybe sometimes I'd just reach out and grab it. Or people would throw beer at you."
Warner was speaking about the Arena Football League, a unique incarnation of professional football that received some potentially devastating news this week. After fielding eight teams a year ago, the AFL is down to just four: the Philadelphia Soul, Cleveland Gladiators, Tampa Bay Storm and the Washington Valor, an expansion team that has yet to play a down. Some clubs, like the L.A. KISS and Portland Steel, have terminated operations due to mounting financial concerns, and others -- the Jacksonville Sharks and Arizona Rattlers -- are joining another league altogether. The domino effect broadsided the league and left its future in immediate question, all in the matter of a few days.
While the world's third-oldest football league (behind the NFL and CFL) insists it can still thrive, some of its most prominent alumni in the NFL have voiced concerns about an important part of their past. Warner was arguably the most famous player in AFL history to make an NFL transition, though the league is dotted with vital power players across the country who once cut their teeth on 50-yard fields between padded walls.
At its core, the AFL was more than just neon jerseys, gaudy passing numbers and two-way players. It was a point of gratification for a group of football lifers who created stable jobs with good insurance and an on-field product worthy of a national television deal. The league even provided a window into their current jobs atop the football universe.
"I had offers to leave for the NFL as early as 1996 when my brother [Jon] was with the Philadelphia Eagles," Washington Redskins head coach Jay Gruden, a long-time AFL player and coach, told me Thursday. "But I thought the Arena League was going to take off. A lot of us felt that way, from coaches to players and all that stuff.
"We were very hopeful. But you also had to have that love of the game when you played Arena ball. You made some good money, but you weren't millionaires. But it was also fun. It was a way to play the game you loved and coach the game you loved."
Initially joining the AFL as a player in 1991, Gruden spent a total of 18 years in the league, splitting time on the field and on the sideline. (He did eventually join his brother in the NFL -- as an assistant for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 2002 through '08 -- but simultaneously worked in the Arena League during that time.) The bulk of Gruden's AFL tenure came with the Orlando Predators. In a statement earlier this week, the two-time AFL champions and nine-time division kings announced that they were suspending operations "due to the reduced number of teams remaining in the Arena Football League as well as pending disagreements with the league."
"It was a great experience for me all across the board," Gruden said of his AFL days. "I learned a lot of football and met a lot of great people."
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Will McClay could not get the 11-year-old standing behind him to quit.
This is back in 1995, when the future Cowboys assistant director of player personnel was working as a defensive coordinator for the Milwaukee Mustangs -- a team that was, at the moment, getting torn apart by Kurt Warner.
The fan experience was intimate -- perhaps too intimate, at times. But it's what led McClay to finally turn around after three quarters and get in the little heckler's face.
"So I said, 'WHERE ARE YOUR PARENTS?!' " McClay told me this week with a laugh, from his office in Dallas. "And he looks over -- he went silent -- and points to his dad who stands up and he's about 6-foot-8, 350 pounds. So I just went back to getting points scored on me. Being a defensive coordinator in the Arena Football League was really a thankless job."
He learned an important lesson that day.
The common thread unearthed when speaking to former Arena coaches and players this week, in the wake of recent developments, was pride. McClay, who now helps run one of the most successful personnel departments in football, felt personally gutted every time Warner came on the field and put up another 50 points -- passionate enough to stand up to even the smallest of detractors.
Gruden, who ran an entire Arena League operation, from the personnel department down to the travel arrangements, remembers spending long nights with his wife making travel arrangements for the Predators while keeping an eye on the NFL cut wire to scoop up his next star quarterback or receiver.
Those memories negated the more laughable side-show moments that gave the AFL a feel similar to that of the now-defunct XFL and the era of the "human coin toss."
Gruden was, on multiple occasions, pelted by any conceivable pocket-sized item fans could smuggle into the stadium. But he says he couldn't have learned the business of football in a better way.
McClay recalls his playing days for the Detroit Drive, when a win meant an additional $250 bonus. (The players made about $250 a game before the mid-to-late '90s surge that allowed some players to make upwards of $150,000 per year.) It was money he would do anything for. The AFL was also a place that forced him, when he transitioned to the sideline, to get in contact with many NFL personnel directors to hear about upcoming cuts, which helped him get the job he has today.
Warner remembered being so dominant -- he did not boast, but during his time in the league, he threw for 10,486 yards, 183 passing touchdowns and just 43 interceptions in three seasons with the Iowa Barnstormers -- that his big break with the St. Louis Rams came in 1998 in part because a connected AFL coach recommended him to the pros.
"He wanted to get rid of me [out of the league]," Warner said.
Added Gruden: "I can remember beer, batteries getting thrown at us when we were with the [Tampa Bay] Storm playing at Orlando. I remember one of my buddies, Pat Sperduto, who is now with the Chiefs as a scout, he went after a fan and tried to pull him over a railing and flip him. I remember Johnnie Harris (a long-time CFL, NFL and AFL defensive standout) going after a fan who tried to grab him. I mean, there's stuff that you probably wouldn't even believe ... but we thought the league was going to strike it big. We thought we were going to make it happen."
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On Wednesday, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell noted that the league was looking into a potential developmental football program -- something to better prepare the hundreds of players who cycle in and out of the league each year. (Multiple scouts and personnel executives say the Canadian Football League is the next-best stop to find players today.)
But back in 2006, when McClay was coaching the Dallas Desperados, he remembered blowing away some of the NFL's most entrenched gurus with the talent brewing under the dome.
"I had this player one time, Will Pettis, and I bet coach Bill Parcells a little bit of change that Pettis could run under a certain [40-yard dash] time. I had come back to the [Cowboys] office after the arena season ended singing his praises, and Parcells says 'Ah, it's the Arena League. He can't run faster than a 4.6.' "
In typical Parcells fashion, he staged the trial run at the team's facility outside in the middle of a downpour. But Mother Nature could not prevent McClay from winning a few bucks.
"It was a big thing," McClay said. "We had NFL-type owners in the AFL and we were able to bring in NFL-type players."
Now, McClay says, he still combs through Arena rosters, especially during the second week of training camp, when "everybody needs bodies." The Arena season is just ending, and players are coming to NFL camps already in football shape. Defensive linemen, many of whom have to play both ways, sometimes project into decent camp offensive linemen if they can get the technique down.
Receivers and cornerbacks, already used to the finer points of intense, every-down man coverage, can also be useful.
The problem is that the AFL cannot get back to the real halcyon days until the league manages to treat its players at a sustainable level. Warner said that he was making roughly $65,000 per year when he finished with the Barnstormers. An offseason job could bring his salary closer to $100,000 -- a more-than-comfortable salary for a growing family at the time.
After the AFL's initial suspension amid financial difficulties in 2009, the parameters changed, with few players making a sustainable wage. It left Gruden, a sort of unofficial AFL historian and champion, at a crossroads. The league always finds a way to survive, but is it worth just surviving anymore?
"I think our league folded a long time ago," Gruden said. "The product we had from 1991 to 2007 still hasn't been matched. We were getting guys right off the AFL waiver wire. Some of the talent was so doggone good.
"You just hope that, if they do it, they don't treat these players poorly and put a bad product on the field. We put a lot into that thing, man, and we were so proud of what we accomplished. Maybe it's time to take a year off and get it back to the way it should be. Put a quality product on the field."