By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
"Everybody's confidence picked up when they saw how many people were there," says Jacksonville coach and general manager T.D. Knox.
The teams reformed under a new name, the Americas Football League. In order to ensure there would be no further hint of financial impropriety, the league maintains no central bank account; each team exists as an independent entity, responsible for its own money, travel, and equipment. And no one is promising that the players will get paid, at least not for a long time.
"The ball clubs were out there and they needed some direction," says John Mays, who volunteered to serve - unpaid - as commissioner for the new league. "Here they were, in limbo, not knowing what to do. So I said, `Let's put our sails in the wind and see if we can generate something out of this that will help the ballplayers.' Which in essence is what we were trying to do all along."
The Hialeah and Fort Lauderdale franchises folded, but Miami, Gainesville, Tampa, Tallahassee, Orlando, and Jacksonville stayed on. And amazingly, the new league has already added teams in Clearwater, Lakeland, and St. Petersburg.
Miami was represented at that Tampa summit by 22-year-old tight end Ernie Cambo and special-teams coach Rudy Lorie. (Chambers's old friend Steve Suid had left the team after the league president's disappearance.) On the drive to Tampa, Cambo and Lorie discussed how they would reorganize the team. First, they changed their name from the Miami Storm to the Miami Thunder. Cambo, an international relations student at FIU, is now the team's president and player representative. Lorie, a maintenance worker for the U.S. Postal Service, is vice-president and general manager.
Lindsay Diaz, formerly the team's assistant coach, is now coaching the team. "If we can make it through the first season," says Diaz, a 28-year-old Metro-Dade police detective, "I think we can make it." Although only half the players were willing to give the league another chance, other players - some from the defunct Hialeah and Fort Lauderdale teams - have replaced those that called it quits. Altogether, John Mays says from his home in Orlando, the league comprises 600 players and coaches on its nine teams.
The cheapest practice field the Thunder could find is the football field for the Palmetto Optimist Club on SW 184th Street and 97th Avenue. Rent is $50 per night for the team to practice two nights per week. Each player was asked to chip in five dollars every week to cover lighting and other expenses. With one-third of the team unemployed and about half supporting wives and families, money is the Thunder's biggest hurdle. Instead of Tropical Park, the club plays its home dates at Belen Jesuit Preparatory School at 500 SW 127th Avenue. Use of that field costs only $300 per game. Because each team has to come up with its own funds, the Thunder scrounges for money by holding car washes to raise travel money. One player collected aluminum cans and sold them to help pay for the club's first two away games.
Other teams, too, have come down a few pegs. The Jacksonville Blazers, which Chambers had said would play in the Gator Bowl, now play home dates on an old field behind a church. The bleachers there hold about 400 fans, about 100 more than the team has been drawing so far.
Cambo and Lorie say Thunder practice sessions are plagued by low turnout, which they blame on Jim Chambers, and the legacy of mistrust he left behind. "The guys are not willing to put in that extra effort they would have before," says Cambo.
"I know we've got problems," Lorie told about fifteen players who showed up for a recent practice. "We're always going to have problems. I know everybody got screwed, but for whatever reason, you keep coming back, and I want to see this work. We've got talented people here."
Even with the tension and squabbling, the Thunder has seen more success in six weeks than what Chambers accomplished in six months. Already, the team has played four games; the second home game takes place at Belen this Sunday.
And at least a few dreams appear to be coming true. One Thunder player still holds out hope of wrangling a college scholarship even though semipro play technically makes him eligible. To avoid getting caught, he plays under a fictitious name. After a shoulder injury his senior year in high school, no college would touch him, but he's healthy now and has been using the Thunder to keep him sharp and in shape. Although he's never received a dime for playing, his real payoff might have come a couple of weeks ago, when a small college expressed interest. "If anyone from the college knew I was doing this, I wouldn't have a chance in hell of making it," he says.
Jim Chambers is living in Houston now, having rented an apartment near the airport, in the Greenspoint section of town. He did not return repeated messages left on the answering machine at his new address. One family friend says Chambers might have found employment as a truck driver.