Letter from New Orleans — From the January 2013 issue

Opportunity Knocks

Is the Arena Football League ready for prime time?

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For the first three seconds it was almost possible, if you ignored the dimensions of the field and the size of the crowd, to pretend that you were watching an NFL game. The kicker measured five paces back, and one to the left. He raised his hand, rushed forward — one, two, three-four-five! — swung his leg, and his shoe popped the leather. The football was an orange bullet; it zipped over midfield and over the end zone. Then — and here was how you knew for certain that this was not the NFL — the ball hit a net and bounced back onto the field.

The “rebound net” spanned the width of the end zone and rose from field level to the tops of the uprights. Its strings were drawn tight, as on an enormous tennis racket, and it volleyed the ball into the end zone. Waiting there was New Orleans VooDoo kick returner Josh Bush, a strong, compact man who, at five feet nine inches and 165 pounds, gets side work as an extra in Hollywood movies about high school football teams. When Bush caught the ball, he was standing with his back to the rest of the field. Behind him, eight Orlando Predators were closing in, aiming for his spine.

It was just after seven o’clock on Friday, May 18: week eleven of the 2012 Arena Football League season. The attendance at the Graveyard (known to Hornets fans as the New Orleans Arena) was announced as 6,161, roughly one third of the venue’s capacity, but the actual number seemed much lower. The VooDoo had three wins and five losses and were fighting for a playoff spot. The Predators had made the playoffs for nineteen consecutive years, which tied them with the National Hockey League’s Detroit Red Wings for the longest active playoff streak in professional sports. But Orlando’s record now stood at a moribund one and seven; tonight represented their final chance to resuscitate their season. The teams were fairly evenly matched, and the outcome was nearly impossible to predict. The only predictable thing was the violence.

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’s second novel, Odds Against Tomorrow, will be published in April by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. His last article for Harper’s Magazine, “The Luckiest Woman on Earth,” appeared in the August 2011 issue.

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