As a Realist, You Should Know Anything Can Happen
The transition from training camp to the season for the LA KISS involved spy helicopters, VIP lines, traitors, birthday hangovers and a raucous celebration for the heroes of the Honda Center. If only Disney hadn’t crushed Neal’s dream...
After four months of training, Neal Bledsoe finally jumps into the fray in his quest to become a pro football player.
The MMQB correspondent Neal Bledsoe chronicles his quest to make it in the Arena Football League with the LA KISS...
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
March 26, 2016
Everyone’s head was on the chopping block this season. It was a natural move for a first-time head coach like Omarr Smith taking over a last-place team. The entire operation had to be rebuilt. The KISS were a team full of question marks and every position needed an answer. A culture had to be reimagined and enforced.
The KISS had two stars, receiver Donovan Morgan and defensive back Rayshaun Kizer. Hybrid receiver and defensive back Terrance Smith had been pried away from Jacksonville, but remained sidelined after surgery. Coach O had been an assistant in San Jose and was able to raid some promising young talent from his former team, which folded months after winning the Arena Bowl.
In the meeting that followed the final cuts, the remaining players looked exhausted from the grind of camp, but there was also a mild sense of relief that they at least had jobs. They sat quietly wearing warm-ups, sweatpants, T-shirts and flip-flops. Some slouched in their desks, others rested heavy chins on bruised hands. They were on the team. They could at least count on that.
“This person didn’t fully buy into what we’re doing here. Now he’s gone,” Coach O said.
We all looked around, unsettled, unnerved. Hadn’t we just had cuts? Did someone get super cut?
“That’s all I’m gonna say about that,” he said, quickly moving on to other business.
Officially, the KISS had been cut down to 27 players (not counting me). Unofficially, that number was higher. There were new players in camp. Amarri Jackson, a receiver who’d been bounced from the NFL and around the Arena League, was slotted in immediately as a starter. He was tall, lean and handsome. He always smiled, as if even the most menial tasks brought him great joy.
Another was Paul Crawford, a 6’ 8” rawboned power forward playing defensive end. I had seen him at my open tryout, as we were about to run the 40-yard dash. He announced to everyone that we had to run it, at the most, in 4.8 seconds. Afterwards, he menacingly turned to me and asked, “How fast you gonna run?” I tried my best Bill Murray and told him, “I’m gunning for a sub-4. I just hoped I’ve stretched out enough.” He didn’t find me amusing.
The new players signed their waivers, grabbed jerseys and helmets, and moved into lockers that had been someone else’s but an hour ago.
Out on the field, the team felt faster. They were like runners who had been training with weighted vests for months but now were unshackled and could run swift and free.
“Now, it’s about timing and speed,” said Donovan Morgan.
“Have you and Nate worked on timing?” I asked.
“Nah, it’ll be about him learning my game speed,” he said.
D-Mo squirted a jet of water into his mouth, yanked his helmet back over his head and trotted back in with the first team. His hands clenching slowly, he stood 10 yards back from scrimmage as the high-motion man.
“Go,” growled Nate.
D-Mo started his sprint toward the line. His arms swung like sledgehammers.
“Hike!” Nate yelled as D-Mo crashed across the line.
D-Mo froze the defensive back, who was hapless against the berserker assault. D-Mo easily gained a comfortable yard of space as he streaked into the end zone. Nate threw the ball high for him, and there it hung like an apple from a tree. D-Mo leapt and grabbed it, shouldered out the defensive back, and palmed the football for an easy score.
Brandon Collins was 10 yards up the field and watching the first team practice without him, a position group unto himself. He brooded on one knee, one hand clutching the face mask of his helmet in the dirt, the other serving as a chin rest. I assumed he was being punished or challenged, maybe a bit of both. Whatever the reason, he made everyone aware of how he felt about the demotion.
“Everything all right with you, BC?” Coach Russell Shaw asked at one point.
BC waived him off, shrugged slightly and kept his eyes on the field.
There was a helicopter in the sky. Everyone looked up, the chop of it blades and the whine of its engine impossible to ignore. It hovered about a hundred feet above the field. The KISS watched it for a moment and then tried to turn their focus back to practice. It circled slowly for 10 minutes and our interest evolved from curiosity to suspicion. Coach Hous balanced himself on his crooked knee and cocked his eyebrow skyward.
“Is that Jacksonville?” he bellowed. “I’ll f------ moon ’em.”
Hous focused back on the field. The helicopter made a few more lazy circles and chopped away over the horizon
I loved the idea of archrivals being so committed to the KISS’s downfall that they’d hire a helicopter to spy on practice. I knew Hous was kidding, but he always seemed a touch paranoid. Watching him featured on the reality show about the KISS, AMC’s 4th and Loud, he came across as a sensitive man who was fond of fishing and his life back in New Hampshire. He was regarded as one of the finest defensive coaches in the game, but I seemed to make him nervous. What few conversations I was able to have with him were fraught with fear and suspicion. Without fail he would slowly back away, treating me as if he’d lost good friends to a disease called “the media” and I was the fatal contagion.
Despite his paranoia, Hous was right on one account: the time for Jacksonville had come.
“Nobody expects us to beat Jacksonville,” D-Mo had told me that morning. “They went to the Arena Bowl last year and they returned their whole team, and even added a few guys. We beat them, people will take notice.”
The Jacksonville Sharks were a great team. At quarterback they featured one of the most accurate passers in the league, the 6’ 7” Tommy Grady, who, in 2012, shattered the AFL’s single-season record with 142 touchdowns and 5,870 passing yards. Grady threw to two All-Arena wideouts: Tiger Jones, who was the league’s best receiver last year (and top 10 all time in yards, receptions and touchdowns), and Joe Hills, a 6’ 4” 220-pound receiver in a superhero’s body. At fullback they had the gold-standard, Derrick Ross, who led the AFL in every meaningful rushing stat since he began playing and became the AFL’s all-time rushing leader after five seasons, racking up nearly twice as many yards and touchdowns as anyone else. The offense was like a video game squad assembled with a cheat code.
On the other side of the ball they were just as good. Joe Sykes had set an Arena record last year with 18.5 sacks and 10 forced fumbles. All-Arena linebacker Alvin Ray Jackson patrolled the middle of the field like a dorsal fin and had more takeaways than anyone else at his position. Lastly, they brought in last year’s “Al Lucas Courage Award” winner David Hyland for good measure (the trophy is given for charity work). They had strength and character. The only thing missing was dual-threat Terrance Smith, the KISS’ now, but still not 100%. Jacksonville was a juggernaut any way you sliced it. If the KISS were going to make anyone in L.A. notice them, they had to win by beating what was one of the AFL’s best.
Offense and defense are like two separate teams, and the position groups are like even smaller teams. Because receivers constantly battle the defensive backs, and because that’s where the ball always ends up, most of the yapping happens between these two groups. I almost never heard the defensive line speak. I was curious about them, so I drifted across the field to learn their customs. Almost as soon as I arrived, Logan Harrell approached me and began to tell his story.
Logan grew up 20 minutes away in Newport Beach. He had the sun-kissed appearance and laid-back manner of a California surfer, albeit a burly one. He had been a defensive tackle at Fresno State, where he was an all-conference player his last two years. The Chargers signed him, bulked him up, which he says wrecked his game, and cut him after two seasons. Then he was in the CFL for a season, with the Toronto Argonauts. Last year he found himself with the KISS. His plan was to slim back down, beyond where he’d been in college, and try to make it in the NFL as an edge-rushing linebacker. But before that could happen, there was a more pressing issue. He’d slipped a disc in his spine at the first conditioning test and said the KISS refused to get him a doctor until it was clear that he’d be part of their 2016 campaign. Two of the new players at practice played his position. The team was hedging its bets.
“Now it’s a waiting game,” Logan said as we watched practice together.
I couldn’t think of anything to say. If the team wasn’t willing to pay to make him better, then it confirmed how utterly replaceable they thought players were. To be fair, neither he nor the team was making a long-term investment in one another. He was using the team just as much as it was using him. So he waited in a pre-surgical limbo.
“Yo, bro you probably just pulled it,” said an eavesdropping Paul Crawford, the 6’ 8” man here on a two-day waiver. “It’s not a slipped disc.”
“Well, I’m trying to be a realist,” said Logan.
“Well, then as a realist, you should know anything can happen,” countered Paul.
I shot at look to Paul, astonished by his alternative facts.
“There are all kinds of slipped discs,” Logan explained patiently.
Paul stayed silent at that point, then he turned and stared at me.
“What position do you play?” he asked, giving me a once over.
“Writer,” I told him.
“Oh, you a funny man,” Paul said.
“No, seriously,” I said.
“What are you, a kicker?” he asked.
I turned to Logan.
“This guy doesn’t believe me.”
“Yeah, he’s a writer,” said Logan.
“What?” asked Paul, incredulous. “You was running the 40! I ain’t never seen no writer run no forty.”
“Yeah, you were saying that we had to run a 4.8.”
“Yeah, you right about that,” Paul said decisively.
“What did you run?” I asked.
“4.6,” he said, squinting into the distance.
Speed is a funny thing. It’s football’s most basic metric. Everyone wants more of it and everyone lies about it. The truth is, players talk about their 40-time the same way men talk about their penis size—everyone exaggerates, hoping it’ll impress the whole locker room. D-Mo told me more than once that he ran a 4.3. If that were true, that would put him in the top eight of the 2016 NFL combine. If that were true, with his size and hands, it’s difficult to explain why he wasn’t in the NFL. If Paul had really run a 4.6, that would have made him the second-fastest lineman at the 2016 combine. If that were true, it’s difficult to see why he would be in camp with the KISS on a two-day waiver, comparing 40 times with a man he thought was a kicker.
And speaking of kickers: As practice wrapped up for the day, I saw backup quarterback Pete Thomas holding footballs while the long snapper, Kody Afusia, attempted to boot them through the uprights. It suddenly dawned on me who Coach O had been talking about in the morning meeting. We were missing our kicker, Marco Capozolli, who was nowhere to be seen.
“Hey, where’s Cap?” I asked Pete.
“Don’t know,” he shrugged.
Suddenly, I realized whom the so-called traitor was, the man who refused to “fully buy” into the program. It had to be Cap. But what had he done to make Coach O so angry? And why? He’d been the only kicker left in camp. For the life of me I couldn’t figure out why he wouldn’t buy into a competition of one. Or why we’d be dumb enough to cut him.
* * *
It was my birthday and BC insisted that we go out. I was supposed to run the team’s mandatory fitness test the following morning: three 300-yard shuttles. It would be brutal even without a hangover, so getting drunk was a stupid idea. On the other hand, there were some famous precedents for playing under the influence of a hangover. Green Bay Packers wideout Max McGee went out drinking with flight attendants the night before Super Bowl 1 until 6:30 the following morning, didn’t sleep, and still caught seven passes for 138 yards and two touchdowns. I told myself it could be done, mostly because I’ve always been suspicious of those who aren’t willing to let themselves be drunk. If you’re not an alcoholic, it can be adventure in a bottle and a fine way to break the ice. So, running be damned, I considered it my duty to get drunk on my birthday.
I suggested Downtown Disney in an attempt to be in bed before 1 a.m., but BC had different ideas. He wanted to go back to DTF. It was, in his mind, the sole place in Orange County to scare up the kind of trouble we were looking for. We made a plan to meet in the lobby at 9:30. By 10:15 he hadn’t shown up and I was tired of waiting. I texted that I would meet him at a Mexican restaurant just down the street. I ate alone on my birthday and watched a re-run of Blue Bloods, my buddy Teddy helping Donnie Wahlberg solve some crime. Like the NFL, that whole world felt very far away. Finally, as I was almost done with my food and working my way to bottom of a second michelada, BC strolled in with Anthony Parker, who at 6’ 5” and 330 pounds had the ironic nickname “Shrimp.”
“Man, I’m f----- up,” said BC, dumping himself into the seat.
“They still serve food?” asked Shrimp.
I looked at the clock on the wall. It was nearly 11.
“For another minute or two, I think,” I said.
They had been at it since practice ended. Their eyes were bleary and bloodshot. They had trouble focusing on the menus and held them close to their faces, trying to focus. The waitress hurried us along. I looked across the table. Their noses were both still buried in their menus.
“Maybe, just give us another thirty seconds,” I said.
Shrimp decided on tacos while BC finally pulled the trigger on a heaping plate of nachos. The food came out quickly and they ate as I drank another beer. Shrimp had just been cut but said he still respected Coach O. I asked BC why he was pissed off at practice.
“Cuz, man, coach put me with the second team. He know I’m better than that.”
“Don’t you think he’s trying to challenge you?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said, evasively.
BC is one of the lucky ones who had spent time in the NFL. He caught on with the Giants and was put on their practice squad for a season. He impressed the coaches and they expected bigger things from him going forward. But then he failed a drug test, was suspended four games and cut.
“I did it to my own damn self,” he said. “I was caught smoking weed.”
“Isn’t that the same thing that got you booted from Texas?” I asked.
We finished dinner and piled into Shrimp’s black Camaro. It was packed full of suitcases and garbage bags for his journey home to Miami. I origamied myself into the back seat, and we rocketed down the freeway toward Fullerton. Shrimp was a whirlwind of activity in the driver’s seat, as he texted, mapped, shot night-vision videos of us and danced, while BC lip-synched along to Drake and Future thundering from the speakers.
No one talked.
We parked in a garage near the main group of bars in DTF. Kids in their early twenties streamed past us into the waiting night. Shrimp wanted to polish off a bottle of Hennessy, which we passed rapidly between us, finishing it in big gulps. BC lit a blunt as we walked out of the garage. Two girls, heading back to their cars, walked toward us.
“Where you been all my life?” asked BC, as they passed by, faintly grabbing at one of their wrists.
Shrimp and I looked at each other.
“It’s a fair question,” I said.
We found ourselves in the middle of what looked like a town square. In every direction, the streets were full of laughter and excitement. Every bar had a line out the door. We joined one line, which Shrimp and BC were convinced would be the best of the bunch. The line was made up almost entirely of men who peacocked and strutted, doing their best to appear confident. We tried our best to appear confident as well.
Directly next to our line was an empty “VIP” gate. At the entrance sat a bouncer who looked bored. A ferret-eyed manager popped his head out to scold the bouncer for the lack of women in his bar. His head whipped around when he spotted a group of five girls wandering around the square.
“Like these ones,” he said to the bouncer, “we gotta get them in.”
The big bouncer rumbled to life and stood from his stool, ready for action.
“Hey girls!” the manager called to them. “You guys want to come in? We got the hottest DJs and a ton of great drink specials, nowhere better to be on a Saturday night!”
They looked at each other and shrugged. It was as good as any other place. They walked toward the bouncer and fished into their purses for their IDs.
“That’s how you do it,” said the manager, strafing our line with his eyes. The waiting mass of men seemed to upset him. He huffed and disappeared back into his den.
“Here’s the deal,” said Shrimp. “It’s your birthday, and I’m buying, but you gonna have to drink whatever’s in the cup I put in front of you.”
It seemed like a dangerous proposition.
“All right, but I only drink scotch,” I said, trying to minimize the damage.
Someone in line grumbled that hats weren’t allowed. Both BC and I were wearing one, he a baseball cap, and I a rumpled fedora. I approached the bouncer and asked. “Only snapbacks and ball caps aren’t allowed,” the bouncer said, looking past me for more women.
Behind him, I could see a list of rules. Shoes were an absolute must, and there was to be no shorts, no do-rags, no jerseys, no gang colors and no tank tops. This place was a classy joint.
“I can keep mine on,” I said to BC, falling back in line, “but they won’t let you wear yours.”
“Here, give it to me,” said Shrimp, “and I’ll hide it.”
He took it and lifted his shirt, the hat magically disappearing somewhere in Shrimp’s girth.
BC looked sideways at me.
“They’re only letting you keep your hat cause you’re the white guy,” BC said as he rubbed his head.
After ten minutes, they finally let us into the club. We strolled slowly through the crowd and looked at everything as if we owned it. In our minds it might have been Hollywood, Vegas or Miami, but it was only DTF on a Saturday night. We were far from millionaires and the girls were far from super models. It was like HBO’s Ballers had been made for cable access TV.
We met up with Cordell and Ty in the club and made our way to the bar. Shrimp insisted on buying.
“Are you sure?” I asked him.
“I don’t have much, but what I do, I share,” Shrimp said. “It’s like that wherever. If I’m in Cleveland, Tampa, wherever.”
No one seemed concerned about having been cut. Shrimp said he'd be fine, so did Ty and Cordell. Being told “no” was part of the game. Even BC didn’t seem to care, and he was on the team. All of us were drunk, loud and happy. At that moment, none of us gave a damn about football.
We drank and danced while girls came and went. We bought them drinks, too. Eventually, BC and Shrimp wanted to go somewhere else. It was 1 a.m. and I was swaying as I walked. The conditioning test was 10 hours away. I thought about going home, but it was my birthday, so I kept drinking. Everyone rapidly became more attractive and more interesting. We met two girls, cousins they said, and danced with them. BC and Shrimp left for another bar. Ty, Cordell, myself and the two cousins danced as the lights came on. The girls invited us back to their house to keep it the party going. It was almost 2. The morning was going to hurt. BC called. He and Shrimp wanted to make sure I had a ride. Ty, Cordell, the two cousins and myself drove carefully back to their house. One cousin swore she was sober. The other cousin said she didn’t have a key to get in. An excuse. It was almost 3 now. I needed to leave. Ty, Cordell and I took an Uber back to the Red Lion. I splayed out on my bed. I closed my eyes and felt both guilt and joy. I had pursued the night to its end. Max McGee would have been proud.
March 27, 2016
I woke up to a violent hangover. I still felt drunk. I was sure my body composition was more Glenlivet than water. It was just past 9. I lay there, immobilized for a few minutes, my eyes glassy and my mouth open like a dead fish. Finally, I wiped myself up from the bed, dressed slowly and wobbled my way through the lobby to my car. I saw Andre Lewis, who’d just been cut the day before, in the parking lot. He was packing the last of his belongings in his car, heading back to San Francisco. His back window was missing. He waved to me, and I raised my paper cup of coffee in salute. Then, with a piece of toast in my mouth, I was off.
My hangover had taken a firm hold of my conscience by the time I plunked down into the meetings with the rest of the KISS. It was beyond just a physical headache now, more of an existential crisis. I began to feel a creeping sense of guilt. The KISS had moved on to the details of season business. Jersey numbers had to be given out, as well as other team gear. The players would finally move into team housing and roommates were being assigned. Food vouchers were given out as well. Next week, there’d be weigh-ins and piss tests for hydration levels, which I would’ve failed badly.
Nutrition was covered as well. Coach Nick Donnelly delivered an impassioned speech on nutrition. He didn’t want to see all of that hard work in the weight room sabotaged by a few visits to a drive-thru window.
“No salt, no saturated fats, no Micky D’s,” he barked. “If you’re in a bind, call me and I will come over and make you a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.”
At the back of the room, Vick looked around, sniggered and chuckled under his breath.
“S---,” he said, “he can come make me a sandwich anytime. Does anyone have his number?”
In the depths of my hangover, the thought of Coach Donnelly being an on-call sandwich-maker brought me great joy. I imagined him fielding several calls a day, at all hours, from hungry players. I laughed at it out of nowhere, several seconds after Vick had made his joke.
Coach O got up to address our practice schedule. Offense, defense, red zone, walk through, and then the game. There were days for lifting too. The special treats of yoga, massages and a chiropractor once a week, all on the cheap from a local school. Then came the really good news. The team would have the rest of the day off, all of Monday too.
In our position meeting, the receivers and quarterbacks all seemed relaxed. The group was loose. Confident. The team was theirs now. I heard someone laugh and point excitedly at me. It was agreed that I looked like Ben Nelson.
“Who’s Ben Nelson?” I asked.
“It’s a compliment,” said Nate. “Ben Nelson is one of the finest receivers to play in this league.”
Mike Willie caught my eye and shook his head.
“It’s a famous stripper,” he whispered.
At the moment, anything sounded better than being me.
* * *
Most people went home after the meetings, but a few gathered in the heat to watch us run. There were three of us from the skill positions: Josh Victorian, Amarri Jackson and myself. We would run three shuttles, where we were to sprint 50 yards, stop, turn, and then sprint back the 50 yards from which we came, and do this a total of three times. Then we’d have two and a half minutes to rest before the next one. A group of linemen ran their own test, but I never found out what it was. I was too busy managing my hangover, which, in the midday sun, made me feel like a bologna sandwich wrapped in cellophane that had been left to boil in a hot car.
Amarri stripped down and readied himself. He smiled, seeming even now to be having the time of his life. I kept my black running jacket on, thinking that if I disrobed I’d smell like a distillery. I looked over to Vick who wasn’t excited to run either and I instantly liked him more.
Coach Donnelly told us that he’d made a mistake with the last fitness test everyone else ran. Apparently we weren’t supposed to have two and a half minutes of rest in between reps, but 90 seconds. Someone watching nearby told him that it was actually supposed to be 60 seconds. I looked up and scowled. Then Donnelly told us we had to run it in 56 seconds. Normally that would be easy, I thought, cursing myself. But there I was, 35 years old sweating 90 proof, half drunk and not feeling the same magic as Max McGee.
Warming up was a perilous endeavor. I began to feel like my body was a dropped soda can, its contents under pressure. The sun beat mercilessly down. Donnelly held up a stopwatch and called us to the line.
“Go,” he yelled.
We took off.
On the first leg, Amarri easily outpaced both Vick and me. Miraculously, I found myself running faster than Vick. I was surprised. Maybe I had tapped into some hidden reserve, I thought, perhaps drawing on the same adrenaline that allows mothers to lift cars and save their children from peril. I managed to keep it together and came in around 50 seconds, a good deal faster than Vick, but it took everything I had.
The rest period was over before we knew it and we were off again. I lost badly on the next one. Vick seemed to take a cruel satisfaction in beating me, while Amarri glided along in bliss. Still, I managed to make it in just over at 58 seconds, which wasn’t terrible.
On the third one, my legs nearly gave out. I was like a cartoon character, peddling my legs faster and faster but getting nowhere. No matter how much I gave, I saw both Amarri and Vick pull farther away. It was as if I were in a slow-motion dream. No matter what I did, I couldn’t go any faster. I limped in well past a minute and stood there, my hands braced against my knees, trying to console myself with the excuses I’d used since childhood. “I could’ve done it, but there was something stopping me. Not my fault really…” My headache was gone, but the guilt remained.
Coach O walked out to the field after it was finished. He spied me, my face crimson and spent.
“Well,” he said, “you must feel good about yourself.”
I could only nod silently.
Afterwards I tried to find a place to rest, regroup and finish some writing. It was Easter Sunday and nothing was open except for Hooters. I walked in the door, took note of five other sad, single men who dared cross the threshold of Hooters before noon on Easter. I ordered breakfast tacos and typed furiously in a corner. I soon became a curiosity for the waitresses. After I finished a draft, I proofread to an audience of two Hooters servers and a manager whose names all seemed to be a variation of Brittany. They had a few notes, which I scribbled down. I thanked them and was on my way.
As I walked along, a late-model powder blue Mercedes Benz pulled up to the curb. It was Coach O. He offered to take me the short distance to my car. We pulled up next to it and I reached for the door. I thanked him for the ride.
“These guys need their story told,” he said solemnly, before driving away. Before he disappeared, I caught sight of his license plate. It read: AFL HOF. As in, Arena Football League, Hall Of Fame.
The sting of guilt began to rise again.
* * *
Back in Albuquerque all I could think about was getting back to football. In between my last days on the set of the shoot, I checked in with my SI photographer, Robert Beck. He had reservations about one of my photo requests. I wanted to get a shot of me dressed in a KISS uniform in front of the castle at Disneyland, looking up longingly at the fireworks overhead. I deliberately wanted to evoke that famous commercial, where a Super Bowl winner declares that he’s going to Disneyland.
“You might want to clear that with PR,” warned Robert. “Disney’s notoriously protective.”
How hard could it be, I wondered? It seemed to defy belief that a company that had built the very foundation of its brand on the realization of dreams would say anything but YES!
I called the park’s PR department. A bored-sounding woman answered the phone.
“Hello, Disneyland,” she said.
“Hi,” I said, chipper and sincere. “My name’s Neal Bledsoe. I’m a journalist for Sports Illustrated. I’m working on a story about the Arena League. Are you familiar with it?”
She wasn’t, so I laid out the whole idea. The story of the league, the athletes living on the cusp, Kurt Warner, “I’m going to Disneyland!” I told her everything. Eventually she stopped me.
“I’m sorry, what?” she asked, overwhelmed. “Are you local?”
“Uh… Yes, ma’am,” I said, trying to grasp her meaning. “I live in Los Angeles, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“And, I’m sorry, you write for who?”
“Sports Illustrated, The MMQB...”
“And is that a local paper?” she asked.
“No, ma’am. Last I heard we’re still national.”
“Hold on…” she sighed.
I was placed on a brief hold. I thought I could recognize the classic strains of “Be Our Guest” from Beauty and the Beast in the background. An encouraging sign, I thought.
“Hello, this is Paul,” said a no-nonsense voice.
“Hi, Paul,” I said, still in an energized Disney accent. “My name’s Neal Bledsoe and I’m a journalist for Sports Illustrated. I’m working on a story about the Arena League and I was hoping to engineer a shot in front of the magic castle...”
I worked my way through the pitch. Before I could finish, he began to laugh. At first I pretended not to hear him and pushed on. But then it became too much to ignore. I stopped and let him chuckle like Shere Khan.
“May I ask what’s so funny, sir?”
“No, no, no,” he mused, “we’re not gonna do that. We don’t want to be affiliated with the Arena League in any way. And by the way, it’s Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, OK? The Magic Castle is something else entirely.”
“Well, is there anything I can do?” I asked, trying to find whatever latitude they’d allow. “What if I buy a postcard, or a souvenir? A snow globe? Something like that?”
“You buy a postcard,” he said, “and you can do whatever you’d like with it.”
* * *
It was game day and I had errands to run at Disneyland. I rushed into the gift store on the hunt for souvenirs. I picked up a pair of mouse ears and a snow globe, with a tiny strobe illuminating a silver castle. They had made it special for the park’s 60th anniversary. It was mine for a cool $75—and it was my understanding from Paul that I could do “whatever I’d like” with it.
“What’s your return policy on these, ma’am?” I asked the sales attendant.
“Up to 30 days, as long as you have a receipt.”
“Fantastic,” I said with a grin, “that’s great news.”
Back with the KISS, I tried to find my photographer within the bowels of the Honda Center. The tunnel passed by the Jacksonville locker room first, where gigantic men menaced the hallway. Marco Capozolli, the KISS’ missing kicker, was there as well, dressed in the opponent’s colors!
“Cap!” I said, startled to see him. “You two-timing b------.”
“I know,” he said. “I used to play for these guys for three years.”
“So, what, you just went home?” I asked.
“No, I respect O. I respect what kind of culture he’s trying to build here, competition and all that. But then I got down to the end, when I was the only kicker in camp. And I asked O if I could move my car here, you know, just life things and he said no. So, I said I just had to be able to plan my life.”
Was that the big story? Was that the betrayal that had made O so mad? It seemed like such a reasonable request. I wished him well and went off to explore.
The entire Honda Center buzzed with activity. KISS the band was on stage performing a private concert for season-ticket holders. Maybe 600 fans crowded as closely as possible to the stage, both in the field and in the stands. The rest of the arena was empty. In front of me someone wore a jersey with the name “Stanley” on the back. At first I thought it was for Nate Stanley, the quarterback. But the man next to him wore a Simmons jersey. It dawned on me that these were jerseys for the owners and not the players. On stage Paul, Gene and the rest of the band riffed through their greatest hits. The crowd fawned on them, bobbing their heads and making the “sign of the horns” with their hands. Paul’s voice rose to the rafters, and Gene tossed guitar picks into the crowd like a man feeding ducks in a pond.
After the band left the field, I joined the team for warm-ups. Pete, the backup QB, came out and started to toss the ball with me. He rifled passes that woke my hands up. While shooting my last days on the pilot, I had missed that particular sting. Joe Windham, the CEO, had procured a jersey for me to practice in. “We gotta do this quick and then get off the field,” he said.
I took it from him and, for the first time in my life, slipped a professional football jersey over my head. Then, embarrassingly, I became stuck in the armholes. Joe let me struggle for a minute, then looked at me, flabbergasted.
He grabbed the jersey and helped me stretch it.
“It’s actually harder than it looks,” he admitted.
The team had to warm up frantically. KISS the band had taken the stage nearly an hour late and then played 45 minutes longer than it was supposed to, meaning the team had just a few minutes out on the field. Pete threw me a few touchdowns. I practiced what there was supposed to be no practice for: the wall. As AFL lore tells it, the wall is undefeated. Pete put some mustard on his passes and I took the first one right in the face.
As I left the field, a group of kids called me over. They wanted a picture.
“You know I’m not one of the players?” I asked them.
“Who cares!” they chirped, happy to take pictures with someone with neither skill nor fame.
I was delighted to interview Gene Simmons again. We set him up in a green room. Ever the master of conversation, Gene controlled the narrative from the get-go. Attempting to insert dialogue into his monologue was like attempting to break a bronco I wasn’t ready for—or if I’m being honest, a bit like my attempt to put on the jersey. Paul Stanley, by contrast, was much more open. He spoke compassionately about the connection of artistry and football. About what it took to make it in music, and what it must take to make it football.
The game was almost upon us. The teams gathered; everything and everyone was coiled tight. Players, coaches and staff all streamed into the locker rooms for the pregame speeches. I stood dutifully outside, with the rest of the interlopers, waiting patiently to be invited into the room.
Gene and Paul came by, followed by an ESPN camera crew. Gene grabbed me by the arm, once again leading me like a child.
“C’mon in,” he said. “You’re important.”
The players stood, all of them tense, with a wide-eyed and frenzied focus. It looked as if they were going into battle. They were men on the verge of violence.
“The eyes of the world are watching you,” said Paul, speaking first.
“Winners get chicks,” followed Gene.
Then Coach O bolted up, seizing a moment he’d been waiting his whole life for: his first pre-game speech as a head coach.
“Be aggressive,” he said, his eyes matching the intensity of his men. “Execute. Do what we’ve practiced.”
The team came together, their fists raised in the air and their heads bowed.
“KISS ON 3!” someone yelled.
“ONE, TWO, THREE, KISS!” said the players.
It was the loudest I’d ever heard them.
* * *
The beginning of any KISS game is a cacophony of fireworks, jet flames and lasers. It was one of the signature KISS touches still here after Year 1. The strippers in the four corners of the Arena were gone, as were the rock-concert touches. The team still tried to make KISS football like a KISS concert, albeit in a more family and budget-friendly package. The lights went out. The video scoreboard growled to life. One by one the starter’s names were called and they raced out of the tunnel amidst the flames and fireworks. There, upon the guitar-pick logo of the KISS, they genuflected wildly and communed with the gods of football.
A cloud of smoke still hung thick in the air as the lights came up for the coin toss. L.A. would kick off. The Jacksonville special-teamers gathered at the back of the end zone.
One player, Keon Lyn, was dazzled by the spectacle.
“This is how y’all do it out here in L.A.? I got off the plane and saw a sign for Vin Diesel,” he said, buckling his helmet. “I couldn’t believe it.”
Jacksonville scored first. Joe Hills beat Clevan Thomas badly on the first play for a long touchdown. Rubbing salt into the wound, he “Superman’d” his jersey like Cam Newtown. Cap, the kicking Benedict Arnold, missed the extra point.
Both teams furiously traded scores throughout the first half. The slugfest paused for only two things. The first was a children’s face-painting contest, where three kids tried to give themselves Starchild’s iconic look. The second was a boneless hot wings eating contest: clear eyes, full heartburn, can’t lose! A late score by the Sharks put the KISS in a 33-27 hole with less than 30 seconds to go in the first half. Cap missed his second kick of the day. As the Shark players streamed back to their bench, Cap looked to the carpet, lost in thought.
The ensuing kickoff took DJ Stephens to the 12. There were 23 seconds to go. On the next pass, DJ went flying over the wall but managed to keep possession. First down, 19.8 seconds to go, with half the field still to march.
Then Nate ran a sneak, diving for extra yards. A timeout was called with 12.9 seconds to go.
On the next play, Nate tossed the ball into the corner of the end zone. BC flew into the air and caught it high, coming down on the wall hard. He shook it off immediately and tossed the ball over his shoulder like a used candy wrapper. The KISS kicker shanked the extra point off the upright. The score at halftime was knotted at 33.
In the second half, D-Mo took over and played out of his mind. During the course of the game, he became No. 8 on the AFL’s all-time receptions list. He was fired up and far from done. Along the benches, he pleaded for Coach O to call a certain play. “If I put a move on him, he’s done!” said D-Mo, his massive arms outstretched to emphasize his point. “He is done!”
The two teams traded scores again, first L.A., then Jacksonville. Cap lined up for extra point and missed it again. As he trotted back to his bench, Terrance Smith, his old teammate on both teams, barked at him. “You suck. You suck!” Terrance taunted.
They would be Jacksonville’s last points. The KISS started to pull away. After two more TDs the bench was giddy. Another field goal and a touchdown put the KISS up, 64-39. Pete Thomas, the backup quarterback, turned around from the bench and caught my eye.
“Neal, I’m gonna need a massage tomorrow after holding so much,” he said, holding his fingers as if they were crippled.
The KISS won by 25. As the clock struck zero, the Honda Center exploded, rocking and rolling into a frenzy. The bench erupted in jubilation. In the locker room Coach O, his voice almost gone, tried to his best to sum it all up.
“This is reason we get up in the morning,” he said, hoarsely. “I’ll never forget this moment for the rest of my life.”
Then Gene and Paul took the floor. They seemed pleased; their investment had begun to pay off.
“I’m speechless…” Gene began, sincerely, before diving into an unprintable bit of locker-room-talk. Then Paul joined in too, both of them making uncomfortable jokes, seemingly trying to connect across the divides of race and age.
There was an awkward moment of silence before Clevan Thomas, taking the role of minister, closed it all out with a prayer. “Our Father, Who Art in Heaven…”
* * *
Afterwards the KISS went out onto the field and signed autographs for an hour. I finally got my shot too. Robert Beck and I cooked up something we both felt was appropriate and fell well within the bounds of my understanding from Disney: The actor, looking forlornly at a castle he’d never visit, in a jersey he’d never earned, like a fifth-rate Hamlet with a bedazzled skull.
Everyone wanted to rub shoulders with the heroes of the Honda Center and keep the magic going. After the game, players, fans and coaches headed to the Titled Kilt. It was full of fans, families, players, KISS girls, coaches, staff; it seemed as if all of Anaheim was there. For one night, the KISS were kings. But I had one more errand to run, so I slipped out before the night was done. I raced to Downtown Disney before they closed the gift store at 1 a.m. There, I returned the snow globe and the mouse ears, gleefully.
I did not have a receipt.
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
Part 6: As a Realist, You Should Know Anything Can Happen
NEXT FRIDAY: Neal finally suits up and takes the field, only to be met with more than a few immovable objects. He then decides to retire at the bottom of his game, but returning to his old life isn’t quite so easy. All that and more in Part 7 of the Delicate Moron.
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