Half the Distance to the Bustline

Arena football and the Miami Hooters -- more than just a game

Early in the first quarter of the Miami Hooters' franchise-opening Arena Football League game against the Charlotte Rage, rather than ducking his head and safely absorbing a sack in the quarterbacking equivalent of the fetal position, Hooters quarterback John Fourcade uncoiled in the face of several onrushing Rage defensive linemen and lofted a pass deep into the eighth row of the seats of the Miami Arena.

The man literally put his body on the line to get a potential keepsake to a fan. The crowd gave Fourcade, a former New Orleans Saints QB, a hero's sendoff as the trainers helped him limp to the bench.

Yes, there's a new game in town, and it's called arena football. A hybrid of American football and hockey, arenaball blurs the distinctions between players and spectators, and not just because the former aren't as skilled as their National Football League counterparts.

Unlike the parsimonious NFL, which takes great pains to prevent its precious leather globes from leaving the field of play, AFL policy holds that any ball that goes into the stands for any reason (and with the first row of seats literally inches from the field, there are bound to be a lot of them) is a keeper for the lucky person who can outwrestle fellow fans for it. The Hooters, the ten-team AFL's newest franchise, lost 22 footballs, a league record, in their opener against Charlotte. The AFL's per-game average is ten lost balls, and the league sent Hooters management a memo reprimanding them for the inordinately high number of pigskins sacrificed. The team's second home outing, against the Tampa Bay Storm, yielded no improvement: they coughed up 31.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of the keepsake factor when it comes to gauging the possibilities for arenaball's success. What better way to get the crowd into the game than to give them a legitimate shot at going home with their very own game ball? There are no sidelines on an arenaball field, and sometimes overzealous spectators tumble over the four-foot-high fiberglass retaining wall that is the only barrier between players and spectators, so galvanized are they at the prospect of retrieving a souvenir. "To those in the front row trying to lean over and pick up balls," warns the public address announcer, "should you fall into the field during play, you may become part of that play." The warning (or a variation of it) is a common one. It is also one that is commonly ignored.

But going through footballs like one of their restaurant patrons goes through chicken wings is a minor concern for the fledgling Hooters. More troubling is the uproar surrounding the team's name, its allegedly sexist image, and the viability of the sport in a market that recently has been deluged by pro franchises.

You don't open a restaurant called Hooters unless you're prepared to weather criticism regarding the obvious double entendre. You can plant tongue firmly in cheek and claim the moniker refers to owls, but when you hire only leggy young waitresses and trick them out in orange running shorts and low-cut tops that bear the slogan, "MORE THAN A MOUTHFUL," nobody's going to believe that owls are the birds of prey you're catering to.

But what if your restaurants become so popular that even people who regularly tune in to Married With Children associate the word "Hooters" more with chicken wings and pitchers of beer than with large bosoms? What if you launch an honest-to-goodness football franchise with your hard-earned dough and name the squad after the eateries? Do you deserve to be vilified for making the team an advertisement for the restaurant chain?

Critics of the team have not been satisfied with lambasting the Hooters for their name and its implications. Personnel decisions have been called into question (including the hiring of Bob Hewko, a former UF quarterback and AFL color analyst, and head coach Don Strock). Affable mascot Hootie the owl has been likened to some sort of inflatable Bigfoot. Worst of all, naysayers have implied that arena football should not be taken seriously as either sport or entertainment (assuming there's a distinction between the two), that the game's competitive integrity is as open to attack as that of, say, roller derby or professional wrestling.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The Miami Hooters are not merely South Florida's newest professional sports franchise, they are also our most freethinking and innovative. Unlike the NFL, which, in its pursuit of megabucks and Nielsen ratings, has become as corporate as a three-piece suit and as mercenary as a greedy trial lawyer, arena football is still about fun.

"We don't really take ourselves too seriously," Hooters owner Dave ("call me 'Lags'") Lageschulte explains. "Our number-one concern is, 'Will it be fun for the fans?' Not for the owners. Not for the players. For the fans."

Vince Lombardi would have hated it. P.T. Barnum would have loved it.
Arenaball is the perfect sport for this multicultural melting pot A you don't have to understand it to enjoy it. Can't tell a tight end from a backfield in motion? No sweat. Kick back and groove on the MTV-like soundtrack blasting continuously over the PA system. Check out the awesome indoor fireworks. Laugh at Hootie along with your kids. Enjoy the baby races at halftime.

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."

"Sexist or just plain embarrassing?" asks the bastion of political correctness.

"Grand Opening Special, $25. Private Modeling," beckons an ad for Tease to Please Lingerie, also in the paper's sports pages.

None of which is meant to call the Herald's own unassailable ethics into question. It's just that, as anyone who's read Semi-Tough, North Dallas Forty, or Jim Brown's autobiography can attest, sex and football have always been (pardon the pun) bosom buddies. At least the Hooters are (sorry, couldn't resist) up-front about it.

At least they were, until somebody went and made a big deal out of it.
"This is rock-and-roll football," said a beaming general manager Bob Hewko when first interviewed by the Herald in early March. "We're going to have a dance squad that could compete with the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders. They're the 'Hooter Girls.'"

Hewko was definitely on to something. Strip away all the pseudointellectual b.s. and football still boils down to a bunch of guys beating the crap out of each other to impress women. The Cowboys were not the first NFL team to exploit the sex and football combo, but they were the best; for nearly two decades their cheerleaders have been the pre-eminent symbol of the sport's implicit primitive, carnal appeal. Who better to bring the same kind of zing to the AFL than Hooters?

That is why it was so disheartening, with the allegations of sexism still ringing through the media, to hear Hooters dance team coordinator Chris Campbell proclaim, "We want power tumblers!" She had come to Cafe Iguana in Kendall on April 6Y to judge the final round of dance tryouts. Eighteen lithe young women, winnowed from an initial field of nearly 100 hopefuls, were competing for a coveted spot on the team and the right to earn $50 per game (plus stipends for practices and promotions). And, of course, "exposure."

"The initial reception wasn't what we thought it would be," Campbell explained. "A lot of serious dancers hesitated to try out with us at first because of the Hooters name. But the word really spread when the girls found out it wasn't about big boobs."

The dance floor cleared. One by one the contestants cartwheeled and pirouetted their way past the judges' table. A few performed aerial splits, a few did backflips, and a few A in spite of Campbell's disclaimer, there were two or three finalists whose primary asset would seem to have been a high center of gravity A made no attempt at tumbling whatsoever but simply strode dramatically across the floor. To a woman, the Hooter hopefuls were enthusiastic and supportive, smiling and cheering each other on like a roomful of aerobics instructors.

Campbell, who operates several dance schools and cheerleading camps across the state, was true to her words. The flippers and splitters made the cut; the strutters didn't. Hewko's heady statement had been forgotten. Or forsaken.

Predictably, hard-liners and stodgy old farts weaned on Y.A. Tittle, Deacon Jones, and Larry Csonka are unnerved by all the changes to the overblown kid's game they hold sacrosanct. Besides the pigskins-in-the-stands, the management gives away hundreds of T-shirts, vacation packages, foam rubber footballs, and LA Gear bags. At times they enlist Hooters girls to deliver the prizes, sometimes they bring in jai alai players to run around the field and toss gifts into the stands with their cestas. The crowd is peppered with plenty of young couples with kids; Sandra and Charlie Vallina were able to take one-year-old Charlie Jr. to the Tampa Bay game because of a Power 96 (WPOW-FM 96) giveaway that included six sideline tickets, beach chairs, hats, T-shirts, a wading pool, a beach ball, squirt guns, and plenty of food and drinks served by Hooters girls.

And although testosterone appeal prevails, some fans are being won over to the on-the-field aspects of the sport. "I don't know A I admit I came here for the cheese factor," confided fan Andy Anderson during the opener against Charlotte. "But this game is really bizarre. It's like it's right there in your lap. Some of the hits are awesome. You can hear everything pop."

Unfortunately, the Hooters have been on the receiving end of most of the popping. As of this writing the team is 1-3 with nine games left in the season.

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