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The AFL: real football for real fans

by Bruce Baskin
May 2, 2006 - Arena Football League (1987-2008) (AFL I)

The last time I saw this guy play in a football game, I was almost awestruck by his performance. A wide receiver, he routinely outleapt, outbattled or simply outran defenders for balls thrown his way. Sometimes he had to adjust to the ball the way Karl Wallenda used to adjust to a tightrope, but he would do it and then somehow hang onto a toss even as a defensive player was drilling him. An amazing performance, and truly enjoyable to watch.

Was it Terrell Owens? Randy Moss? Marvin Harrison? Nope it was a guy named Damian Harrell, who just had a game in which he hauled in 15 passes for nearly 200 yards and a bunch of touchdowns.

Chances are the average football fan has never heard of Damian Harrell. It's kind of like that old philosophical conundrum that asks if a tree falls in the forest but nobody hears it, did it make a noise? The answer is that of course the tree is making a noise...noise is noise whether anyone hears it or not.

Harrell, you see, plays in the Arena Football League for Denver's Colorado Crush. The AFL is celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2006 after starting life in 1987 as a four-team league with teams in Chicago, Pittsburgh, Detroit and Denver. The AFL has had a lot of peaks and valleys over two decades, with perhaps the high point in public perception being when AFL product Kurt Warner quarterbacked St. Louis to a Super Bowl victory earlier this decade. Teams have come and teams have gone, sometimes the victims or poor management or a local public simply not interested in watching arena football. At this point, the AFL now has 18 teams playing 16-game schedules, a far cry from their four-team, six-game slate in 1987. The league now has games televised on NBC, average annual attendance is well over a million fans a year, and there's even an af2 minor league developing players for the AFL. While there are weak sisters like Grand Rapids and Austin lagging behind at the gate, t! he AFL is by and large fairly solid, especially for a venture that started out as notations on a 9x12 envelope made during a 1981 indoor soccer game by AFL founder Jim Foster.

Still, even after 20 years, many football fans warily eye the AFL as a gimmick-driven novelty, and relatively few take it seriously as a sport. Hardcore fans understand what arena football is about and accept the AFL for what it is, but the average NFL fan regards the Arena league in much the same way a music listener might regard Kylie Minogue's remake of Grand Funk's song "The Locomotion"...pleasant enough, but lacking the oomph of the original. And this is unfortunate, because they're missing the point.

The fact is, arena football is a blast. Yes, the field is much smaller and there are fewer player out there, but things remain much the same as the outdoor game: You still need ten yards to make a first down, you stil have four downs to do it in, and you still have quarterbacks throwing, receivers catching and linemen beating the hell out of each other in the trenches. Anyone who doesn't think there's enough hitting in the AFL isn't watching it. Just ask a wideout sent sailing over (or through) the sideboards by a defensive back whether there's hitting or not in arena football.

Still, there are several differences to distinguish the AFL from the NFL, the largest being the 50-yard field. Given that the average scoring drive is 30 to 40 yards, there are bushels of points scored in arena football. If an NFL team is leading by 20 after three quarters, they're feeling pretty comfortable. In the AFL, no lead is safe until the final horn sounds. The one drawback is that there essentially is no running game in arena football because everyone uses a variant of Mouse Davis' run-and-shoot offense, which emphasizes short routes and quick passes with the occasional longer sideline play to stretch the defenses out enough to create more room in the flats. Frankly, I'd be facinated to see someone try to establish a power game in the AFL using two tight ends, two running backs and a mobile quarterback in the mold of Michael Vick or Daunte Culpepper. But that's me.

I've been a fan of arena football since the beginning, when games on cable were delayed and edited to fit a shorter time slot as Lee Corso waxed rhapsodic about the AFL ("It's fast...It's furious...") in his best Dick Vitale shtick. I've even considered getting some kind of Barry Wagner replica jersey just so I could tell people who he is. But this year, I've become more of a regular fan who watches the AFL on TV and subscribes to the league newsletter, and will definitely be following the playoffs.

I imagine I'm preaching to the choir here, since most OSC visitors are aware of arena football and accept it as it is. So it's to those hidebound watchers who consider anything outside the Pittsburgh Steelers or New York Giants to be less than "legitimate" football I say: Open your minds, give the AFL some viewing time and a fair chance, and learn who players like Damian Harrell and Andy Kelly are. Quite a few NFL owners and players did, and they now own AFL teams. Suppose they may know something?

As for me, I'm thinking of making a trip to Las Vegas on June 11. To watch a football game.

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Arena Football League (1987-2008) Stories from May 2, 2006

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