Letter from New Orleans — From the January 2013 issue
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Letter from New Orleans — From the January 2013 issue
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.
The NFL might have better athletes, larger stadiums, and a more sophisticated playbook, but when it comes to violence, the AFL wins in a blowout. This might be the reason CBS recently signed the league to a prime-time television contract; during the 2013 season, a game of the week will air every Saturday night on the CBS Sports Network. Fans who are disappointed with the NFL’s recent efforts to improve player safety will be pleasantly surprised to discover the existence of a professional football league with no such scruples. The softening of the NFL has created a niche that the AFL can fill.
Bush turned and found himself surrounded by Predators whose meager livelihoods depended on their hitting him hard enough to make him drop the ball. He juked to his left, sending a Predator spinning into a block, then spotted an opening along the right sideline. He squirted out of the end zone and dodged the outstretched arms of a tackler. He passed the five, and streaked almost to the fifteen before a tackler cornered him.
Were this the NFL, the kick returner’s decision would be clear: he’d run out-of-bounds to avoid the hit. But in the AFL you cannot run out-of-bounds, because the sidelines are four-foot-high walls. Many fields are converted hockey rinks, fifty yards long, with the ice replaced by Astroturf and the dasher boards covered with thin foam padding. The rules of the AFL have been tweaked to minimize running plays and field goals. Punts are forbidden. The eight-man teams score fifty-four points per game on average, nearly two and a half times the NFL mean. Big pass plays are emphasized. So are big hits. Take, for instance, the kickoff, football’s most dangerous play. In the past decade, 44 percent of the NFL’s catastrophic injuries — injuries to the head or neck that led to disability — occurred on a kickoff. In 2011, NFL officials attempted to reduce the number of kickoffs per game. They advanced the kicker five yards, to the thirty-five-yard line, substantially increasing the likelihood that the ball would land in the opponents’ end zone, or beyond it. The rule was effective. Last year NFL teams returned 5.4 kicks per game, down from 7.9 in 2010, and concussions on kickoffs were reduced by 43 percent as a result. AFL teams, by contrast, average twelve returns. This is due in part to the high-scoring nature of the game, since a kickoff follows every scoring play. But mainly it’s thanks to the rebound nets, which ensure that a kick rarely goes out-of-bounds.
Josh Bush pivoted to his right at the last second, which allowed him to run gently into the wall and end the play without being knocked senseless. If he hadn’t mastered this skill, he wouldn’t still be in the league. No other player on the VooDoo had more experience in the AFL, and nearly half of them were rookies. Bush, who was thirty-one, was in his eighth season. For the previous two years, Bush had played for Orlando. The 2011 season was the best of his career: he scored nineteen touchdowns in fifteen games, and was sixth in the league in all-purpose yards, with an average of 139.3 per game. But in the final game of the regular season — on a kick return — a tackler’s helmet fractured Bush’s clavicle. Orlando immediately dropped him from its roster. Bush thought his career was over. “When you have an injury like that,” he told me, “and being that I’m a little older in the game, at that point it’s kind of mentally like, Man, is this it? Can I keep playing and still be competitive without being hurt all the time?” He started to wonder what he would do with the rest of his life.
Bush had joined the AFL for the same reason most players join the AFL: they want to play in the NFL. The AFL calls itself the “league of opportunity,” the opportunity being the chance to play in a different league. That, after all, is what happened to Kurt Warner, the greatest success story in the twenty-five-year history of the AFL — one of the greatest success stories, for that matter, in the history of the NFL. After being passed over in the NFL draft and failing his tryout for the Green Bay Packers, Warner returned to his hometown of Cedar Falls, Iowa. He took a minimum-wage job stocking shelves at a Hy-Vee grocery store and tried out for the local AFL team. Two years later, he led the Iowa Barnstormers to the first of two consecutive ArenaBowls, attracting the notice of the St. Louis Rams, who made him their third-string quarterback. After every man ahead of Warner was injured or released, he was put into the starting lineup fifteen days before the 1999 season began. He threw three touchdowns in each of his first three games, was named the league’s most valuable player, and led the Rams to their first Super Bowl championship. No AFL player has come close to replicating Warner’s success, but it is safe to say that every AFL player has tried.
Josh Bush’s trajectory resembled Warner’s, to a point: after success in college (he graduated as Western Michigan University’s all-time leading punt returner), he was passed over in the draft. NFL scouts considered him too small to play professionally, and he was not even invited to tryouts. He failed his first audition for the AFL as well. But he had been playing football since he was eight, and he refused to give it up. After Bush spent a summer playing for the Southwest Michigan Rage, a semipro team in Kalamazoo, the AFL’s Grand Rapids Rampage offered him a job in 2004.
“My purpose is football,” said Bush. “It’s not just about the NFL — it’s about more than that. It’s about perseverance, getting knocked down and getting back up. Being a story that may motivate someone else to accomplish their own dream.” Bush had a new dream now: he wanted to be inducted into the AFL Hall of Fame. (There is no physical hall of fame; its members are listed on the AFL’s website.) He had been looking forward to tonight’s game against the Predators: “When I split ways with Orlando — well, it wasn’t on good terms,” said Bush. “That’s the team that I feel did me a little dirty. It left a bad taste. I don’t feel like I was treated fairly. So I want to have a great game.” The matchup was also a rare chance to play in front of a national audience: in 2012, four VooDoo games, including this one, were broadcast on the NFL Network. It may have been too late for Bush to join the NFL, but if so, he wanted the world to see that the NFL had made a terrible mistake.
At third and ten on Orlando’s nineteen-yard line, Kurt Rocco, the VooDoo’s quarterback, stepped back, hesitated, then fired toward the left corner of the end zone. Bush, racing across the field on a deep slant, hauled the ball in over his shoulder and collided with the rear wall of the end zone. The impact knocked him to the turf, but the ball never left his grasp. As the crowd cheered, he rose to one knee, pausing there — praying, or recovering his senses — before finally rising to accept his teammates’ congratulations.
On its very first play, Orlando connected on a forty-five-yard bomb down the center of the field, tying the game.
On the VooDoo’s next play, Bush caught the ball on a sprint thirty yards downfield, stopped, fell down, leaped up, scrambled another five yards, and got knocked flat by a defensive back who looked roughly twice his size. Then Rocco threw another touchdown. Six minutes and forty-one seconds had passed since the opening kickoff. There had been eight plays from scrimmage, three of them touchdowns. The VooDoo led, 14–7.
This pace is not unusual. Every AFL offense is the Harlem Globetrotters; every defense is the Washington Generals. The short field is not the only reason for this. The league’s rule book sets the defense up for humiliation. Defensive linemen are not allowed to “stunt” or “twist” or drop back into pass coverage. They must simply try to push through the offensive linemen. One of the linebackers must stay within an imaginary box behind the line of scrimmage, and therefore can neither rush the quarterback nor guard a receiver; he is called the “Jack” linebacker, short for “Jack in the Box.” On most plays Jack merely stands in no-man’s-land and watches the play go on around him. Zone defenses are forbidden. So are double-teams. The offense is also allowed to send one of its wide receivers in forward motion before the snap. This means that the instant the quarterback hikes the ball, the receiver is sprinting across the line of scrimmage at full speed. That receiver almost always gets open. “A defensive back has to have a short memory,” said Jon Norris, the VooDoo’s former general manager, who played on one of the league’s inaugural teams twenty-five years ago. “Deion Sanders is going to get beat in this league.”
There is little incentive for a team to kick a field goal, because the uprights are slender tuning forks, with arms only nine feet apart, less than half the distance between NFL goalposts. The defense’s only hope is a turnover. At the end of the first quarter there have been seven possessions and six touchdowns. With the last of these, the VooDoo led, 27–14.Now that I’m older,” said Bush, “I see these younger guys, they’re who I was when I was younger. . . . They’re still trying to get to the next level in their career. That just makes me work much harder. My window may be closed for that, but there’s nothing like coming out and still working as if that was going to happen.”
Bush didn’t mention him by name, but the “younger guy” to whom he was referring was his fellow wide receiver Le’Nard “LJ” Damon Castile Jr., who was twenty-four. In practice, Castile would strap what looked like a gas mask around his head. Its mouthpiece had two pinprick holes to restrict the intake of oxygen. “It jump-starts you into getting back in shape,” said Castile, who couldn’t run any faster than a jog when he wore the mask. “It cuts your workouts in half.” When he wore it he sounded like Darth Vader, his breathing belabored and amplified, and he might have looked like Darth Vader too were it not for his dreadlocks, which flew behind him like octopus tentacles as he ran.
Unlike Bush, Castile looks like an NFL player: six feet three inches, 220 pounds, with broad shoulders and long arms. In La Marque, Texas, a small city between Galveston and Houston, Castile was the star quarterback at his high school. But at the University of Houston, as he grew taller and faster and stronger, it became clear to his coaches that he had the physique to be a professional wide receiver. Castile switched to the position as a sophomore, but it didn’t come naturally to him. He had to learn how to run a crisp, precise pattern, how to stay inbounds on a deep out route, how to block. He felt anxious his first two years as a receiver — “like a deer,” he said. He did not get drafted when he graduated, but the Cleveland Browns invited him to training camp in 2011. In their first preseason game, against the Super Bowl champion Packers, Castile received the ball on a reverse, burst free of a tackler, and raced along the sideline for a first down. It was his proudest moment as a Brown. He climbed the depth chart, surprising the team with his speed and athleticism, and each week he survived to play another game — until the final hour of training camp. Castile was the last man cut from the roster.
His goal now was to become the best receiver in the AFL. The problem, however, is that the skills you need to succeed in the AFL don’t transfer easily to the NFL. Precise route-running isn’t necessary, because you’re always facing one-on-one coverage. Since Castile was stronger and taller than most of his opponents, he could usually make up for any imprecision in his routes with his size. And because of the field’s dimensions, he couldn’t take advantage of his speed — if you run at full tilt you risk breaking your legs (or your neck) on the wall. “The play is lazy, sloppy,” said Castile. “It’s more about angles. The fastest guy is not necessarily the best guy.” And he was aware that with every play he risked a career-ending injury. “Physically,” he said, “this league is bad for me. I can’t work on the things I need to work on in practice or in games. I have to do that work on my own. But I pray that an NFL scout sees my potential.”
When the game against the Predators began, Castile was leading his team with 625 receiving yards and fifteen touchdowns. Bush was second, with 601 and thirteen. In the first quarter, Bush had pulled ahead in yards and tied Castile in touchdowns. Castile wasn’t concerned — Orlando’s defense was as terrible as any AFL team’s, and there were three quarters left. It was taking New Orleans an average of three and a half plays to score a touchdown.
But then Orlando drastically changed tactics. The decision seemed quirky at first, a desperation move. But as the quarter developed, it began to feel like Orlando was committing a form of AFL heresy, threatening the integrity not just of the game but perhaps of the entire league.
After scoring at the start of the second quarter, Orlando had to kick off, trailing 27–21. To the VooDoo’s surprise, the Predators tried an onside kick — a high-risk, high-reward gambit to force the receiving team to fumble or miss the ball and produce a turnover. The play succeeded: the ball bounced high, and a Predator nabbed it. Three minutes later, Orlando scored another touchdown: 28–27.
Orlando tried a second onside kick several minutes later, and failed to recover the ball only because of a penalty. Then, after Rocco threw an interception and the Predators scored a field goal, they attempted yet another onside kick and recovered this one too. On the sideline, the VooDoo’s coach, Pat O’Hara, stared at the field in astonishment. Castile stood forlorn, helmet in hand, as Orlando scored again. With less than a minute left in the quarter the Predators had scored thirty-three consecutive points. They led, 47–27.
The onside kick is rarely attempted in the NFL, because if you don’t recover the kick, the opposing team has the ball with excellent field position. But Orlando’s coaching staff had realized that the calculation is different in the AFL. With a smaller field and fewer players, the odds that the kicking team will recover the ball are significantly higher. And since AFL offenses score on most possessions anyway, sacrificing field position makes little difference. The best way to stop an AFL offense is through a turnover. And what play is more likely to produce a turnover than the onside kick? Orlando had found a loophole in the AFL game.
The VooDoo finally gained possession with eighteen seconds remaining in the half. After two quick passes to Castile and Bush, the VooDoo were twenty-six yards from the end zone with seven seconds left. Rocco hiked the ball and dropped back; almost instantly, one of the defensive linemen broke loose and barreled toward him. Rocco ran to his right and, just before he was hit, launched a wild pass downfield. Castile was waiting at the edge of the end zone, sandwiched between two defensive backs. The ball was high, Castile leaped, and it was suddenly obvious to everybody in the arena — and everybody watching the game on the NFL Network — what the scouts saw in him. He didn’t jump so much as climb through the air, rising above the outstretched arms of a defender, and at the highest point of his ascent he ripped the ball out of the sky: touchdown.
It was halftime, and the teams ran into the locker rooms. The Predators led 47–34. Josh Bush was nodding his head to some internal rhythm. LJ Castile was doing a little hip-shimmy dance. Coach O’Hara’s face was fixed in an expression of agony.
In 1991, when Pat O’Hara watched his first AFL game, he was a rookie quarterback in training camp with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He was lucky to be there. Though he had been a quarterback at the University of Southern California, which has one of the nation’s preeminent football programs, he barely played. At first, he was backup to Rodney Peete, a Heisman Trophy finalist. Then, in his junior year, one of O’Hara’s teammates injured him in practice. A freshman named Todd Marinovich took over and led the team to a Rose Bowl victory. In his senior year, O’Hara played in only one game. But Tampa’s scouts liked his arm enough to select him in the tenth round of the draft.
In training camp with the Buccaneers, O’Hara remembers watching television one evening with fellow rookie Chris Chandler, a future seventeen-year veteran of the NFL who twice made the Pro Bowl. The two quarterbacks were flipping through the channels when they came across a football game. The local AFL team, the Tampa Bay Storm, was playing the Detroit Drive in the ArenaBowl, the league championship, which takes place in August. O’Hara laughed when he saw the sideline walls, the size of the field, the rebound nets. “I’ll never play in that league,” he told Chandler.
In the Buccaneers’ final preseason game, the coach called O’Hara’s name in the third quarter, and he led the team down the field for a touchdown. That night he watched the game on TV. Joe Namath was one of the commentators, and he raved about O’Hara’s style of play. Namath said he had a bright future ahead of him. O’Hara still has the broadcast on VHS. “I showed my son,” said O’Hara. “He was like, ‘Who’s Joe Namath?’ ”
O’Hara made the team that year, made the roster of the San Diego Chargers the next year, and later attended training camp with the Washington Redskins. But he never played in a regular-season NFL game.
In 1995 he signed with the Orlando Predators. He stayed for six years, leading them to two ArenaBowl appearances. “I spent my entire professional playing career waiting for an opportunity,” he said. “Orlando gave it to me.”
O’Hara looks like a Hollywood casting director’s fantasy of an NFL quarterback. He has trim brown hair and a strong, handsome face with sharp brown eyes and a slightly flattened nose. He is six feet three and, at forty-four, still looks as if he could put on a helmet and lead the VooDoo to the ArenaBowl. Sometimes, at the end of VooDoo practices, he throws perfect spirals the length of the field. His motion is graceful, effortless. His players stay late just to watch him throw.
If you’ve seen Oliver Stone’s 1999 film Any Given Sunday, you’ve seen O’Hara. He plays the backup quarterback. During the games he holds a clipboard and wears a headset, trailing behind Al Pacino on the sideline. Since 1997, when he was cast in a small role in The Waterboy, O’Hara has served as a football consultant for film and television. He scouts locations, designs plays, and recruits extras. He has taught Jamie Foxx, Adam Sandler, and Mark Wahlberg how to carry themselves like football players.
O’Hara met his wife, Billie, in Orlando. She was a Prowler, a Predators cheerleader. The O’Haras built a house in Orlando and raised two sons, now ten and twelve. When O’Hara left the city for nearly a decade — playing for the Toronto Phantoms and then the Tampa Bay Storm, with whom he won another ArenaBowl — his family stayed behind. His wife worked as an Orlando Magic cheerleader, then became the Prowlers’ dance director. In 2010, O’Hara was named head coach of the Predators. The team advanced to the playoffs each of the next two years, but both times failed to reach the ArenaBowl.
O’Hara won’t say it directly, but Josh Bush is not the only person the Predators “did dirty” in 2011. Two days after losing in last year’s playoffs, Orlando fired O’Hara. Then they fired his wife.
Loyalty, needless to say, is not prized in the AFL. Until this season, no contract could extend longer than a year. Nobody objects to the lack of stability; in the league of opportunity, everyone is looking for a promotion to the NFL — not only the players but the coaching staffs, the referees, and the cheerleaders. Franchises don’t last long, either. Nearly every year there are expansion teams, while others fold or move. Recent casualties have included the Austin Wranglers, the Carolina Cobras, the Detroit Fury, the Indiana Firebirds, the Los Angeles Avengers, the Nashville Kats, and the Oklahoma City Yard Dawgz. The New Orleans VooDoo were once the Bossier–Shreveport Battle Wings.
The league itself is unreliable. In 2009, the entire season was canceled. Many team owners had hoped that television networks would begin broadcasting the games years ago. It was a reasonable assumption. The NFL, after all, is the most profitable sports league in the world, earning more than the National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball combined. It receives an estimated $4 billion in television revenue every year. Shouldn’t a second, faster-paced football league that plays during the NFL’s off-season earn enough to generate a profit? In the late 1990s, in anticipation of a national television contract, teams began to sell for as much as $16 million, attracting NFL team owners: Dallas’s Jerry Jones and New Orleans’s Tom Benson each started teams. Jon Bon Jovi founded a team in Philadelphia and christened it the Soul. In 1999, around the time Kurt Warner was named the NFL’s MVP, the AFL reached its height of popularity. A developmental league, the AF2, was formed, with teams in such cities as Hidalgo, Texas, and Kennewick, Washington. Players’ salaries increased steadily, to an average of more than $200,000. But a major TV deal never materialized, and attendance for both arena leagues dipped; some franchises began to lose as much as $4 million a year. In 2008 the AFL, $14 million in the red, filed for bankruptcy.
A year later, several owners bought the rights to the AFL. The new league was structured as a single entity rather than an association of franchises to prevent the players from organizing a labor union. Owners in the AFL, as one general manager told me, were terrorized by the “fear of a collective-bargaining agreement.” Last year players in the league earned $400 a week during the season, with the exception of starting quarterbacks, who made $1,600. Before the 2012 season began, players threatened to strike over the low salaries. On the day of the first game, Matt Shaner, the owner of the Pittsburgh Power, invited his players to dinner at an Olive Garden. Halfway through the meal, he fired the entire team. The players stormed out. But by game time, many of them had dropped their demands and rejoined the team. Shaner filled the rest of the roster with replacement players. Pittsburgh won the game by two touchdowns.
Last August, however, the players finally succeeded in establishing a collective-bargaining agreement. This season they will make as much as $830 a game, though starting quarterbacks will be limited to $1,080. Since the contract was approved before the CBS deal came through, the players’ union will miss out on most of the revenue from television licensing.
Many of the VooDoo players live in subsidized team housing in the Magnolia Ridge Apartments, a cheerless complex that abuts I-10 in Metairie, a suburb ten minutes northwest of downtown New Orleans. At halftime of each home game, the Jumbotron in the Graveyard shows a new short film of a VooDoo player giving a tour of his “crib.” We see the couch where the player watches television; the cabinet in the kitchenette filled with ramen packets; the dismal, perfunctory pool in the courtyard, seen through the venetian blinds; the closet with a handful of hangers. There are two players housed in each crib, and each crib is identical.
Coaches are not covered by the collective-bargaining agreement. The head coach, the defensive coordinator, and two assistants, I was told, must divide among themselves a salary of $110,000. (The AFL would not confirm that figure.) They can be fired at any time, with no warning, as Pat O’Hara learned in Orlando. But because the team owners are a close-knit group, hiring can occur just as quickly. Ten minutes after O’Hara was released by the Predators, he received an offer from the VooDoo. He accepted immediately.
“I have a family,” said O’Hara. “I have two kids. I talked to my wife, and we weren’t in a position to wait around and be cool.” Besides, he said, Louisiana was fertile ground for football recruitment, and AFL coaches are responsible for scouting their own talent. New Orleans is only a ten-hour drive, or a one-hour flight, from his family in Orlando. And the VooDoo had the league’s worst record in 2011: three and thirteen, with zero home wins. “There was only one way to go,” said O’Hara. “Up.”
In the first interview he gave as head coach of the VooDoo, O’Hara announced that he had three goals for the season: win the division, win the ArenaBowl, and beat the Orlando Predators.
The VooDoo kicked off to begin the second half. To nobody’s surprise, O’Hara ordered, vindictively, an onside kick. Orlando recovered, but two plays later Predators quarterback Chris Leak — who just six years ago led the Florida Gators to a national championship — was intercepted. On the next play, Rocco threw a thirty-four-yard touchdown, his fifth of the game. New Orleans was within seven, 47–40.
O’Hara tried another onside kick. It failed again, and two minutes later Orlando scored.
The Predators had their first kicking opportunity of the half, but inexplicably Orlando’s coach, Bret Munsey, decided to abandon the onside kick. Perhaps he had been shamed by O’Hara. Or perhaps he had received a halftime phone call from a league authority ordering him to cut it out, his new strategy having crossed some line of decency, exposing the frivolity of the AFL, thus breaking the league’s pact with the viewers, who expect big pass plays, not strategy. Whatever the reason, Munsey didn’t try another onside kick for the rest of the game. Decisions like this may explain why Orlando, after nineteen excellent seasons, missed the playoffs in 2012.
After the return, Rocco connected with Castile three times in quick succession. On the third completion, Castile was running at full speed across the end zone when he caught the ball, and instead of jamming into the barrier he leaped over it, clearing the wall entirely and landing at the feet of several fans sitting in the front row. Leak threw another interception, and at the end of the third quarter the game was tied, 54–54. O’Hara allowed himself a quiet fist pump.
He was standing on the field when he did so, roughly ten yards behind the line of scrimmage. It is a further peculiarity of AFL games that one of the coaches must stand on the field with the players. Because there are no sidelines, the players who are not on the field are confined to bullpens at either end of the field. On the turf, the coach can communicate directly with his quarterback. But the image is an awkward one: the coach lurking behind his team, trying to avoid being hit by an errant tackler and seeming as if he might step in at any moment.
For the moment there was no need. Kurt Rocco, whom O’Hara invited to the team after an inconsistent rookie year with the Cleveland Gladiators, was playing the best football of his life. He was second in the league in passing, averaging 311 yards per game. At six feet five inches and 230 pounds, he bears a strong resemblance to the young Pat O’Hara. He comes from a baseball family in Cincinnati: his grandfather was Ray “Snacks” Shore, a pitcher for the St. Louis Browns; two of his uncles played in the minors. Rocco began to focus on football only at the end of high school, after a late growth spurt.
He was accepted to Mount Union College, a small liberal-arts school in Alliance, Ohio, that perennially has one of the top Division III football programs in the country: the USC of DIII. On his first day of practice, Rocco was one of about ten freshmen trying out for quarterback. Two survived cuts: Rocco and Cecil Shorts III, now a receiver for the Jacksonville Jaguars. Rocco improved each year, but he was stuck behind Greg Micheli, whose career quarterback rating is the highest in the history of college football, all divisions included. When Rocco was finally given a chance his senior year, he threw for 3,929 yards, leading Mount Union to the national championship game.
“I felt like I changed people’s minds,” said Rocco. “I had a lot of people come up to me at the end of the season saying I did really good. Some people even said, ‘With your size and your arm, I think you’ll get a chance to do something in the future.’ And here I am, I guess.”
His mechanics were not perfect, his footwork not as deft as it could be, but he knew he had a professional-caliber arm. He waited for a phone call from his agent, hoping for a shot at the NFL. None ever came.
His agent finally asked whether he might be willing to try out for the AFL. Rocco didn’t know the rules, but he agreed to audition for the Gladiators. He was offered a job almost immediately.
“I was excited,” said Rocco. “I got to continue my career and play football for what I consider to be a professional team. I mean, you’re getting paid to do it, even if the pay isn’t tremendously great. This is obviously not the NFL, but it’s a starting point. Kurt Warner always credited the speed of this league, how fast you have to get the ball out of your hands, with helping him transition to the NFL.”
Among his teammates Rocco had a reputation for being serious, intense, cerebral. In a game against the Pittsburgh Power last April, one of the receivers botched his route but managed to break free anyway. Rocco passed to him for a touchdown, but took no joy in it. As his teammates celebrated, Rocco stewed.
During his rookie year in Cleveland, the self-imposed pressure had hampered his play. “The anxiety level was really high before each game. I didn’t eat a single pregame meal. I had so much running through my head. I’m still trying to learn how not to let myself get out of control by thinking too much.”
On the first play of the fourth quarter, Leak found T. T. Toliver on a deep cross for a touchdown. The VooDoo’s defensive back, having now been burned by Toliver for 186 receiving yards and five touchdowns, slammed the unsuspecting receiver into the back wall. Toliver hit the ground but bounced back up and, as he had after every touchdown, raced over to the VooDoo bullpen. He held the ball aloft and, as he performed an elaborate victory dance, laughed in the face of his old coach, Pat O’Hara.
On the next play, Bush raced past his man and Rocco lofted a thirty-one-yard pass. Bush reached out and brought it in, crashing into the end zone for his third touchdown of the game. He kneeled and prayed. It was 61–61.
Orlando had a chance to take the lead again, but a fourth-down pass into the end zone was swatted to the ground. With seven minutes left, Rocco passed for his ninth touchdown. The fans, glutted on touchdowns by this point, clapped politely.
They cheered louder when the VooDoo’s Jeremy Kellem made an acrobatic play that could happen only in the AFL. Kellem — a quick, small, deeply religious defensive back from North Lauderdale, Florida, who prays aloud throughout each game — dove after a pass thrown to Toliver on an outside cut. Kellem tipped the ball out of Toliver’s hands; it caromed off the sideline wall and bounced off Kellem’s knee into the air. Just before it landed, Kellem, lying on the ground, squeezed his legs together, catching the ball between them. The referees looked at the instant replay and decided that the ball had hit the player and the wall but not the ground, so the interception was ruled valid. The VooDoo gained possession, leading 68–61.
There was only a minute left, but in the AFL a quarterback cannot take a knee and let the clock run out. If the offense doesn’t advance the ball, the clock stops automatically. Since running plays almost always result in lost yards, the team with the lead must continue to pass, again and again, like a song stuck on repeat, until the game is over. With a few seconds left, Rocco found Bush twenty-six yards downfield, and the clock, mercifully, wound down.
The postgame press conference took place in a media room off the ramp that leads to the field. The Hornets’ logo was covered, at least partially, by a VooDoo banner. There were five reporters in the five rows of seats.
“Kurt made some tremendous throws tonight,” said O’Hara. “Great night for him on a national stage.”
The coaches’ wives, four of them in all, entered and sat together in one of the unoccupied rows. O’Hara’s wife and children had traveled from Orlando for the game.
“We had a horrendous second quarter,” said O’Hara. “It was the Twilight Zone . . . You’re always going to face adversity in this crazy game.”
A reporter asked whether the game had any special significance for him.
“Yes,” he said, and paused. “It does. It’s special for my family. It’s something, honestly, I’ve thought about for nine months. . . . I’m not going to lie, it does feel good.”
Months later, after leading the VooDoo to the playoffs but failing to reach the ArenaBowl, O’Hara was offered a two-year contract extension. Rocco also renewed for two years. Castile, after spending the off-season working as a security guard in Houston, joined the Utah Blaze. Josh Bush, despite leading the AFL in yards per catch in 2012, has not yet signed with any team. Thanks to the CBS contract, the 2013 season may bring the AFL greater legitimacy and financial security. But this night in May, the players seem overjoyed simply to have won — and to have survived the game without suffering any catastrophic injuries.
After the end of every home game at the Graveyard, fans are allowed to walk onto the field. There they greet the VooDoo players, who tonight, having left their helmets behind, emerge grinning from the locker room. Teenage boys gaze awestruck at players twice, three times their size, and sometimes they work up the courage to ask one to pose for a photograph. A crowd of screaming preteen girls swarms Kurt Rocco. They ask him to sign footballs, posters, T-shirts, faces. Rocco’s serious demeanor cracks; he can’t keep from laughing.
Finally the children’s chaperones tell them to go. It’s late — the game lasted nearly three hours. But none of the little kids want to leave the field. And they’re not the only ones. Despite the hour, despite the brutal collisions into the wall, despite the nineteen touchdowns and twenty kickoffs — despite everything, none of the members of the New Orleans VooDoo want to leave the field either.
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More from Nathaniel Rich:
Context — January 15, 2016, 12:16 pm
Memento Mori — October 15, 2013, 6:03 pm