The Nomadic Life of a Professional Quarterback
“I have to hold back. There’s a pull on it every time I throw hard.”
Note: This story was written during the Albany Firebirds 2000 training camp, when Mike Pawlawski had not yet signed a contract and Jeff Loots was designated as the Firebirds starting quarterback. Pawlawski has since returned to Albany and is starting for the Firebirds for the fourth consecutive season. Loots has been traded to the Carolina Cobras and the Oklahoma Wranglers. He seems to have found a home in Oklahoma.
Jeff is also developing a blister on the pinkie finger of his throwing hand. The skin is pink and bubbling. It doesn’t help that Loots grips the ball extremely hard every time he throws in order to reach his league-renowned velocity.
Loots shakes his head. “I’m going to have to put some tape on it.”
Jeff hasn’t had much luck during his career. An abbreviated history of his time as a professional quarterback reads like this:
He suffered a blown-out shoulder coming out of Southwest State University in 1995, which potentially cost him millions of dollars when he was passed over in the NFL draft because of the injury.
Jeff Loots has been on three different rosters already this season.
Image courtesy of Andrew Mason
Instead, Loots signed with the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts. There, he hurt the same shoulder, suffering more torn ligaments. He had been slated to see extensive playing time.
“It was just the same thing. My shoulder wasn’t healed and I got hit on it.”
After sitting out the season to rehab, Loots was traded to the CFL’s Las Vegas posse, the first of many expansion teams he would visit.
“I was actually the first player to sign with them. I thought they were going to have a passing offense, but then they ended up hiring an offensive coordinator who wanted to bring in the run-and-shoot. So they ended up keeping a couple option quarterbacks and wanted to keep me on the developmental squad for $300 or $400 a week. I told them to release me and I came to Milwaukee.”
In 1994 the Milwaukee Mustangs were in their debut season in the AFL. Loots started during his first week with the team. There was no time to learn the nuances or even most of the rules of indoor football. The Mustangs needed him to perform right away.
“I was pretty pissed because it was an expansion team. You didn’t get much help from your offensive line, and the offensive coordinator was new to the league, so he really didn’t know the game either. And I didn’t have the best receivers, so it was a tough year.”
The two-time All-American threw for 11 touchdown passes with the Mustangs. But after going 0-12, Milwaukee revamped its coaching staff, and the new coaches left Jeff unprotected in the expansion draft.
The Iowa Barnstormers selected him, so Loots packed his bags again and headed to another brand-new team. This time, he had the luck of going up against a would-be legend. Although neither man could know it at the time, Kurt Warner was destined for big things. And his bright future – which would reach unbelievable heights in 1999-2000, when he led the St. Louis Rams to a storybook season and the Super Bowl title – began by claiming the starting job in Iowa.
“I was having a pretty good camp with them, battling with Warner for the starting job, and ended up breaking my foot in the second preseason game,” says Loots, a native of St. Paul, Minnesota. “So I was pretty much out for eight weeks. Back then the season was only 10 or 12 weeks long, so that was pretty much my year in Iowa. I was on IR most of the year there and then I got traded to Florida, without knowing it. They just ended up trading me, and I found out two weeks later. Minnesota had just gotten a team then, so I was really interested in staying home to play. So I tried getting traded from Florida back to Minnesota, which took a long time because I guess they were pretty high on me in Florida, wanting me to come in and start there. I just wanted to stay home and play in front of family and friends.”
Loots did eventually end up with the Minnesota Fighting Pike, but so did University of Minnesota graduate Rickey Foggie. With the starting job up for grabs, both quarterbacks enjoyed a solid training camp. The coaching staff said that whoever played better in the team’s one preseason game would be awarded the starting job. According to Loots, Foggie played the first half, completing about 60 percent of his passes with a touchdown and an interception. Jeff played the third quarter and one drive in the fourth – throwing for 200 yards on a 12-for-14 effort. He even contributed three touchdown passes, but it was to no avail.
“They ended up still starting him in the beginning of the year. And then we went back and forth. He’d play some and then I’d play some. It was another roller-coaster ride with an expansion team, and the receivers and linemen that they were bringing in every week. One week they brought in a new offensive specialist on Monday and played him on Thursday. So we had to battle stuff like that.”
The Minnesota Pike went 4-10 in 1996, and then folded due to financial woes. Loots was on the hunt for a job again. This time, after passing on opportunities to sign with the Albany Firebirds and the Houston ThunderBears, he became an Arizona Rattler. Sherdrick Bonner had been Arizona’s starter for three consecutive years, but Loots was assured he’d be in a position to compete for the job.
“But from the get-go he was still the No. 1 guy. He was getting all the reps. So that was kind of frustrating. After that, in the second preseason game, I ended up getting blindsided from the back, in my hip, and cracked my hip. I was pretty much on IR for eight to 10 weeks that year, but it bothered me the whole year. It still gives me trouble now.”
In 1998 Loots had a good preseason with the Rattlers and several teams called Arizona to inquire about a trade. The San Jose SaberCats, in desperate need of a starting quarterback, were among them. But San Jose and Arizona are both in the Western Division of the AFL’s American Conference, and the Rattlers refused to send Loots to a team they’d have to face twice a year. Instead, they shipped him to Albany, where Mike Pawlawski was in the process of becoming one of the best quarterbacks to ever play in the AFL. Loots has now been the backup in Albany for two years.
“But shoot, I still think I’m probably one of the top five or six quarterbacks in the league. I think I have one of the strongest arms. I can still throw 75 or 80 yards. I’ve got just as much or more mobility than anybody in the league. So it’s just frustrating, not playing, and then playing other teams and there’s other quarterbacks that are starting that aren’t as good as you. It’s just hard to deal with.”
“It’s just been freak things,” Loots says of his injuries. “The thing that hurts is that it’s the beginning of the year when I get them, so that has pretty much put me out of contention for starting jobs for a couple teams.”
One thing is certain. If there is a School of Hard Knocks, Jeff is a frontrunner for valedictorian. I ask him why he puts his body through the pain each year.
“For me, I just don’t want to end the way that I’ve…” Loots says, pausing in mid-sentence. “I don’t think I’d be happy with going out like this. You know, not playing. I at least want to get a year or two under my belt when I’m starting so I can really show what I can do.”
Jeff Foley was a writer for ArenaFan Online from 2000 to 2001.