Snakes in the Grass: The Way We Were
DATELINE GREEN BAY -- In a surprise move today the Green Bay Packers, long-time NFL mainstays, left tradition behind as they picked up and moved to Salt Lake City to become the Utah Packers. Asked about the move, the Packers General Manager commented on the action. "We got tired of beating our heads against the wall, literally. For years we`ve been trying to get past the first row of seats after touchdowns with the `Lambeau Leap.` We`re counting on the thinner air of the Rocky Mountains to accomplish this task. I`m sure it will be a good move for the league."
DATELINE CHICAGO -- After being turned down by taxpayers for funding of proposed DoubleMint Field in Chicago, the Cubs announced their relocation to Washington, DC for next season. Asked about the questionable movement of the club to the nation`s capital since Major League Baseball has already attempted two franchise there the club`s new owner responded, "What the heck!" The Cub`s logos, name and colors will stay with the original owner. Within hours he announces the rebirth of the Cubs franchise, to play in the Class A Northern League. Although Sammy Sosa and the rest of the Windy City`s diamond kings have moved to Washington the Cub`s owner declares, "See, the new Cubs are just like the original."
Sound far-fetched? Perhaps. But not to died-in-the-wool, loyal Arena Football League fans. This is what they have had to endure this off-season with the flight of the Albany Firebirds to Indiana and the sale of the Iowa Barnstormers to become the New York Dragons. Many AFL fans feel as though they have lost the Packers or Cubs.
Perhaps it is inevitable that when a league grows up the chicks leave the nest for larger, greener pastures. You know your league has made it when longtime, cornerstone franchises pick up and move to another locale before someone else claims the territory. It happens all the time with big brother, the NFL. St. Louis to Phoenix, Baltimore to Indianapolis, Houston to Nashville, Cleveland to Baltimore, Los Angeles to St. Louis, and Oakland to Los Angeles to Oakland are prime examples. Money talks.
Before the AFL got too big and glitzy this reporter last summer decided to take a trip to the current grass-roots of the sport, Huntsville, Alabama, to witness an AF2 contest. An evening with the Tennessee Valley Vipers reminded of the way we were. Before metropolis` like Toronto and Los Angeles entered the league there were also towns like Albany, Des Moines, Las Vegas and Columbus.
It was unseasonably cold outside for early April but the fans inside the Von Braun Center warmed up nicely to their Tennessee Valley Vipers and af2`s debut in Huntsville. It didn`t hurt either that the Vipers manhandled the visiting Norfolk Nighthawks, 48-15, in their home opener.
This game brought back nastoligic memories of days gone by in the Arena League, circa late 80`s to early 90`s; i.e. the grass roots. There were no network television feeds at the game, no NFL involvement and no labor disputes threatening whether the game would even be played or not.
Instead, there was a strong bond forming between a team and their first-time fans. An announced standing-room-only crowd of 6,724 filled the cozy, 6,600-seat arena in downtown Huntsville and the fans took their hometown heroes to heart. These athletes were truely playing for the love of the game and, of course, a possible shot at a better league and bigger paycheck. At the standard $200-per-game salary for af2 players no one was getting rich here.
For sale at the vendor booths was the normal fare -- hats, shirts, pennants and the like but one could also purchase something you don`t see everyday. You could pick up photos and photo buttons of your Viper heroes. Like proud mothers and fathers during parents day at a small town high school football game people wore buttons with the likeness of their favorite player to show their support.
Fans in the "Viper Pit" were encouraged by the public address announcer to hiss and back the Viperssssssssss. At times the entire arena sounded like a giant blimp with a nasty leak. The arena held a distinctive deep south flavor between plays with music like "Sweet Home Alabama" being piped through the sound system. And people loved it--a regional pride that would be lost in Los Angeles or New Jersey. There was no JumboTron with live pictures of the crowd, like in Orlando, that prompts some young women to lift up their shirts to show off their assests.
Play was sometimes spectacular, sometimes downright awful. Some players performed quite well and it wouldn`t be surprising to see them in the "bigs" very soon. On the other side of the ball the Nighthawks kicker, Paul Saunders, reminded fans of the good ol` days when a field goal was quite an accomplishment with his two missed PATs and three blocked kicks. To his credit, he did make a short field goal in the fourth that just cleared the crossbar. Vipers` lineman Andy Fuller caught two passes, intercepted a ball and picked a lateral off in mid-air and ran it back, all for touchdowns. Fans hissed their approval.
There were penalties galore. Missed routes and quarterback-receiver confusion was common. Outside rush calls were frequent. A three-yard zone for receivers catching kicks off the net call stopped the game for several minutes while everyone tried to figure out what the ruling should be. The referees held conferences quite often. Everyone was struggling to learn this game that was brand new to them. Only a couple of players had ever played in the Arena League before. Play will get better as athletes and officials become more comfortable with their new surroundings.
There was a down-home charm about this team and their fans. All in all, Huntsville, Alabama on April 8 looked a lot like where the Arena Football League had come from -- the grass roots. And in some respects that wasn`t such a bad thing -- remembering the way we were.
Jay Jacox was a writer for ArenaFan Online from 1998 to 2002.