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.

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.

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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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