By Chuck Strouse
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You don't have to know how many feet a receiver needs to have in-bounds to appreciate the brute spectacle of a pair of 200-pound men slamming into each other at full speed, toppling over a flimsy retaining wall, and causing you to smear mustard on your chest. When a particularly vicious hit knocks one of the gladiators over the barrier, it's like watching a cowboy movie and having John Wayne suddenly leap off his horse and land in the theater seat next to you. It's not about staying home and catching a game on the tube. It's live. It's dangerous. It's in your face.
The AFL is young enough and small enough to still have room for scalawags and renegades, owners named 'Lags and Champ (Regnier, another Hooters honcho). Try to picture a stuffed shirt like Wayne Huizenga with a cool nickname. (Hi? Zenger? Wayne-O?) Forget it.
"We like arena football for a number of reasons," explains Lageschulte. "It wasn't just a marketing tool, but that was part of the idea. We thought the philosophy was a good fit with Hooters. We don't want to lose money, but we don't expect to make money, either. It's like the players. They're limited to $500 per game, $150 bonus if they win. [Jim] Jensen and Fourcade have separate contracts to do promotional work for us on a year-round basis. Jensen doesn't need the money. They're playing for the fun of it, because they love to play football. Not because they're going to get rich from it."
True to that fun-loving spirit, Fourcade candidly admits an attraction to Miami founded on more than just his football prospects. "This is a wide-open town," says the former NFL Saint with a sly grin. "It's similar to New Orleans in that respect. Fast. It's very tempting to get into trouble here."
Imagine what might happen to one of Shula's minions should the coach open the sports pages and find a quote like that. Can you spell D-O-G-H-O-U-S-E?
As there is no sideline, coaches and players sit in the stands with the paying customers. Never have skilled hecklers enjoyed such access. Never have fed-up players faced such temptation to deck their detractors. Never have worshipful jock-sniffers encountered an easier time buying their heroes a beer -- no more staking out postgame hangouts, just proffer the suds right there in the middle of the action, when the players really need it.
Specialization is a dirty word in the AFL. Most players have to stay on the field for both offense and defense. You can't get too mad at a receiver for dropping a pass if he just knocked someone's teeth loose or swatted away a pass on defense. And the occasional lapses of competence are more than offset by the elimination of punting from the sport. Can anyone honestly mourn the absence of the "fair catch"?
There are other welcome wrinkles. The AFL uses a 25-second clock between plays, as opposed to the NFL's 45-second interval, which speeds things up nicely. The 50-yard playing field makes every pass completion a scoring threat. Drop-back quarterbacks with cannon arms are less valuable than agile scramblers. Giant, taut nets strung up on either side of the goal posts in the end zone add a new level of drama to the Hail Mary pass and the common kickoff return: passes and kicks that bounce off them are live balls and remain in play. Tackling opponents into (or over) the wall is not only allowed, it's encouraged. Not surprisingly, Jensen, the man who earned the nickname "Crash" for his reckless style of play for the Dolphins, dishes out and receives more than his share along the fiberglass retainer. Or at least he did until he got laid out twice during the Tampa Bay game, suffered a concussion, and began to ponder whether it was such a great idea to come out of retirement to play in the AFL. (He had to be persuaded to return to the team with the assurance that he would only be asked to play quarterback.)
Let the purists have their arrogant, elitist NFL, with its whining millionaires. AFL players may only make $500 a game, but the hits they dish out and absorb are every bit as punishing as those of their higher-priced brethren. Unless they are former NFL hotshots, most arenaball warriors do not drive Jaguars, live in Weston, or own sports bars in CocoWalk that bear their names. They do not hold out. They do not miss training camp. They do not renegotiate their contracts. They are, in a nutshell, dispensable. They are part of the American tradition of making a buck off cheap labor.
"Nutty arenaball is barely football" proclaimed the Miami Herald's pro football anal(retentive)yst in his review of the Hooters' first game. As if that weren't enough, the self-appointed guardian of our sporting community's legendary high moral standards can barely bring himself to call the team by its proper, registered name. The Herald has an informal policy of keeping the notorious nickname out of display type (i.e. headlines), and minimizing the appearance of the word Hooters within story text. Greg Cote, the offended columnist, has even referred to the team as the "Degrading Nicknames."