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A Cheer for the Forgotten Team

Jay Jacox
Friday June 14, 2002

The crowd cheers and the public address system booms music while on each play 23 men on the field try to perform in an Arena Football League game. Participants receive their instructions, take their positions, react to others and . . . wait a minute!

Twenty-three men on the field? Letís see - - each team puts eight players out there, so thatís 16. Add in the four officials and the number jumps to 20. But where do the other three come from?

Orlando chain gang guy Robbie Roberts sprints to the endzone before the start of the next play.
Image courtesy of Jay Jacox
Well, the oft forgotten and yet so crucial squad on the field is the chain gang. I can hear it now Ė ďYea, right, the chain gang. How important are they? Anybody can do that.Ē Crucial? Yes! These are the folks that change and place the markers so all may easily observe what down it is and how far their favorite team needs to advance for a first down. Your team just threw an incomplete pass and the ball returns to the original line of scrimmage. Who tells you where to place the ball? Yep, folks, itís the chain gang.

After a season covering the Orlando Predators on the field and in quite close proximity to these chain gang folks, I can tell you it is not a job for the faint of heart. Like the rest of the teams on the field a chain gang memberís night at the arena begins well before opening kickoff. Members arrive early to dress in their uniforms. They too have league-approved attire.

After dressing comes their equipment check. The chains need to be checked to make sure they are actually 10 yards long with no broken or faulty parts. A broken chain on a crucial measurement would be disastrous. Down markers also need to be working properly. The chain clips for measurements and beanbags for ball placement need to be readied.

Usually following the equipment check is a pre-game meal at the arena. Here the team can relax a little while they talk over each memberís responsibilities for the evening and what to look for in the game. Then, as game time draws closer, the work begins in earnest. First, itís time for a meeting with the game officials.

All seven men sit behind closed doors and discuss how each will handle differing scenarios during the game like who is running what equipment, what help will be needed during a measurement, when to change the down marker, and the like. Following their pre-game meeting all seven men hit the field for player warm-ups.

Game officials Paul Ferking, Billy Beckett, Bill Lemonnier, and David Meslow check out the field before a contest.
Image courtesy of Jay Jacox
The Arena Football League aspires to an increasing degree of professionalism in their officials and this filters down to the chain gang as well. They too are expected to aspire to a higher standard. It began with the first thing they did this evening -- their professional dress -- and it will effect their actions for the remainder of the night.

Then the game begins and for the next two and a half hours the chain gang rolls into action. Unlike their outdoor football brethren who stoically stand on the sidelines waiting to move the down marker three yards and then stand and wait again, AFL chain-gang folks get a workout. League guidelines require that all members be off the field during play. That means they must sprint out to set or move the equipment and then sprint back off the field (usually through the end zone) between every play. Quite often the line of scrimmage is at least halfway down the field. Chain gang folks can roll up over one and a half miles of sprinting each evening.

While their jobs are not widely regarded as rocket science, chain gang members come from a wide variety of respected backgrounds. Their ranks include football coaches, NCAA field officials, college educators, and yes, even a NASA rocket scientist! They are no fly-by-night bunch picked up off the street to work the game.

Payment for the eveningís services usually comes from the home team in the form of tickets to the game they are working, which, of course, they canít personally use. Relatives, friends and the like end up being the beneficiaries of the chain gangsí evening of work. So why do they do it? Like so many others itís for the love of this game called Arena Football.

So the next time you watch an Arena Football League game take time to catch the efforts of the chain gang and let out a cheer for the forgotten team on the field.

Jay Jacox was a writer for ArenaFan Online from 1998 to 2002.
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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