Letter from New Orleans — From the January 2013 issue

Opportunity Knocks

Is the Arena Football League ready for prime time?

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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.

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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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