I arrived at Tad Gormley Stadium on Friday night hopeful but uncertain if I'd get to see any football. I was, for that matter, unsure whether the New Orleans Jazz football team (not to be confused with the pre-Utah NBA franchise) actually existed in the world beyond cyberspace. Two weeks earlier I had stumbled upon the website of the Stars Football League, an upstart spring league consisting of what appeared to be eight teams. Being late July, my internal football clock had already begun to itch for training camp, and with the lingering uncertainty around the NFL's labor situation, I decided I'd give the SFL a shot.
This, it turned out, proved to be harder than it sounded. The league's website was curiously devoid of seemingly basic information like schedules or rosters, or even an explanation of why there were no schedules or rosters. My suspicions were raised even further when, surfing Craigslist one day, I came upon this ad:
"Pro football team GM (new orleans): The New Orleans Jazz are looking to fill their GM opening. GM will be paid 10% of personal sales and 2% of all sales."
And then, shortly after:
"Jazz Pro Football Team (New Orleans): The New Orleans Jazz of the Stars Football League are looking for exp. football players for the up coming season. We are looking for players with pro, college, or semi pro exp. at all positions. base pay is $100.00 a game but there are many bonuses that can be add on a weekly bases.
season starts 7-15-11 and ends 9-11-11."
Needless to say, it doesn't inspire confidence when your GM position is listed next to used couches. All this, mind you, while the league’s website was up and running and promoting itself as if games were imminent. The previous Friday, there had been a game briefly advertised on the website against the Michigan Coyotes, which was canceled before I even had time to submit my media request. You can see why, then, I was a bit apprehensive pulling into the stadium’s parking lot. There seemed to be a fairly large chance I was wasting my Friday night.
Tickets online had been on sale for $20, more expensive than many upper-bowl New Orleans Hornets tickets. I had called "the league office" that morning requesting a credential and was assured that I would receive a "VIP pass" at the stadium. But the usher took my slacks and button-down shirt as proof enough that I was with the media, not even asking for my name. Being the middle of the Louisiana summer, most spectators were not wearing sleeves.
Tad Gormley, located in New Orleans' City Park, looks very much like LSU's Tiger Stadium probably did before expansions and renovations pushed the seating capacity to near 100,000. It's a low-slung, old-timey horseshoe full of bleachers, with an official capacity of around 26,000, although you get the feeling that more could probably fit if they had to. As I climbed up the ramp and emerged into the stadium 20 minutes before game time, I don't know whether to be encouraged or disappointed.
The good news was that there were two teams on the field. The bad news was that there were probably twice as many players on the field as fans in the stands. The teams' jerseys look high-schoolish and hastily arranged, without numbers on the backs. New Orleans sports an imitation Oregon dark green and florescent yellow, while Ft. Lauderdale is a tragic teal.
As I wandered unimpeded down to the sidelines, I can see these players are big enough that they wouldn't look out of place at Saints training camp. I ask around: Almost all players have played major college football. There is a Barracuda lineman who apparently played for Ohio State. The only problem is that they remain anonymous. There is apparently no roster in existence.
Among the fairly impressive collection of talent, one player, even on the sidelines, stands out. Before a down is snapped, it is abundantly clear who the quarterback of the Jazz will be. As a Tulane grad, I recognize him: Former Green Wave and LSU Tiger Lester Ricard. At 6-4 and 230 pounds, Ricard had stints with the Jacksonville Jaguars and Carolina Panthers, as well as the CFL Edminton Eskimos before being last seen in the Arena League, getting beaten out for the starting spot on the New Orleans VooDoo by the venerable Danny Wimprine.
Still, something about seeing him here doesn't quite add up. Simply throwing the football, he looks for all the world like an NFL quarterback. High school games in this stadium have been known to draw upwards of 15,000 fans. By now, there may be 200 people in the stands, and most of them appear to be related to the players. While Lester Ricard may not be one of the top 100 quarterbacks in the world, it's a safe bet to say his one of the 200 best. He bounces around, slapping helmets. I can't help feel he deserves a bigger stage than this.
Eventually I wander up to what is traditionally the visitor's press box. There I find only one other media member, a freelance videographer, who has been hired by the league for an online highlight show that may or may not happen. Later he will, apropos of nothing, tell me his day job is being a magician for children’s parties and that I should check out his website some time. We are a long way from the NFL.
The game starts. The rules of the SFL are exactly like the NFL except for two key differences: Field goals longer than 50 yards are worth four points, and after a touchdown you have the added option of attempting a three-point conversion from the 10-yard line. The videographer and I agree that this is smart. For a league trying to generate excitement, no game is out of reach.
Unsurprisingly, both teams look very much like they haven't had enough practice time, trading three-and-outs. Ricard (pictured below from his Tulane days) hangs in the pocket and throws a number of beautiful spirals that are, almost without exception, two feet too far out in front or above his intended receiver. The Ft. Lauderdale quarterback (whose name I never figure out seeing as how there is no roster to check) who is less traditional, water bug type, is repeatedly stuffed on designed scrambles. It appears that the units most affected by the lack of practice time are the respective offensive lines, with neither quarterback able to stand upright long enough to find any sort of rhythm. All in all it's a rather boring first half of football. On more than one occasion I get the urge to check in on the NFL labor situation.
The most interesting development of the first half may very well have been the public address announcer, who, inexplicably, had been acting like both a TV play-by-play man and a color analyst. In a Rust Belt sort of intonation, the voice booms through the stadium while the play is going on.
"The Jazz quarterback drops back. He's rolling right. It looks like he's trying to go deep, and ... he's ... sacked! The Jazz quarterback is sacked by the ... by the ... Barrcaudas."
Whoever this announcer is, it is clear that he is equally as unfamiliar with the roster as I am. At halftime, I decide to do a little exploring and venture over to the other press box, which I find completely deserted except for the press box official, who tells me that the commissioner of the league, who had been doing the PA announcing, would like to talk to me, but has gone down to one of the locker rooms. Things are beginning to get even stranger. Welcome to minor league football, I think to myself.
Before the start of the second half, I walk down to the very front row, behind the Barracuda sideline. There are approximately six other people on this side of the stadium. On the Barracuda sideline, there appears to be a coach not in team gear, who keeps talking to a younger guy who runs back and forth to one of the corner end zone tunnels. I think nothing of this.
Several minutes later, one of the referees stops the game and begins signaling for someone to come down from the press box. The man that comes down, who I assume to be the commissioner, is short and stocky, wearing a white SFL polo. Apparently not realizing that I am a reporter, the referee and the commissioner, as well as the Barracudas head coach, huddle only feet away from me. The referee believes that the man and the kid have been illegally relaying defensive signals, and wants to award a Palpably Unfair Act (which would result in a touchdown) to the Jazz. After a lengthy discussion with the commissioner, however, this does not
happen. Again, I think, minor league football.
At the beginning of the fourth quarter, I climb the ancient steps up to the press box, where the commissioner introduces himself as Peter Huthwaite. I suggest that we wait until after the game to allow him to continue with his PA duties, but he has no problem simply stopping. I wonder if the crowd is disappointed or relieved. I ask
him what his ultimate goal is for the SFL.
"Our ultimate goal is to be America's premier pro spring football league, from March through July, all across the country," he responds.
Though the website lists eight teams, he tells me that only four -- New Orleans, Ft. Lauderdale, Daytona and Michigan -- actually exist. (I do not press him about the respective fates of the nonexistent Charleston Admirals, Las Vegas Gamblers, Mobile Gladiators or Little Rock Iron Men.) Given this information, I think 30 teams sound a bit ambitious and ask him where he might put them.
"We've thought about many different cities and we're negotiating with those cities and their stadiums for a lease for next year," Huthwaite says.
Why does he think this league will succeed when other spring football leagues have failed?
"A lot of it is the financial business plan of the league," he says. "That's what I looked at. In the past, in the early 1980s, we had the United States Football League, which had a lot of wealthy owners involved, and they ultimately expanded too rapidly and they also expanded into the fall to take on the NFL. That was ultimately their undoing. I want to focus on the spring and stay in the spring."
This doesn't add up to me. Toting the "financial business plan" of your league when you have, at best, 500 people in the stands takes a certain suspension of disbelief. And, well, this isn't the spring. It's the summer. I ask him if tonight's crowd is enough to sustain his plan.
"No, absolutely not," he says. "It's not enough to sustain our business model, but we have that wherewithal, the warm weather. A small crowd like this, 500 to 700 people plus a good draw at the concession stands and so forth. But no. We're looking for 15,000 to 20,000."
And how do you get 20,000 people to pay $20 to see minor league football?
"In the spring, we have to market it in the right markets, the right cities, so that's what we have to look at. This year we’re looking at different cities and selecting cities that may work."
I think this sounds a little like Yogi Berra but he elaborates.
"I think we need to focus more on the advertising side of it, the sponsorship and advertising packages. But you can't do that unless you have a product on the field. You can go to someone and say, hey, I’ve got a great business plan and this is what I'm going to do, but they can’t visually see it. We have a game going on that they can see. We're the only outdoor league playing right now that I know of, so I would think they'd be interested."
This seems true enough.
"We don't play football on a hockey rink. We're outdoor, 100 yards, and that's what we're playing. That's traditional. Ever since the games been played it's been 100 yards, except in the Canadian league where it's 110 yards. This is American football in the spring. Unfortunately we started a little bit late this year."
Can this league be a stepping stone for guys to get to the NFL?
"We hope not. We planned this as America's pro spring league. We want to be successful in the spring and not play in the fall or winter. We want to play in the spring. Whether they go on and play in the spring, they may or may not do that."
I sit back. Huthwaite is clearly deeply invested in the success of the league, and the poor draw obviously does not sit well with him. By trying to do everything himself, it seems, he has cut some important corners like, say, advertising. Even for a football fanatic like myself, find this game was more a matter of luck than anything else.
"Sometimes you go a little thin to stay in business," he says. "So yes, we need more staff in each of our cities, but we're handling it with what we have now, and we're doing a good job."
There are clearly some major holes in this raft. After a few more interesting statements (he cannot name Ricard, arguably his league's most high profile player, and alludes to the possibility of a pie-in-the-sky TV deal), he does make a point that is hard to argue with, especially in a city as football-centric as New Orleans.
"Football is a sport that's always in demand, and it seems like fans can't get enough of it," he says. "Playing in the spring, I think a lot of fans will come out and support us."
By that point, the score of the game is 9-0 in favor of the hometown Jazz, courtesy of three field goals from former LSU kicker John Corbello (pictured above from his college career). Though the game is a snoozefest, at least the home fans can walk out of Tad Gormley with a win. Well, maybe. With 24 seconds left, the Ft. Lauderdale quarterback heaves a Hail Mary deep into the Louisiana night. Nobody, including the players, seems to be paying that much attention. An anonymous New Orleans defensive back picks off the heave, and in a moment of hubris he tries to lateral the ball, hoping for the glory of a meaningless 100-yard return. The pitch is intercepted. Touchdown the other way.
While this is all taking place, I speak to a receiver who hasn't dressed due to the fact that he missed the last two practices. He identifies himself only as "Vincent" and is very eager to explain to me how he wants to promote himself as "Beer Man II," referencing the Saints' cult hero Michael "Beer Man" Lewis. Vincent, it seems, had his role on the team reduced to water boy. When I suggest that he probably needs to score some touchdowns before he's embraced as "Beer Man II," he agrees, but assures me the actual touchdowns would be little more than a formality once he gets onto the field. He explains that he had played at Southern Miss, but stopped because of some "drama."
It takes a moment for the players on the sidelines to realize what's happening. I wander over toward the team's punter, who catches on first. Six plus three equals nine. The game is still up for grabs. With the Jazz still in a coma, the Barracudas convert the three points, unofficially becoming the first football team to ever come back from a nine-point deficit on one possession. Overtime.
Many of the Jazz players had already started taking off their gear and now they scramble to find their helmets. Predictably, Ricard and the offense can't muster anything more than another three-and-out. The future of the SFL in New Orleans seems very much to be hanging in the balance. The small but increasingly vocal crowd is clearly not happy with either the Jazz or any brand of football where such hijinks can take place. It smells gimmicky.
Luckily, the Ft. Lauderdale quarterback finally gets what he deserves. After the New Orleans secondary had passes bounces off its hands all night, Jazz defensive back No. 32 undercuts a route and, channeling Saints defensive back Tracy Porter, takes the pick back for six points. The Jazz win 15-9, and while a crowd of 500 may technically not be able to "erupt," everyone is quite relieved. The Jazz on the sideline hold their helmets in the air and mob the anonymous No. 32.
As disconcerting as my discussion with Huthwaite and the first four quarters of action had been, those minutes make me a believer in the possibilities of the SFL.
The crowd is pumped. Their team, which they’d been ready to leave for dead only minutes before, had won and that was all that mattered. You got the sense that everyone in the crowd was going to bring a few friends to the next game.
I run to catch up with Ricard (pictured with "Beer Man II") who by any stretch of the imagination is on his last legs as a professional football player. The videographer wants to know about the game, about why he had trouble connecting with his receivers. The answers are well considered but obvious.
"Obviously I had a couple shots I wish I could have had back," Ricard says.
I ask him what he thinks this league can turn into. He can't stop smiling. He doesn't want to stop believing.
"Moving forward, I think there are eight teams on the website, so I think those teams get up and going it will start some excitement," he says "Even though it wasn’t a huge crowd, you saw the excitement. It's football and people just love going to football games."
This is potentially the truest statement of the evening, although it should potentially be amended to "people in New Orleans especially love going to football games."
"Publically I think we better advertise and publicize the games a whole lot more," he continues, trying to keep some perspective. "This really is great football. Its not fake football like Arena Football. It's real football. It's 11 on 11, mano-a-mano, NFL rules."
And again, Ricard is right. The scoring rules may border dangerously on gimmicky, but they made for one hell of a game that, on the field, was not substantially different in style from the NFL or NCAA. It is, by any definition, real football with very real football players.
"A lot of these guys played Division I football," Ricard says. "These guys are grown men, they're not 18-year-old kids. These guys are 27- or 30-year-old grown men and you can feel the difference when the hit you."
If the league succeeds, Ricard would figure to be a good bet to succeed along with it. Even Beer Man II agrees that Ricard, a native Louisianan with two built-in New Orleans college fanbases, Will Smith looks and a rocket arm is the clear-cut face of the New Orleans Jazz.
The ultimate success of the league may have less to do with players like Ricard, however, than with players like Robert Armstrong, a 6-6 receiver that, from afar, looks like he should be playing on Sundays. Armstrong played junior college ball at Santa Monica College, and bounced around through various semi-pro leagues before hearing about Jazz tryouts from a friend. Though it's clear that something besides talent kept him out of the SEC, he doesn't talk about the past. In some ways it's fitting. Here under the lights, the future is allowed to look bright.
"I think people need to jump on the train, because this has a chance to be a very competitive league," Armstrong, a native New Orleanian, says. "Very competitive. At the bottom we're hungry. All we want is a chance and an opportunity and for people to come support us and show they're behind us 100 percent. If we get that, we can die happy."
Is the SFL a longshot to succeed? Even the most charitable of observers would have to admit that. At the very least, it must over come some major, major obstacles. At the moment, the entire thing feels like a deck of cards that could collapse at the first bounced check. For many of these guys, however, that's beside the point. The SFL is a chance to play football, and that's a chance they're willing to take.