Quarterback Chase Clement attended an open tryout for the Las Vegas Locomotives of the United Football League a year ago, caught on as the team's third quarterback, and by season's end was MVP of the championship game.
I thought maybe that could be me.
Last week, I came to the same tryout location -- Cerritos, Calif., College -- paid the same $60 registration fee, donned the same white T-shirt with “Locos” emblazoned on the front, and participated in the same drills under the watchful eye of coach Jim Fassel that Clement did one year ago. But the improbable journey to first-string status and title-game heroics, well, after further review, I'm not sure that's the route I'll be running.
My sedentary evenings as an editor at Yahoo! Sports are usually broken up only by strolls to the coffee machine. Still, my boss pulled me aside during a company party two days before the tryout to ask if I'd be willing to participate and report on the experience because, apparently, I'm the only member of the Yahoo! Sports staff spry enough. Holding a beer in one hand and a plateful of nachos in the other, I figured, why not? I was a decent high school quarterback. I'm only 25. What's the worst that could happen? I took a swig and started dreaming those Chase Clement dreams.
The night before the tryout, my editing shift lasted until 2:30 a.m. thanks to a late NBA game. No worries. I covered up my anxiety with bombast, laughing off suggestions that I should actually pick up that football lying on the back seat of my car and throw it to somebody for the first time in two years. I hadn't run a 40 in nearly a decade, so, hey, my legs must be fresh.
I asked my boss what he was going to do if I made the team, secretly hoping he'd call off the assignment. His response?
"I'd probably just hire a new editor."
Driving to the tryout, I didn't feel as though I had much invested in it. Worst-case scenario, I'd embarrass myself in front of a few hundred people (nothing I haven't done before). Best-case scenario, I'd impress professional football coaches with my rocket arm that could probably throw a football over that there mountain.
What I didn't expect was the feeling I got upon arriving. Mild nerves gave way to long-dormant competitive juices. I wanted to be there. I wanted to show what I could do. I saw a taller All-American-looking guy (I later recognized him as former Arkansas and USC quarterback Mitch Mustain) and thought, yeah, I could take him.
There was talent -- more than I imagined. Most of the 175 or so candidates played in college, and clearly they still hungered to put on the pads, to be part of a team, to run onto a field under the lights, hear the whistle and hit somebody. They weren't NFL material, for one reason or another, and yet, they still woke up early on a Saturday in hopes they might be chosen to play in a league that pays each player $50,000 for an eight-game season. Kinda crazy that such elite college players were now on the football fringe.
Some were there because of hard luck. Lamar Chapman, a cornerback who starred for the University of Utah, heard whispers last month that he might get drafted by an NFL team. Presumably because of his diminutive stature (listed generously at 5-foot-8, 180 pounds), Chapman didn't hear his name called. And because of the rules in place regarding communication between free agents and teams during the lockout, Chapman has been unable to latch on with an NFL team as a free agent. Hence the Locomotives' tryout.
"I have a good feeling about a couple of (NFL) teams that would give me a good opportunity, but right now, this right here would be the next best thing," Chapman told me. "This is a great opportunity. The UFL is great for players that still need a good look and they can take advantage."
The field was full of guys who dreamed bigger and probably deserved better. Osaar Rasshan started at quarterback for UCLA once upon a time. Injuries and coaching changes contributed to keeping Rasshan from establishing himself. For the past couple years he has been substitute teaching, biding his time until he recuperated completely from knee and shoulder injuries.
All day long, players from colleges large and small recognized old cohorts and foes who at one time or another, looked like they were destined for great things in football.
Joe Trombetta, the seventh player in UC Davis history to rush for 2,000 career yards, was rolling a pipe along his hamstrings to loosen them up when former South Dakota running back Isaac Newton walked by. Newton asked if he could borrow the pipe, then did a double-take, recognizing Trombetta as the running back who scored on a two-yard run in overtime to give the Aggies a 24-23 win over the Coyotes in 2009. "That was a game I'll never forget," Newton said as Trombetta handed him the hamstring pipe.
Even somebody like me, who had played his last competitive game in the semifinal of a Utah high school state tournament ages ago, happened to run into a guy I'd played intramural ball with in college. The tryout became a reunion of sorts, a reunion of guys who can't give up the game.
The tryout wasn't as rigorous as I'd imagined. The quarterbacks weren't even required to run a 40. (Somebody asked if we'd be judged negatively for a slow time if we did choose to run it, to which Fassel replied, "You bet your [expletive] you will.") Of course, that didn't stop me. I ran a 4.7 in high school (at least that's what I tell anybody who'll listen) and I'll be damned if I didn't use every one of my money-makers to impress those judgmental clipboard-toters.
OK, so my 5.0 time didn't exactly blow them away, but it wasn't totally disappointing considering the only speed that matters to me anymore is how fast I can type. The passing drills were challenging, especially because receivers were running the same routes in drastically different ways. I managed to connect with a respectable number when there wasn't a defender. But the last drill was spirited one-on-one work with defensive backs covering the receivers, and it was soon obvious how my age/lifestyle choices/lack of throwing over the years had adversely impacted my depth perception and timing. Chase Clement's job was safe.
All things considered, I was happy I gave it a go. The registration fee was on the company's dime and I got to live out what little piece of youth still dwells within. These open UFL tryouts provide a conduit for dreamers of all stripes and experience -- and Fassel said that maybe five candidates would be invited to Locos' training camp in a few weeks. Most people hear "UFL" and think "also-ran," but after an hour with guys of this caliber and hard luck, I prefer "ran also."
The UFL has attracted big-name coaches in Dennis Green, Marty Schottenheimer, Jerry Glanville and Fassel -- a quartet with more than 400 NFL wins among them. The players, while obviously not on par with their NFL brethren, are in many cases one large step from fame. Fassel's son Mike, who works in football operations for the Locomotives, says nearly 70 percent of the players in the UFL have NFL experience.
Yes, it's still the UFL, an outfit akin to Double-A baseball, where the most rabid fan base is in Omaha. But the league just might make it by staying true to its roots and growing when the NFL is on hold.
As for me, what was the verdict of my Paper Lion moment? Could I play in this league?
My own evaluation:
• I am nowhere near athletic enough, even compared to the other quarterbacks trying out, let alone Chase Clement.
• I need to ice my shoulder.
• I need a beer.
Locos quarterback coach Eric Van Heusen wasn't as discouraged with my performance as I seemed to be (I'm assuming he was trying to be nice once I peeled off my Locos T-shirt to reveal a Yahoo! Sports shirt underneath).
"I thought for the most part, the quarterbacks, with the exception of maybe one or two, there wasn't anyone from an arm-strength standpoint that couldn't make it," Van Heusen said. "Obviously there's a lot more that goes into it, but I thought you were solid today.
"I'll say this: You didn't stand out as, 'Oh my God, what is he doing out here?' "
Funny how everyone else on the field that day just wants to emerge from the pack the way they once did.
I was thrilled to blend in.
-- Cody Brunner is a coverage editor for Yahoo! Sports. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org .