If the now-kaput XFL was football for mooks--a tawdry, sensationalistic, bastard son of the original sport that I called mookball--the Arena Football League is for people who simply can't get enough football. It's another bastard son, resembling basketball in its pacing and tempo, but it keeps the sideshow elements--the cheerleaders and fireworks--in their proper place. Played indoors on a 50-yard field that fits within an 85-foot-wide hockey rink, with eight-yard end zones and heavily padded boards, it favors quickness and agility over size and speed. It also asks for versatility--most players in the eight-man lineup stay on the field for both offense and defense. Yet their basic skills are football skills--they run and pass, block and tackle. Weird and misshapen as the game is, it's football.
Which creates a problem. Here I was last Saturday, stuck in traffic--postgame Cubs traffic, to make it worse--on a beautiful late-spring evening that I intended to spend at the Allstate Arena watching the Rush. Now that baseball weather had finally arrived, I was going indoors to watch football. "How stupid am I?" I kept asking myself, as I crawled west along Irving Park Road to the Kennedy Expressway, certain that the Cubs fans around me who'd spent the afternoon outdoors were heading home to their suburban barbecues. It was all I could do to keep from turning around and heading for the Fire soccer game at Soldier Field instead, and if not for the faint tinge of cold in the air as the sun went down, I might have.
I thought that at least some dedicated tailgating might be going on in the stadium parking lot. But no, there was merely an impromptu concert to occupy the early arriving fans, and a jolly-jumper-type inflatable playground for the kids. However, I spotted two guys tossing a football back and forth. Like I said, Arena Football is for the kind of people who feel comfortable tossing a football year-round.
But for all the bitterness I felt going in, once I sat down to study the sport it began to grow on me. For one thing, it has a pleasantly minor-league feel to it, which it doesn't try to camouflage behind the bluster and pyrotechnics of the XFL. Rather than exotic dancers, the cheerleaders were dressed like cheerleaders, more or less, in silver halter tops and miniskirts, and the pregame fireworks that went off indoors during the introductions had pop without being ostentatious. Everything was in proportion. There was also a family feel to the crowd of 6,924, which included more women than went to all the XFL Enforcers games combined. A few players made immediate impressions. Dameon Porter, wearing number one, emerged from the inflated Rush helmet at the clubhouse end of the field flashing the number one finger sign, then coyly encouraged the crowd to applaud by curling his fingers in. Defensive specialist Derek Stingley went through a routine as if he were posing for a Greek wine jug. He flexed, went down on one knee, brandished an imaginary shield, pulled back an imaginary bow, thrust one hand forward, then hopped across the artificial turf to his teammates as if his pants were on fire.
The opposing Grand Rapids Rampage entered with no such fanfare; they didn't need it. They were unbeaten at 4-0 to the Rush's 2-2, and they showed their quality at once, marching to two quick touchdowns. Arena football is a pass-oriented game, with three linemen, three receivers--one of whom is allowed to move forward toward the line of scrimmage at high speed as the ball is snapped--a quarterback, and a token running back. The game moves like an NBA fast break. Rampage quarterback Clint Dolezel, a tall, thin, five-year AFL veteran from East Texas State, threw for the first touchdown and allowed Marcellus Marstella to plow in from a yard out for the second. The Rush, meanwhile, had a touchdown called back when receiver Joe Douglass got caught setting a pick; they settled for a field goal and were down 14-3 early.
Like the NFL, the AFL plays four 15-minute quarters, but the clock doesn't stop for incomplete passes and going out of bounds (i.e., running into the boards). Yet the games seem no shorter than the NFL's because the clock does stop for penalties and scores. There were plenty of both in this contest. The expansion Rush had been struggling for respect in its first season, taking a step in the right direction the week before when former Purdue quarterback Billy Dicken became the starter. He'd led them to victory, and he played well against Grand Rapids. Porter and Douglass kept getting open, with Douglass usually in motion, and Dicken kept getting them the ball. After their slow start they kept pace with the Rampage, driving to a TD on an end around by Cornelius Bonner from the one-yard line (nothing simple) to make it 14-10. Grand Rapids scored on a bomb caught by Rod Blackshear over Bonner but missed the point-after kick, and Bonner atoned by catching a touchdown on a crossing pattern to cut the Rampage lead to 20-17. The Rush threatened to pin Grand Rapids in its end, and on fourth down and four at their own seven-yard line the Rampage decided to go for it. (Getting four yards in arena football is kind of like hitting a ground ball in baseball.) Dolezel dropped back, looked right, then tripped over his own feet looking left. But falling backward, his left hand already reaching out to try to cushion the fall, he flipped the ball with his right hand to an open receiver for the first down. Grand Rapids scored a few plays later to lead 26-17 at halftime. Such were the breaks.
The kickoffs were worth the price of admission. In arena football, at the back of each end zone are two giant screens separated by a loose net between them. Field goals have to be kicked into the net, which is about ten feet wide, but kickoffs typically carom off one of the screens, obliging the return man to scramble for the ball as it bounces around like spit on a griddle, then evade the oncoming defenders in order to get out of the end zone and up the field. What's more, the Rampage didn't kick off lined up in a row, like in the NFL, but bunched into a pack, as if they were the Jets or Sharks preparing for a rumble. Stingley, the team's defensive specialist (he's a hard-hitting free-ranging safety who doesn't play offense), doubled as the return man, and he was hard-pressed to avoid a safety on those kickoffs. Field goals could be kicked from anywhere, and were typically booted out of a team's own end zone on fourth down. If they fell short of the net or bounced off a screen, they could be returned. Stingley was kept busy.
The play was proficient and quite intricate at times. The man in motion turned out to be almost impossible to stop: Dolezel kept hitting Ricky Ross wide-open, and Dicken was doing the same with Douglass. Most AFL players are products of college programs, and though they're not as big or fast as their NFL counterparts, they are quick, and they know how to play the game from both sides of the ball. On top of their salaries, the Rush players receive room and board at a complex in Elk Grove Village; I don't know what they're paid, but it's enough to make them quit their day jobs for a few months. They clearly love football. The same could be said of the poor XFL saps sucked into the hype of that league, but it should be noted that no AFL players wear vanity-plate slogans like "He Hate Me" on their jerseys.
The Rush started slowly again in the second half, with lineman Tony Henderson killing one series all by himself. His man burned him for a sack on first down; then he flinched and was called for a false start--a five-yard penalty; and when Dicken hit Porter with a long bomb for an apparent touchdown, he was called for holding. The Rush tried a field goal out of their own zone, and when it fell short the Rampage ran the ball back to the Chicago 14 and quickly scored. At 33-17, the game seemed to belong to Grand Rapids.
But that's NFL thinking, which turned out to have nothing to do with the AFL. Dicken hit Douglass with a couple of quick passes, the second for a touchdown, and the score was 33-24 heading into the fourth quarter. The Chicago defense suddenly stiffened, Grand Rapids kicked from its end zone, and Douglass ran the ball back to midfield. Then he pulled off a play worthy of a highlight reel in any league. Given a running start, he beat his man off the line of scrimmage and raced for the end zone. Dicken overthrew him, but somehow Douglass caught up with the ball, going up and hooking it one-handed, as if he were playing with a jai alai basket. The Rush were only two points behind, "Y.M.C.A." was playing on the PA--there's no escaping the Village People at any sporting event--and things were just warming up.
Grand Rapids marched right back and scored on a two-yard dive by Chris Avery. The point after made it 40-31 with just under eight minutes to play. As Bonner went headfirst into the end zone boards he caught a 35-yard bomb from Dicken to bring the Rush back to 40-38. At that point the PA announcer ordered, "Let's hear it for the Rushdie!" Yet Dolezel executed a lovely drive with crisp, short passes, ending with a field goal to put Grand Rapids up 43-38 with under a minute to play.
But like a page torn from the NBA, that final minute took more than 15 minutes to play.
Grand Rapids, for some reason, tried an onside kick. Getting the ball back would have forced the Rush to use their timeouts. But Jamie McGourty fell on it at the Rampage 13 and on the next play Dicken hit Douglass in motion on a square-out to put the Rush up 44-43. The two-point conversion failed. Now there were 46 seconds on the clock. Dolezel hit a couple of short passes and Ross burned Chicago's Chris Lawson badly on a down-and-out pattern, Dolezel putting it right there for the touchdown. The Rampage went for two, and after a pass interference call against the Rush moved the ball to the one-and-a-half-yard line, Grand Rapids ran it in for a 51-44 lead with 30 seconds to play.
It wasn't over.
Stingley ran 20 yards right and 20 yards left in returning the kickoff to the Chicago 16. Dicken hit Douglass to move the ball into Grand Rapids territory, and then Douglass ran exactly the same pattern that Ross had--a down-and-out in motion--and Dicken hit him for a touchdown. The Rush kicked the point after for a 51-51 tie, but a Rampage penalty gave Chicago the choice of moving the ball half the distance to the goal--to the one-and-a-half-yard line. Rush coach Mike Hohensee took points off the board--an NFL taboo--to go for two and the win. Chicago's Anthony Hutch jumped offside, moving the ball back to the six, but the Rush went for two anyway, and converted on a pass from Dicken to Douglass on a crossing pattern to put the Rush up 52-51 with ten seconds to play. The way Douglass went up for it and caught it aroused memories of Joe Montana's famous pass to Dwight Clark.
And it still wasn't over.
Pete Elezovic, who had kicked flawlessly all night, booted the kickoff out of bounds, giving the Rampage the ball at their 20 and leaving all ten seconds still on the clock. Dolezel hit a quick pass and then Grand Rapids tried a field goal from its 19. Brian Gowins from Northwestern booted the ball 46 yards into the netting to make the score 54-52 Grand Rapids, which is where things ended after the Rush downed the kickoff and tried a field goal that was blocked.
It was football for people who can't stand missing football, but in the end it was more like an NBA contest from the late 70s--with lots of scoring, and more action in the final minute than during the entire game leading up to it. I drove home with the windows down thinking that I had not only seen enough football to hold me through the summer, I'd seen enough basketball to hold me until winter.