You've got to hand it to the Chicago Bruisers. Even though this is only the Bruisers' second season in the Arena Indoor Football League, they've already acquired the kind of fans it took the Bears, Cubs, and White Sox decades to produce.
"Go get a real job, asshole!" screamed one of four very loud and very drunk men who turned out to be sitting--no, make that standing and leaning unsteadily--near us, as my friend and I made our way to end-zone seats at the Rosemont Horizon a couple Fridays ago. This was the Bruisers' home opener against the Los Angeles Cobras, and our neighbors were giving the Cobras a warm, old-fashioned Chicago welcome. "Ya missed it!" one man hollered as a Cobra dropped a pass during the pregame warm-ups. Then, directed against the whole yellow-helmeted Cobra squad: "Yer helmets look like someone pissed on 'em!"
Well, to be fair, maybe those guys weren't typical of the 8,132 Bruisers fans who didn't quite fill the Horizon that night. Typical of our section, maybe, but not of the whole crowd. Depending on where you were sitting, the spectators could have been taken from a high school basketball game or a tractor pull. They were overwhelmingly males in the 16-25 age group, probably attracted by the novelty of indoor miniature football. Besides, where else could you get decent tickets the day of the game for not much more than the cost of a movie and popcorn.
What we got was actually entertaining in its own way, although arena football (or Arenaball, as its sponsors prefer to call it) poses no threat to the NFL. Not that you'd expect it to, considering that the league was founded by Jim Foster, a former executive of the ill-fated Chicago Blitz of the even more illfated USFL. In the official Arenaball program Foster writes: "Arena Football does not proclaim to be the next coming of the NFL or a potential rival. . . . It is offered during the summer months for the football fan to enjoy on its own merits." Foster is clearly a man who learns from his mistakes.
And what are Arenaball's merits, you may ask? Well, it's fast-paced, the rules are deliberately written to encourage high scoring, and the team names sound like street gangs or the titles of Charles Bronson movies. Who needs Rams or Dolphins when you can have Gladiators, Cobras, and Bruisers? (The Washington Commandos had the most macho name, but they went bust after last season.) Sure, you're likely to miss a touchdown or two if you leave to get a beer, but don't worry--there'll be another one soon. How can you not love a game in which a kicker can attempt a field goal from his own ten-yard line and almost make it?
Arenaball is played on an indoor field a quarter the size of a regulation football field. There are eight players on each side, and everyone except the kicker, the quarterbacks, and a "defensive specialist" plays both offense and defense. The sidelines are narrower than the aisles at a mom-and-pop grocery; padded barriers surround the field. Instead of goalposts, two large nets hang above each end zone; the nine-foot space between the nets serves as the goal. The whole setup is vaguely reminiscent of indoor soccer, or perhaps gym class at an affluent junior high. The rules are generally the same as pro football, except that zone defenses are verboten and a drop-kicked conversion scores two points and a drop-kicked field goal scores four.
The only familiar name among the Bruisers was Reggie "Super Gnat" Smith, a former kick return specialist for the Atlanta Falcons who set an Arenaball record last year by returning a kickoff 58 yards for a touchdown. "Super Gnat" got a warm reception from the Horizon crowd, and earned it on the first possession when he recovered a Los Angeles fumble.
Most of the other Bruisers are from such football powerhouses as Wheaton College, Samford University, and Adams State College. According to the program, at least half the Bruisers played on USFL teams or the so-called "replacement" teams during last year's NFL strike. A handful, including Smith, have actual NFL experience, but for most their closest brush with the big leagues is something like this notation under quarterback Ben Bennett's picture: "Former roommate of Buffalo Bills QB Jim Kelly at Houston."
I was still leafing through the program's "Meet the Bruisers" section when Chicago scored its first touchdown, barely three minutes after the opening kickoff. That's real time, because in Arenaball the clock doesn't stop except for timeouts or on-field brain hemorrhages. I put down my program and tried to follow the ball as it flew across the field, but it was hard. LA scored two touchdowns before the end of the quarter; one of the drunken guys bellowed out "Ya fuckin' suck yer mama's titties!" Fortunately, he and his friends were removed by Horizon security not long afterward.
Both teams really got going in the second quarter; together they scored a total of 40 points. The lead changed every couple of minutes, as it usually does in Arenaball, and after a while the touchdowns began to get a little monotonous. Then, after one LA touchdown, a man who had been sitting quietly next to us suddenly hurled his nachos, then the remnants of his beer, onto the field. He must have known that even at Arenaball this sort of thing was a no-no, because he sullenly got up and walked out of his own volition. Before leaving, though, he turned, gave the officials the finger, and yelled "Fuck you! Fuck you!"
That was one of the neat things about Arenaball. If something interesting was happening in the stands or you felt like getting up to stretch your legs, you could turn your attention away from the field without missing anything crucial. People were milling in and out of the arena, talking among themselves, and occasionally throwing popcorn at each other. The atmosphere was agreeably informal, like a high school game against an out-of-town team you'd never heard of. The occasional rhythmic clapping and chants of "Here we go Bruisers, here we go," as well as the pep band that was inaudible except for odd notes, added to that Saturday-afternoon feeling. Hey, anybody going to the dance after the game?
After chasing a couple of Cobras through the sideline barriers, the Bruisers went into their locker room with a 30-29 halftime lead. The Jesse White Tumblers came out and put on a halftime show that was far more engrossing than anything either team had managed so far.
The second half wasn't quite as exciting as the first, even though the Bruisers scored 16 points, and shut out the Cobras until the closing minutes of the game. (Watching them rack up points, a man sitting next to me commented, "The offensive and defensive lines have nothing to do with this game.") Maybe both sides were getting tired (except for the offensive and defensive specialists, only one substitution may be made at each position per quarter), maybe the Bruisers realized they had the upper hand, or maybe there just wasn't enough on-field mayhem ("Super Gnat" Smith had the wind knocked out of him and had to leave for a few minutes). Whatever the mason, the crowd noticeably thinned between the third and fourth quarters.
With about five minutes left to go in the game, there was a dandy fight in the two rows in front of us. I missed how it started, but apparently a teenager in one group had either spilled or thrown beer onto someone in another group, and within seconds a half-dozen guys were throwing punches at each other. A distraught woman standing in the middle of the fight kept shrieking "Stop it! Stop it! Stop it!" until a squadron of Rosemont police and Horizon security guards arrived and began hauling off the combatants. One guy wouldn't stop fighting and had to be carried out by three guards; another spat his beer into a cop's face. The cop started screaming at the hapless teenager and looked about ready to pound him until one of his colleagues restrained him. All told, about 20 people were kicked out or departed voluntarily.
The Bruisers won, 46-35, and those of us who were left cheered lustily as we gathered up our stuff. Outside, the bus driver who drove us to and from the River Road CTA station asked us what we thought. "Pretty good," I said. He rolled his eyes in resignation: another impressionable youth lost to the siren song of Arenaball. As we got off I wished him good-night. "See ya next time," he replied.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Brian Fritz.