Tulsa's Jon Norris: an AFL Original

by Mike Vergane
May 1, 2000 - arenafootball2 (af2)

Tulsa's Jon Norris: an AFL Original

by Mike Vergane

Arena football aficionados will remember that back in the spring of 1987 Jim Foster gathered a group of unemployed but hungry football players, and took them to Wheaton, Illinois. Over the next 3 weeks Foster taught those players a game which he invented called Arena Football. After the camp was finished, the players were divided into 4 teams; the Chicago Bruisers, the Denver Dynamite, the Pittsburgh Gladiators and the Washington Commandos. And with that, those "Camp Wheaton" grad's became the original Arena Football alumnus. In that group from '87 was Tulsa Talons Head Coach Jon Norris.

Norris has been associated with Arena Football off and on since the beginning. And it only makes sense that a man who was there at the beginning of the AFL should be here at the beginning of the arenafootball2. It's the path in between that gets interesting.

In the spring of '87, Norris was signed by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the CFL and then released before the start of the season. It was then that Norris found himself finding out about Arena Football.

"The Tiger-Cats recommended to the new Arena coaches that I go to Wheaton and become part of their 1st year training camp.", said Norris. That 1st year of Arena Fottball according to Norris was never boring. "We were trying to figure things out and develop the game. Back then there were rules changes every week that we would find out about an hour before gametime. But it was really fun to be a part of it."

Jon Norris graduated from American Internatinal College in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1985. He was signed out of college by the New England Patriots and spent the season on the injured reserve while the Patriots went to the Super Bowl (where they lost to the Chicago Bears). Oddly enough, Norris would get his only NFL playing experience two years later as a replacement player with the Chicago Bears in the 1987 strike season.

Norris described what it was like being a replacement player for Mike Ditka. " I enjoyed playing for him. He was the type of coach you didn't want to make the same mistake twice around. It was an enjoyable experience and there was an interesting cast of characters on the team."

One of those characters was current New England Sea Wolves Head Coach Mike Hohansee. In fact, Norris said the Bears strike team had an "Arena Flavor." "There were 14 Arena players on our team. You see, the Bears were smart. They knew we had just finished our season and we were in shape. So they grabbed a lot of us to play for the strike team. Plus, the AFL league offices were in Chicago, so they had easy access to the names and numbers."

That "AFL flavored" Bears team turned out to be one of the best strike teams in '87. The strike Bears finished 4-1. Their only loss was 19-17 to a New Orleans Saints team that had 12 players cross the picket line. In that game, Norris intercepted a pass from his defensive end position. Norris was invited back the followinig season in 1988, but was released in training camp.

With his playing days now behind him, Norris has been working on his coaching career. He spent time as the head coach at Division II Panhandle State in Oklahoma. In fact, it was there that Norris found his current quarterback Eric Hannah.

"Our team had a bye week and I scouted Eric in a game two years ago when he was at Western Colorado. He had a great game, getting out of trouble and playing catch with his recievers. I turned to the guy I was sitting with and said that he's gonna be a great Arena QB some day. He was one of the first guys that I had in mind when I got the job."

It was Norris's ties with his old friend Jim Foster that helped him land the Tulsa Talon's job. "It just so happened that the Talons owner, Jeff Lund, had just asked Jim Foster what he should be looking for in a head coach. Jim and I had stayed in touch ever since that first year, so Jim recommended me. Right about that time my resume hit Jeff Lund's desk. It was just that type of timing where it all fell into place."

Don't get the idea that this all had to do with him knowing the right person. Norris had built up his Arena coaching resume with assistants stints with the Connecticut Coyotes and the Las Vegas Sting. When you consider the af2 all came about 13 years ago in Wheaton, Illinois with a group of unemployed football players being taught a new game, it all seems inprobable.

Mike Vergane writes his af2 column on a biweekly basis for OurSports. He has covered college football for local and national radio since 1995.

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