Arena Dreams: In Search of 26 Riders
Battered hands, bruised egos and final cuts: Surviving training camp with the LA KISS is a Darwinian exercise that doesn’t love you back
The MMQB correspondent Neal Bledsoe chronicles his quest to make it in the Arena Football League with the LA KISS...
March 21, 2016
Every morning began with a team meeting at 7:15. I arrived several minutes early, wanting to avoid my sins of unpunctuality. Everyone had their favorite seat, which they’d sit in every day, almost as if it had been assigned to them, like a locker. The “bigs” (linemen, fullbacks and linebackers) sat with the bigs and the “smalls” (receivers, defensive backs and quarterbacks) sat with the smalls. My first morning with the team, I found a seat by the smalls. I couldn’t believe my luck. It was in the back corner and the perfect vantage point to observe the room. I settled in, took out my notebook and soaked in the atmosphere. I was struck by how young all the players looked. There was some sleepy chatter between them, but mostly it was quiet, as if some hadn’t really woken up yet. Most looked as if they had just rolled out bed. They wore hoodies, track pants, flip-flops; everyone dressed like kids who’d woken up early to watch cartoons.
Just before the clock struck 7:15, Donovan Morgan, the team’s star, charged into the room and down the aisle to where I sat.
“C’mon, Neal,” he said, “can’t be in my seat your first day.”
No wonder that seat was empty.
“Sorry D-Mo,” I apologized, as if I’d broken a cardinal rule of football.
I got up, gathered my notebook and took the desk one row over. I made a quick sweep of the room to make sure I wasn’t taking someone else’s seat, and settled back in.
I eyed the clock: 7:15 exactly.
“Good morning,” Coach Omarr Smith said as he walked to the front of the room. “Breakfast… I was told that no one was showing up for breakfast at 6. I got them to do that special, but none of y’all are showing up, so breakfast will be at 6:30 from now on.”
A few groans rippled across the room. A lot of us had showed up to the buffet at 6:20 that morning unaware of the change, and we waited in the hotel lobby like Black Friday shoppers ready to storm a Wal-Mart. It was a little punitive on Red Lion’s part, I thought, but there was no going back. Vacationing families would now be marauded by large men dive-bombing catering trays for eggs and sausage in a breakfast scrum. Coach O moved on to the more pressing business of special teams before releasing us to our position meetings. The smalls left the bigs behind. The defensive backs shuttled into the coach’s office, while I followed the quarterbacks and receivers into the conference room by the pool.
As we sat down, Brandon Collins was in the middle of a technical conversation about FIFA, the soccer video game. BC, as everyone called him, was a gecko-handed receiver in his second year; he’d also been with Coach O in San Jose the year before. A Houston boy with an easy charm, he was easily Coach O’s most exasperating player. He had all the talent in the world, but a knack for getting in his own way. Despite it all, it was impossible not to like him.
“I only use PSG or Bayern-Munich,” he asserted.
One of the receivers accused him of only playing on the “easy” setting.
“We can go tonight,” he challenged his accuser. “You can be France and I’ll be Ivory Coast.”
Coach Omarr walked in and we turned our attention to the front of the room.
“All right guys, test time,” he said.
He held up a dry erase pen.
“D-Mo, you’re up.”
D-Mo moved to the whiteboard, took the pen and looked back to him for instruction. Coach O scratched his head, thinking of a play that could stump him. He spat out what sounded like a nuclear launch code. D-Mo turned to the board and drew it up. Then another. And then another.
BC was next, and Coach O’s first code stumped him. BC stood before the whiteboard with the pen in his hand, and a blank look on his face. Coach O slowly walked him through the progression of the play. BC drew it up.
“The plays don’t seem right,” he said, clicking his tongue.
“What do you mean?” asked Omarr.
“It just don’t seem right, is all.”
From the back of the class D-Mo burst into laughter. BC turned to look. His one-sided grin suggested that he wanted to be back there too, laughing, out from under the spotlight.
Omarr walked him through it again, even slower, almost begging BC to get it. Reluctantly, he nodded.
“Does that make sense?” Omarr asked.
“Yeah, it do,” BC said, clearly thinking it didn’t.
Justin Wilson, or J-Wil, was next. He was another small, quick wideout with a quiet, almost shy nature who’d spent time on Green Bay’s practice squad. He drew up the plays almost as quickly as Coach O said them. Eventually everyone was called. Tyrone Goard, a tall, sure-handed vet with a bad knee; Andre Lewis, a rookie out of Utah, known as Jerry Lewis, because of the thick Jerry Lewis telethon-style glasses he wore; DJ Stephens, a smart receiver with Hollywood looks, who ran the sharpest routes of anybody in camp; Cordell Roberson, a big-bodied receiver who’d been with the Bills; and Mike Willie, a local boy from Compton who’d caught on briefly with the Chargers and was easily the most charming and confident person I’d ever met.
After the wideouts, the QBs were quizzed. Joe Clancy, a smaller quarterback who had ended last season as the starter, went first. Then Pete Thomas, a giant rookie from NC State who looked as if he’d been assembled at a quarterback factory. Last was Nate Stanley, the presumptive starter.
“OK, Neal, you’re up next,” Omarr said.
I found myself in a classic bad dream, forced to take a test that I didn’t study for. I had not been given a chance to prepare, had not had even one second to glance at a playbook. I grasped the pen as if I’d never held one before.
Coach Omarr rattled off one of those codes. I looked back to the whiteboard. In front of me I could just make out the faint lines of plays drawn and erased over by the other players and I tried to decipher clues from them. Despite BC’s protests, there was a certain logic behind these plays, and one could figure it out with even a basic understanding of football jargon. I nearly got it, but I failed to draw the x, y and z positions in the right spots. Omarr walked me through it. It was essentially a “go” route, meaning everyone takes off like a rocket for the end zone. It was the start to my education.
That afternoon I was back at my part-time job. I drove to L.A. for my audition, where I pretended to be a doctor fighting the AIDS epidemic, and then I flew back to New Mexico for another day of shooting on my pilot. Twenty-four hours after that, I was back in camp with the KISS.
* * *
March 23, 2016
After my morning flight from Albuquerque, I arrived back in Santa Ana just before the team broke practice for their afternoon lift in the weight room. Practice ended with a few words from Coach O and, as always, the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father, Who Art in Heaven…”
After practice, the Protestant work ethic was on full display. Players who weren’t getting the reps they needed on the field could get better or at least show how hard they were working. Backup QB’s Pete Thomas and Joe Clancy stuck around with the two kickers to work on holding field goals and extra points. Younger guys hungry to make their mark, such as Winston Wright, a rookie defensive back who was built like a bulldog, stuck around to drill his hand and footwork. Wideout Andre Lewis and Mike Willie went to work on the JUGS machine, an automated pitching contraption that spiraled footballs out at up to 75 mph. They stood 20 yards back, their arms moving as if they were running, then the ball would zip out and they’d catch it in their gloved hands with a hard whap.
I trotted over and stood in line behind Mike and Andre. They worked their right and left sides as if doing a diagnostic test. The ball would zip out, and they’d follow it with their eyes into their hands and cradle it. Finally, it was my turn.
“You should slow it down a little,” said Andre, trying to be helpful.
“What do you go at?” I asked.
“I have it at 6, which is 60 miles an hour.”
“OK, I’ll do that,” I said eagerly.
He seemed to think it was a bad idea. Despite his fear for me, he placed me in front of the JUGS machine, its wheel spinning ominously, while two assistants stood at the ready to feed it footballs.
“Move your arms,” said Andre.
I did, shuffling them like a mime on a walk. The ball zipped out before I was ready. My hands jerked up defensively. I felt the ball hit the tack of my gloves, my fingers squeezed down and a fresh sting rose on my palms that stayed there like a burn.
“Let’s do that again,” I said.
I caught passes with Andre for another 20 minutes while the other players on the field had all gone to change for the afternoon lift. As the bigs filed into the weight room, I heard one of the linemen call out from behind the chain-link fence.
“I see you, Neal!” he hollered.
“Let’s do a few more,” I said, feeling like there was nowhere else on earth I’d rather be.
* * *
Wednesday was a lift day and the loud blare of hip-hop could be heard everywhere. Young Thug, Lil Wayne, Big Sean, Kendrick Lamar, Drake, Future; it was a different kind of top 40 than they play at Equinox. Also, the music wasn’t just playing, it was pulsating, rattling every bone in my body. The bigs had come through the gym first and moved their iron. Now the weights belonged to the smalls.
Nick Donnelly, the strength coach, marched up and down the rigs and barked what could be called encouragement, his raspy voice rising above the din of clanking iron, bass and the auto-tuned crooning of Fetty Wap.
We squatted 135 as a warm up, then added two more plates to bring it up to 225.
“Damn,” said one of the defensive backs, seeing me take the bar on my shoulders. “You gonna lift with us?”
“Yeah, man,” I said. “I’m here for everything.”
After the squats we benched: 135, 185 and then 225.
I was proud to out-lift one of the defensive backs. I felt on some level that I was touching “it”—that I could hang after all. But Donnelly quickly brought me back down to earth.
“The thing you have to remember is, these guys have been practicing all day,” he said. “I’m trying to keep them fresh for camp, I don’t want to kill them. I don’t want to burn these guys out.”
Nick told me that he emphasizes the “Oregon” approach for the Arena League. There are two schools of thought when it comes to weight lifting: Oregon (speed) and Nebraska (power). Nebraska’s approach is to load weight as heavily as you can, emphasizing power and strength. Started in 1969, it was the first strength and conditioning program in college football. The Cornhuskers went from being a 6-4 team in ’68 to a 9-2 team in ’69. Then they won back-to-back national championships in ’70 and ’71. Their example was copied and very quickly those 300-pound tackles and guards at Nebraska became ubiquitous with football itself.
Then came a new revolution at Oregon. They started sending their athletes to speed school. They broke down the way players sprinted and redlined their endurance. In the weight room they measured velocity over mass. The idea was that if you could whip 135 pounds around for 50 reps, it was better than 500 for five. Armed with the best sports science that the deep pockets of Nike could provide, the Oregon Way became the way of the future.
The Arena is a speed game, so Coach Donnelly used the Oregon approach. But he had to do it with almost no budget at all. In fact, he wasn’t even being paid; this job was just a résumé builder. Even with coaching in the AFL there is a gap between what you want to do and what you can do.
* * *
That night I joined the wide receivers and quarterbacks for film review. These sessions were held at the Red Lion, downstairs in one of the corporate conference rooms near the lobby. Around 7 p.m. we lined up and had a quick team meeting with the entire team, covering what happened in practice, then we watched tape from that day. Nate Stanley thought it was to keep our minds focused on football. “They could put it earlier in the day,” he said, “but they just space it out like that to keep our mind on the game.”
After the other units were released to their individual meetings, the quarterbacks and wide receivers spread comfortably about the conference room. The wideouts sat in the back, while the quarterbacks sat up front like good students. The lights flicked off and the computer fired up. Nothing played. The lights came back on and Bobby Fullmore, the team’s head video guy, was called in to troubleshoot the matter.
There was nothing to do but wait. Joe and Pete flicked a paper football through finger uprights. Some of the wideouts scrolled through their phones. D-Mo, BC and Mike Willie watched clips on YouTube. They started to crack up in the corner.
“Neal,” called BC, “you like Bernie Mac?”
“Um, yeah,” I said, “he’s alright, I guess.”
“You ever seen Soul Men?”
“Soul Man?” I asked, confused, thinking he meant the infamous C. Thomas Howell film where a white guy gets an African-American scholarship by overdosing on “tanning pills.”
“Nah,” said BC, “Soul Men.”
I shook my head.
“You never seen Soul Men?” asked a surprised Omarr.
“Bernice Mac, Samuel L. Jackson…” probed Omarr.
I shook my head again.
I know many actors who refuse to watch their work. They feel that any amount of self-awareness will lead to paralysis—that they will become self-conscious and the spell of their own infallibility will be broken. Sitting in the dark I began to wonder what would happen if one of the wideouts insisted on the same practice. “That’s all right coach,” he’d say, “I don’t watch tape. It only puts me in my head.”
Perhaps even more than in the NFL, the Arena League thrives on tape. Not just for players and coaches to get better, but as calling cards. With so little TV coverage and exposure, these players collect game tape to send to scouts, or give to their agents to peddle to NFL or CFL teams to spark some interest and keep their dreams alive. It’s like actors making show reels, but no one here was getting the Hollywood treatment.
We watched Andre Lewis drop an easy pass. “If you got the best hands in the group,” said Omarr, “go up and make the catch.”
“Yes, sir,” Andre said quietly.
He turned to see BC on his phone.
“BC!” Omarr called to him, “are you on your phone?”
“Yeah,” said D-MO, calling him out, “he’s on Bumble.”
“Get off Bumble,” said Omarr
“I’m not on Bumble coach,” BC said, “I’m on Tinder.”
Omarr shook his head.
* * *
March 24, 2016
At the beginning of the morning meeting, Omarr entered the room and wrote three letters on the whiteboard: N, M and T. Then he capped his pen and turned to the team.
“Does anyone know what this means?” he asked.
D-Mo broke in immediately, trying to own his place as the veteran of the team.
“No more talkin’!” he told us.
Omarr calmly shook his head.
“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?” asked a sly BC.
There was a ripple of laughter across the room.
“No more tacklin’,” BC added, encouraged by his audience.
Omarr shook his head again.
The room settled. No one knew.
“No meeting Thursdays,” Omarr finally said.
Omarr took his pen and drew up a set of goals for each position group. No false starts and no sacks for the offensive line. Five QB hurries and no offside penalties for the defensive line. The defensive backs couldn’t blow a single coverage and had to limit the offense’s touchdowns to five. As he wrote, each group saw what it was tasked with for the day. Our group was last. Under the heading of “QB’s and WO’s”, Omarr wrote:
* No more than 5 drops
* No INTs
* No QB/C fumbles
* 5 TDs
* No mental busts
Josh Victorian, or Vic, immediately added his two cents.
“Yo, that includes this one!” he piped in dismissively, insisting that I be included.
Vic is a cocky, boisterous cornerback who spent time with the Ravens, Patriots, Saints, Steelers, Texans, Lions, and Giants. Like a lot of these guys, he’d bounced around his share of training camps, practice squads and special teams. In the fall of 2011, he was signed and released four times by the Patriots. And he was one of the lucky ones. Some guys had only been to one training camp before they were cut. Some guys never even got that far. I understand why he dismissed me so quickly. This was the life he was willing to sacrifice so much for, and now here I was, an undeserving interloper. Still, it catalyzed me. I had a responsibility now. I wouldn’t let them down.
BC leaned across the aisle with his phone.
“This is the girl from last night,” he said.
I looked at the screen. A plain looking Chinese girl posing in front of a mirror stared back at me, desperate to seem provocative in bad lighting.
“You … last night?” I asked.
He nodded, as if it were a matter of course. I looked again. I wondered how he managed to break the 11 o’clock curfew. But I assumed he might have insisted she come to the Red Lion instead.
“She’s cute,” I said. “She have any friends?”
Between the end of watching tape in our position meetings and the walk-through, we had about 20 minutes to personally prepare for the day. We changed into cleats and pads. The locker room briefly exploded with hip-hop and raucous cursing. In the trainer’s room the part-time staff dutifully taped our ankles, shoulders and knees. In a quiet darkened corner, players would tense into tight little balls in the ice baths. They shook ever so slightly, as if they were silent, masculine versions of Meryl Streep taking a Silkwood shower. Other players used heat pads. Tyrone Goard, who had been on the team the year before, had a knee problem that he thought needed surgery. Instead the trainer gave him a shot of cortisone and told him to tough it out. Ty felt that the team just didn’t want to make the investment in him.
Out on the field everything was peaceful. The morning was bright and quiet. The sun had burned off the marine haze and cast long shadows through the fence. Andre Lewis was out early. So was Mike Willie. Clevan Thomas and Winston Wright joined us shortly after. I stretched my body as I took them in. They focused on routines that had been forged over years of mornings like these and was now practiced like football tai chi. Far down the sideline, Andre kneeled on the turf, his head bowed solemnly, elbows resting on the aluminum bench, lost in prayer.
Joe and Nate made their way onto the field carrying a bag of footballs. Nate immediately started to deflate the balls to his liking. He’d squeeze a little air out and test the grip in his hands.
“Are you Tom Bradying those?” I asked.
“Oh, here we go,” he said with a chuckle.
The quarterbacks had their balls ready. We started to toss easy throws back and forth. I stood catching passes from Joe. Mike Willie paired up with Nate. Pete came out with Ty and J-Wil, and now the lines were zipping back and forth.
Pete had a steady girlfriend that Joe was trying to talk him out of. He was too young for such nonsense, or so thought Joe.
“See, look at Neal,” said Joe, throwing to me. “He’s an actor. He lives in Hollywood. He’s doing it right. He probably has a different girl every night of the week.”
Pete grinned, not having any of it.
“Neal,” said Joe. “You have a girlfriend?”
“No, man,” I said, indulging his fantasy, “I’m violently single.”
“See?” asked Joe, “that’s what keeps him looking so young. He’s in his mid-30’s and he looks younger than you. If you didn’t have a girlfriend you might not look so old.”
After everyone joined us on the field, I noticed there were a few new faces in the crowd today. New bodies were constantly being cycled in and out of camp on two-day waivers. A two-day man doesn’t get the luxury I had of introducing himself to the team; he just shows up, borrows a helmet and a set of pads, and tries to do what he can with whatever reps he can steal.
There was even a new receiver in our group. He had the wary eyes of a dog used to street fights. He quietly took everyone in and grabbed his reps as if he’d been there the whole time.
Russell Shaw, our position coach, walked us through ladder drills, maddening bits of quick-footed choreography, and softly tossed the ball to us after each one. One drill had us run in the shape of an “X” inside a box. The guys who had been there before could have run it with their eyes closed. The new guy was one of the last to go. He became confused on the direction he should run. Coach Shaw tried to help him, but he was still lost. Then everyone tried to guide him. Embarrassed, he finally got it. I was next, and I ran it through with ease. For a brief moment I felt I was better than he was, safer than at least one man in camp. It was a thought from the pettiest corner of my mind. But in this competitive season we were not teammates but rivals. I celebrated his mistake the same way I celebrated a dropped catch from any other member of the group, or the same way I privately relish seeing another actor fail. Coach Shaw then reversed the box. This time everyone got it, except for me. I became lost in the zigzag. Shaw looked at me incredulously. “Didn’t you just do this?” he seemed ask with a befuddled silence. My small-hearted cockiness was gone in an instant.
We lined up for our route-tree drills. I followed each wideout, trying to learn something from his technique. The sharp cuts on hitches, outs and crosses still gave me trouble. But as our routes grew longer I became more comfortable, feeling I could use my length to my advantage. My last pass was a post corner. I heard the hike, pumped my limbs into action and felt my cleats dig into the field turf. I looked over the shoulder to see the ball screaming toward me like a mortar. I stretched my hands out into a basket and made the catch. Sharing the field just a few yards away from us were the defensive backs. As I made the catch a roar of disbelief bellowed from the defensive backs.
“S---,” yelled Vic, “that’s the prettiest post corner all camp.”
I grinned. I was happy. I felt like I belonged.
* * *
Later that day I noticed an older man I’d never seen before watching practice. He was dressed like the sales manager of a car dealership, with pleated olive slacks pulled high above his belly and burgundy penny loafers. He watched the team with a hawkish interest. I saw Jesse, the head athletic trainer, talking with him. When I trotted over to grab some water, he said hello.
“How’s it going?” he asked.
“Tip-top,” I said.
“They giving you enough reps?” he asked.
I looked at him for a beat, not sure if he was kidding.
“Sure,” I said, “all the reps I need.”
“Well, be sure to take advantage of the time,” he said. “I’m with MLFB. You heard of us?”
I had. They were yet another new football league with the multimillion-dollar idea of filling the NFL offseason with football. The AFL had survived these challenges before. The United Football League, the World League of American Football, the XFL; all of them had come and gone. But while former NFL stars Herman Edwards and Marc Bulger added an air of respectability to the MLFB, the real threat here was its promise to pay every player $55,000—almost $40,000 more per season than the AFL. I once asked Joe Windham, the KISS CEO, about this other league and he laughed it off. “They only had a letter-of-intent from some shady Chinese investor and third-tier cities lined up,” he said. Yet, even he had to admit that when players saw that money staring back at them it was hard not to sign. If the league wasn’t real yet, that money made every AFL owner nervous. Kenny Spencer, the KISS’s former kicker had signed on. There was a fear that if this league ever got off the ground, it would drain the AFL of its talent in a heartbeat.
The stranger pulled a business card from his pocket and handed it to me. I had passed his eyeball test as a football player.
“Give me a call if things change,” he said.
I looked down at the business card in my hands. Richard Rubio, it read, Tribal Liaison. He worked for the District Attorney’s Office of Riverside. Even the headhunter had two jobs. Behind him was his Mini Cooper, tricked out with all the latest bells and whistles. It’s vanity plate read RRMINI2. In this world, everything came in twos.
“Nice car,” I said.
“Thanks, she’s got some real get up and go.”
“Kind of the opposite of me,” I said.
“Be sure to give me a call,” he said cheerfully.
I walked back to the field. Coach Hous stood with Daniel Frazer, the KISS’s general manager. Hous eyed the stranger with the hostility of a guard dog.
“Who’s that?” he asked.
“He’s Jesse’s boy,” Frazer said.
“Alright,” said Hous, uneasy, “I just want to make sure he’s not someone from Arizona watching us.”
* * *
There were more immediate problems than Arizona. First up was Jacksonville, and before that, final cuts had to be made in just three days. Before we could be a team, we had to see who would be on the team. Coach O called us into a huddle at the end of practice. He seemed pleased with every group. There would be no meetings this afternoon.
“We learned a lot today,” he said, scratching his cheek. “As a group we respond well to challenges.” He spoke of the task ahead and laid the challenge at our feet. Then his voice rose and grew with passion. “We can’t be afraid to be great! I need 26 for August 26th!” he yelled, psyching us up for the far-off Arena Bowl.
When he wrapped up, D-Mo sprang to his feet with something to say.
“I want to tell y’all something,” he began. “Despite all the things I’ve done in this league, he still gave me little things to work on. And part of me didn’t want to listen to him.”
He smiled, held his hand out to Omarr, almost apologizing.
“I’m gonna keep it one thousand. It’s hard for me to just give my respect to people. But Coach O, he’s putting his whole heart into this.”
He looked back at Omarr and put his hand on his own heart.
“And I’m gonna ride with you,” D-Mo swore.
He turned back to the team, still on their knees.
“I promise you, we put our hearts with him, he’s gonna lead us to that championship.”
With that we broke into the huddle, our arms leaning on each other again, and recited the Lord’s Prayer.
“Our Father, Who Art in Heaven, Hallowed be Thy Name...”
* * *
I joined Andre Lewis on the JUGS machine. We turned the machine up to 60 mph. Each pass stung my hands more than the last, but I kept at it, convinced I just had to endure the pain. After 30 minutes my hands were like ground hamburger and the balls began to carom uselessly off them. Andre could still make catch after catch, but I decided to call it a day.
Afterwards, he sat with me. Andre stands about 6’ 4” and he probably weighs more than 200 pounds, but his gentle nature made him seem smaller. I asked him how he ended up with the KISS.
He told me that even though he had a half-brother in the NFL, he himself came to football late. Despite that, he was a four-star recruit after two years; he had been the top JUCO receiver in California before signing on for two years at Utah. His senior year he wanted to surprise his mom on Mother’s Day. He drove all day and into the night from Salt Lake City to San Francisco to see her. She usually was in bed at that time, but she wanted to see her son, so she waited up for him. The next morning Andre woke up but she was still fast asleep. It was odd, he thought, she was usually up no later than 8 a.m. He reasoned she must have been tired, waiting up for him, so he let her sleep. A few hours later, sometime between 11 or 12, he thought he should finally wake her. He softly opened the door to her room. “All right Mama,” he said. “It’s time to get up. It’s time to get going.”
She didn’t move. He saw that she wasn’t breathing. She had passed away in her sleep.
Devastated and grieving, Andre decided to skip his pro day. Now, after not catching a pass in two years, here he was with the KISS. Coach O had found him at a regional tryout for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Andre didn’t make the CFL, but O invited him down to L.A. for a tryout. It was the same day I had had my tryout. He was the one who stayed behind for an extra look when everyone else had been given the “thank you very much.” Afterwards there was no call. Andre waited and waited and waited. By March 9, he had given up; camp would open the next day. Then, that evening, the phone rang and Omarr invited him. He had to be there the next day. He dropped everything and drove six hours down the coast. “This is my shot,” he said, “commuting last minute from San Francisco to Los Angeles was a small price to pay.”
Back at the Red Lion my hands were swollen beyond use. The trainer suggested 20-minute ice baths, alternating each hand to reduce the swelling. I needed to write that afternoon, but was forced to soak my hands in the ice water until dinner. It was an unforeseen hazard of this new career.
* * *
March 25, 2016
The next day my hands were still useless. The tendon on top of my left middle finger had been re-severed. The finger was so crooked and swollen it looked like a manatee. I put it in a cheap brace, an embarrassing piece of hardware, and went down to breakfast. It made me stick out for all the wrong reasons, like a teenager with headgear.
I was asked about it all day. At breakfast Tyrone Goard wanted to know what happened to my hands, and then he showed me his own gnarled fingers. They looked like some warped olive tree that had survived a thousand years. At the team meeting BC shared a knowing nod of pain before showing me his crooked fingers. Before we sat down for tape, D-Mo looked at my finger and just shook his head, suggesting that I was beyond all help.
I avoided playing catch with the QB’s during warm-ups. I thought I could save my hands that way, at least a little bit. Andre came up to me as I warmed up before practice, helmet in hand and his shoulders broad from the pads beneath his jersey.
“How are your hands?” he asked sweetly.
“Better,” I said, mostly lying.
“Just think: if you were in camp, you would have to play through that pain. You wouldn’t want guys taking your spot.”
“You was in house,” he said to one wideout. “You was in the field,” he said to another. “You was in the house, you was in the field, you was in the house.” He pointed to Andre, “You was on the porch.” Then he joined the back of the line. “You was in the bedroom,” he said to DJ, with a grin.
Everyone disagreed. Andre thought he belonged in the field. In fact, no one was OK with being in the house.
“I’m from D.R., I wasn’t with y’all,” said DJ.
Then D-Mo pointed to me.
“You was the master,” he said.
“Nah, man,” I said, awkwardly trying to laugh it off. “My family was from dumb English peasant stock. I’m sure they were still in Virginia somewhere trying to dig gold out of the beach.”
I was in a different world with different customs. And not just in football. As the only white receiver in the group, I was the minority. From my PC Seattle upbringing, with heavy doses of both white guilt and white privilege, I was taught that it wasn’t exactly polite to joke about slavery. Yet, D-MO and everyone else seemed entirely comfortable. What shocked me was how casual it was. Almost flippant. I think I might be the only person there that day who spent another moment thinking about it.
The whistle blew and we headed for Coach Donnelly’s warm-up. As I ran by, Coach Shaw asked me how old I was.
“Thirty-five tomorrow,” I said.
“Happy early birthday,” he said, turning to walk away.
“Why do you ask?”
“I thought you were older. I thought you were my age.”
“How old are you?”
“Forty,” he said.
He turned again and walked away.
“Is that because the way I look or the way I move?” I called out to him.
“The way you move,” he said, before turning again. “Mostly.”
* * *
Practice was infused with a ferocious energy. Everyone could feel the cuts coming and no one wanted it to be him. Even the usually reserved Andre was chippy, yelling at one of the defensive backs, “Don’t bring that weak a-- s--- in here!”
Coach O was delighted to see so much fight in his team. He followed players up and down the field, enthusiastically barking at them. During the final huddle he stood before us, proud.
“I come from a world where nothing’s given to you,” he said. “You gotta scratch and claw for everything you get. It’s gonna be a long, hard process. That man up there has a plan. There’s gonna be ups and downs, but he’s got a plan for this team. And eventually he will lead us to glory. I’m looking for 26 riders who are gonna buy in to what we doin’ here in L.A.”
We broke down into the Lord’s Prayer. “Our Father, Who Art in Heaven, Hallowed be Thy Name…”
Practice had been hard and everyone was spent. In the locker room, BC, Andre and Ty were preaching the virtues of getting pedicures. I was suspicious. I felt like they were making fun of me, or setting me up for a joke. I looked at them sideways.
“Your feet feel softer,” Ty said, trying to convince me.
“Really?” I asked.
“When you put on your cleats it feels like you’ve gone down a whole size,” said Andre.
“What about manicures?” I asked. “Don’t you want to take extra care of your hands?”
They shook their heads. That would be absurd. No one got manicures.
* * *
That night everyone was tense before the meetings. The final cuts would come in the morning. At this point most knew where they stood and who would have to be cut for them to stay. D-Mo was safe, as were the other established stars. Another person whose position was secure was the quarterback, Nate Stanley.
He’s an introverted kid who finds vocal leadership foreign to him. He’s fond of Copenhagen wintergreen chewing tobacco and Gatorade. He grew up a tiny town in the Ozark foothills called Tahlequah, Okla., the capital of the Cherokee Nation. His grandmother is full Cherokee. Between AFL seasons he sells industrial paint for the massive refineries of the oil industry back home, and he splits his time between there and California. He grew up a Broncos fan rooting for John Elway.
“Where I’m from everybody else is a Cowboys fan,” he said. “I guess I like to be different.”
He had a camp-look with the Ravens, made the practice squad and lived his dream for six months. But he became overwhelmed by the experience. “I started to doubt myself,” he said. “I was a small-town kid and then I was in the NFL. It was just too big for me.”
He made mistakes he knew he could fix, if only he had one more chance to make it back. He tried the CFL, but couldn’t stick. He thought about giving up the game. He had an offer from the AFL, but didn’t think much of it until his mom convinced him to take it. As he puts it, “They’re going to pay you to play football. You can always come home if you don’t like it.”
In 2015 he was the backup in San Jose, but filled in when the starter went down injured, throwing 20 touchdowns to zero interceptions and posting a QB rating of 126.04. He also won every game he started. This year, before camp opened, he wanted to get a jump on training. League rules prevented the team from officially helping. Instead they found perhaps the two biggest L.A. KISS fans in the world and asked them if Nate could move in with them while training with Coach Omarr in the offseason. Now, here he was, on the verge of having his own team.
The doors of the meeting room opened and Omarr told everyone to take their seats.
“Before we begin,” Coach O said, “everyone be sure to bring your parking passes and your playbooks tomorrow.”
Tape that night seemed different. It wasn’t so much a record of who did what and when, but forensic evidence of who would be gone the next day. It was easy to see who was getting fewer reps and who was getting more. Simply having an opportunity was a form of natural selection. Joe and Andre had all but disappeared. As he watched in the silent darkness, Coach O tapped out the theme to Super Mario Brothers with his pen to break the tension.
“Ooh, go back!” he said, watching Mike Willie on the tape. “Look at the way he’s looking at you.”
We all looked. A young defensive back was trying to show last-minute grit and stared daggers through Mike Willie after breaking up a pass.
“Nah, he was looking through me,” Mike said. “Somewhere else.”
The room erupted in laughter.
“On my mama!” protested Mike.
We laughed again, everyone grateful for the distraction.
* * *
March 26, 2016
It was my birthday. In some ways I felt very much 35. Especially in my body. In others, such as life direction, I did not. I felt just as confused and directionless as I had at 25. Maybe this is the way life will be forever, I thought.
But if I was tense from some early adult ennui, the team was tense because cuts would come right after the morning meeting. Everyone did their best to pretend to listen to the notes on special teams. Everyone dealt with the anxiety in their own way. Some ignored it; others stared straight ahead. Across the aisle next to me, D-Mo drank a large caramel Frappuccino, slurping loudly when he reached the bottom. One seat up from him, BC was bleary-eyed, as if he’d been out all night.
“Hey BC, what’d you do last night?” I asked.
“Man, I got f----- up,” he said.
“Hell yeah!” he exclaimed, “I might be cut today.”
“Where’d you go?”
“Downtown Fullerton. DTF.”
“How was that?” I asked, imagining a place worthy of such an acronym.
“You ever been to Texas?”
“Austin,” I said.
“Yeah, that’s where I went to school. It’s like that. You look like you would like Austin, Neal.”
The meeting broke and all the players were called to have their private meetings with the coaches.
Quarterbacks went first. Joe was first up in a nearby office. Not too long after it had begun, he stormed out and didn’t look anyone in the eye. After a few minutes he came back with a black trash bag full of his things.
“It was nice to meet you,” he said, hand outstretched.
“You too,” I said, shaking his hand.
He said his goodbyes and left. That meant Pete and Nate would stay.
Next up were the receivers. Andre went in first. Outside we all did our best to play general manager, guessing who would stay and who would go. It was all we could do. That and just wait outside the office to see who made it.
D-Mo seemed a little over it all. He looked at me, took a breath and pointed at me.
“You know you ain’t no athlete, right?” he began.
“I don’t think I like where this is going,” I said.
“Well, you know you ain’t no football player. You get these guys running these routes at the open tryout, running a sail route like Neal…”
He spun around, took a few baby steps to illustrate, then turned and looked around like a cornered mouse. His eyes were wide and confused, petrified with fear. I didn’t like this game of charades.
“That’s the problem with this league,” he continued. “You got these open tryouts, with guys like you. And guys stepping off the couch, they ain’t gonna compete with me!”
I was a little offended by his portrayal, but agreed with his larger point.
“You don’t think I feel the same way?” I asked. “I have a job that everyone thinks they can do. You don’t think that I have the same pride? That it doesn’t piss me off to see some Instagram model or flavor of the month take my job?”
He stopped and took that in.
“That’s why I’m here,” I continued. “I’m in better shape than 95% of the population, and if I come in here and show I’m that much below you … then I’m proving your point. Everyone thinks they can do your job. I’m here to show them that they can’t.”
He went uncharacteristically silent.
“The league’s gotta do a better job of selling the game,” I offered.
“Hell yeah!” he said, back on the same side now. “But they see those half-filled arenas on TV, and that kills us. We gotta be responsible for winning. For magic.”
Andre came out of his meeting, and from the look on his face, we could see that his magic had run out. He made sure to shake everyone’s hand.
“I’m just thankful for the opportunity and to meet you all,” he said. “I’ll be back. Now I’m gonna call my dad and tell him what happened.”
Cordell was cut and then so was Ty, who came out of the office and said his goodbyes.
“I’ll be back,” said Ty. “I’m a red-zone threat. People around this league know me.”
“What are you gonna do now?” I asked him.
“I’ll go back to the East Coast.”
“Are you flying home today?” I asked.
He shook his head.
“I don’t want to spend $500, I think I’ll go spend two weeks with my uncle in Temecula.”
“Thanks for teaching me,” I said as I shook his hand.
“No problem,” he said. “I knew these other guys wouldn’t take the time to do it.”
BC had a long meeting with the coaches, but came out afterwards and smiled. He was safe for now. So was DJ and J-Wil.
Next was Mike Willie. Coach O had ridden him hard all camp, so I was surprised to see him stay.
“Congrats, Mike,” I said.
He looked to the side, like it was nothing and clicked his tongue through his teeth.
“Just a steppingstone,” he said.
It was all just a steppingstone. The team was in place. Training camp was over. Now we had a game to prepare for. Jacksonville, last year’s runner-up, was one week away. And, soon enough, I would have some real action coming my way.
Part 1: A Man, the Arena, and His First KISS of Fate
Part 2: A Quixotic Bit of Foolery
Part 3: Judgment Play
Part 4: ‘A Very Attractive Man of Great Sexual Power’
Part 5: Arena Dreams—In Search of 26 Riders
NEXT FRIDAY: Neal sorts out how many AFL teams are left in the league, learns all about DTF, becomes “important” to Gene Simmons and has his dreams mocked by cruel a employee of Disneyland. All that and more in Part 6 of the Delicate Moron.
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