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My first AFL Game: An outsider look at Outlaws at SaberCats

Jonathan Willis
Friday May 15, 2015

This season, Jonathan Willis will be taking someone who has never seen an Arena Football game before to a San Jose SaberCats home game to gauge their thoughts on the sport, the play, and the atmosphere in the arena.

For the SaberCats’ third home game of the season, I brought along someone who not only watches football, but played the game beyond the high school level, as a linebacker for Vanderbilt in the mid-2000s. Of the people I have invited, or dragged, to an Arena Football game in the past, he was undoubtedly the most amped to go see a game. Also, unlike the rest, he had been to an indoor game in the past. He had attended a handful of Macon Knights’ games in the past and so I didn’t have to spend a lot of time explaining the rules.

The one rule that did confuse the hell out of us though was what happens when the ball goes through the uprights on a kickoff. The first time it happened, the ball was blown dead and a touchback was awarded. However, the next three times a ball went through the uprights on a kickoff, the play was live. This confused not only us, but the Outlaws’ kick returner as well, who waited for the play to be blown dead but then panicked when the referee didn’t blow his whistle. I know inconsistent calls can be part of any sport, but knowing the basic rules is something a referee should probably know. (Sidenote:  If there is some reason for the difference, please let me know in the comments and then call me a dumbass.)

Having a former linebacker beside me was great for another reason. Listening to him bemoan all the rules that defenders have to deal with was fantastic. For instance, a defensive lineman left his three point stance before the ball was snapped and the offense was given an automatic first down. When my friend heard this explanation, a look of anger came over his face that struck fear into the person beside us. I then brought up the blitzing rules and the illegality of defensive linemen running stunts just so I could see his face turn redder than a ginger spending three hours on Miami Beach.

Also amusing were some of the play calls in the game. Running the ball is always perilous in this league, and watching the Outlaws try to convert a 4th and goal from the 1-yard line with a toss sweep was akin to that old Under Armour commercial where “Goliath” decided to run the ball on 4th and goal from the 10-yard line with the game on the line. Needless to say, the play went backwards about five yards.

One of the positives that my friend pointed out were the helmet sensors that are now mandatory in the league to help prevent concussions. He noted that it was good to see a small-time league like the AFL adopt such a measure in the interest of player safety, a large step for a league that just a few years back axed players’ health insurance entirely from the CBA.

The game itself was another rout and seeing some of the point spreads in this league, it’s hard not to wonder if the league’s lack of competitiveness is leading to attendance woes. In the three games I’ve attended thus far, all SaberCats blowout wins, the guest I brought noted how the games lost some of their interest after the SaberCats raced out to large first half leads.

Jonathan Willis is a lifelong sports fan currently residing in Monterey, CA. A small part of him died when NFL Europe was cancelled and now lives vicariously through the CFL and the AFL. He will always relish Brock Berlin throwing pick sixes both for the University of Miami and the Hamburg Sea Devils.
The opinions expressed in the article above are only those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect the thoughts, opinions, or official stance of ArenaFan Online or its staff, or the Arena Football League, or any AFL or af2 teams.
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