Two hours remain before the 2 p.m. kickoff. As Morant buys candy, several of his Kansas City Brigade teammates loosen up on the field in preparation for the season opener against the Dallas Desperados. The rituals look familiar to football fans. At midfield, two coaches watch lineman Michael Landry make sharp cuts on the turf, testing an ankle he sprained three weeks ago.
This being an Arena Football League game, a high-scoring version of the sport played indoors on fields the size of a hockey rink, some of the pre-kickoff routines appear out of kilter. Backup quarterback Chris Sanders, for instance, drops back from an imaginary pass rush in his bare feet.
Square-jawed and wavy-haired, Sanders looks like a quarterback ordered from central casting. He's 28 years old, in what should be the prime of his career. Yet as with every other player in the Arena Football League, some deficiency in size, skill or pedigree has kept him out of the National Football League. So he toils for workingman's wages in a league with padded walls for sidelines and a 1-to-1 player-to-cheerleader ratio.
Now in its 20th season, the Arena Football League has grown from an idea scribbled on a manila envelope into a major minor league. Promoting itself as the fan-friendliest sport, the AFL has increased in wealth and visibility. Games now are broadcast on NBC. Franchises sell for eight figures. Seeing opportunity in the league of touchdowns galore, four NFL team owners now operate arena clubs. League investors also include rocker Jon Bon Jovi, Missouri billionaire Stan Kroenke and former Denver Broncos star John Elway.
As late as last August, the group of investors bringing arena football to Kansas City planned for an expansion team in 2007. Then Hurricane Katrina hit, leaving the arena football franchise in New Orleans homeless. The league needed a team to take New Orleans' place in the schedule. Expansion into Kansas City commenced immediately. In just four months, the Kansas City franchise had to pick a name, fill its roster and hire a full staff, from coach to cheerleaders. That left little time to sell a city on the idea of playing football on carpet.
In some ways, Kansas City seems an ideal place for arena football. Rabid fans blanket Arrowhead with a sea of red even when the Chiefs stink. Then there are the Interstate 70 fanatics driving for college football in Lawrence, Columbia and Manhattan, no matter that their teams are just going to get pounded again. Add in the fact that we're the undisputed home of tailgating (screw you, Green Bay), and you've got a town crazy for all things football.
But Kansas City also has rejected professional sports. Eleven pro hockey teams have come and gone. Minor-league basketball has twice failed, and the NBA's Kings fled to Sacramento in 1985. Indoor soccer's Comets bit it, and the outdoor version, the Wizards, have been short on fan support. Even the Chiefs and the Royals are threatening to pack up if we don't spend half a billion dollars on a stadium spring-cleaning.
In this climate, the Brigade's investors agreed to cough up $18 million just to get the rights for a team, not to mention the costs of assembling the franchise players' salaries, workers' compensation, hiring someone to design a Web site. Now that's pressure to succeed.
For Tyler Prochnow, the principal owner, the challenges are nothing new. As a lawyer, he represented a most unpopular client: the telemarketing industry. Prochnow could not keep the "do not call" registry from becoming a reality, but signs indicate that he knows how to run an indoor football team. Prochnow says he'll be disappointed if attendance doesn't exceed 12,800 a contest, the league average in 2005. It helps that one of the investors in the team is the popular former Chief Neil Smith. With his name attached to the team, the Brigade has already sold 8,400 season tickets for its slate of eight home games at Kemper Arena. And last weekend, the Brigade managed a sell-out crowd of 16,523 at its home opener, in which Kansas City lost 37-33 to the Austin Wranglers.
A few fans of Kansas City's latest professional sports team refuse to wait for the February 12 home opener. Darrin Butler, a maintenance man who lives in Kearney, Missouri, made the drive to Dallas with a friend and her daughter. Butler, a Brigade season-ticket holder, wears camouflage pants and a Brigade T-shirt. On his head is a leather aviator cap, which he has topped with the Brigade's logo, a stealth bomber. "When I heard they made the name and everything, I was like, 'I want to be one of them goofy guys with a costume on TV,'" Butler says.
When Butler spots Smith, who played in six NFL Pro Bowls, standing on the turf looking resplendent in a checkered blue suit, he calls out, "Neeeiiilll!"
Butler is in row 20, which in NFL stadiums would put him far from shouting distance of the sideline. But arena football brings fans close to the action.
From his spot on the turf, Smith turns to Butler. "I like your hat," Smith says. "It's tight."
Brigade players suit up for the Dallas game in a room that has no lockers. Sitting on folding chairs in the cramped cinder-block room, they pull their equipment from bags strewn across the floor.
In one corner of the room, Cliff Green listens on headphones to the Young Jeezy and Akon song "Soul Survivor." He blurts out the occasional yeaaah in time with the beats. Next to him, Chris Pointer struggles to pull up a pair of tight silver football pants.
"I told you, boy, get some mediums," Green says to Pointer.
"I got biker pants on," Pointer says, examining himself.
In arena football, Green and Pointer are what's called "defensive specialists," small, speedy players who enter the game to cover the opposition's best pass catchers. Arena league rules differ from those in traditional football. Games feature eight men on a side, three fewer than in college or NFL contests. Except for a few players, including the quarterback, most must play both offense and defense. The rule cuts the cost of player salaries, with rosters half the size of an NFL team.
But the biggest difference in arena ball is the scoring. Receivers can take running starts before the snap, and defensive players' movements are more restricted. In one AFL game, a team scored 99 points. "This game here is so much faster," says Brigade assistant coach Robert Smith. "It's like playing basketball on a football field. That's the way you have to think about it. It's like a track meet."
A former NFL executive named Jim Foster came up with the idea for arena football. According to lore, Foster sketched the basics on an envelope after watching an indoor soccer game at Madison Square Garden. The AFL began in 1987 with four teams.
From the beginning, the league struggled for legitimacy. Franchises moved frequently or ceased to exist. ESPN showed tape-delayed games in the dead of night.
In its early days, the league produced one future NFL superstar, Kurt Warner, who quarterbacked the Iowa Barnstormers before he won a Super Bowl with the St. Louis Rams. But for the most part, the sport operated in the margins. "One of our coaches said that back in the late '80s and early '90s, when he played, they literally had a guy steal the team van and leave for two weeks," says Lucas Yarnell, a Brigade lineman playing for his seventh arena team in 10 years. "And when he came back, he'd get on the field and have, like, eight tackles."
The AFL's fortunes began to turn in 1995, when former Republican congressman David Baker bought a franchise in Anaheim, California, for just $400,000. Baker become league commissioner and quickly pushed for teams to move to bigger cities. He tried to eliminate labor disputes; the current collective bargaining agreement with players doesn't expire until 2010. Baker also introduced the "Fans' Bill of Rights," which promises a wholesome and affordable entertainment experience.
Baker's efforts produced results. Average game attendance reached 11,397 in 2003. Then the league negotiated a unique deal with NBC to show the games with no upfront cost to the network. After production expenses are paid, NBC and the league split ad revenue. Television audiences remain small, which concerns league officials. But healthy attendance figures have stabilized franchises and set a path for growth. With the arrival of the Brigade and the new Utah Blaze this year, AFL franchises now operate in 18 cities.
Vestiges of the league's renegade past endure. Brett Bouchy, the president of the Orlando Predators, was barred from securities trading after an investigation found that he had manipulated stock prices. Befitting a man of Bouchy's past, the Predators market themselves in Orlando as a kind of anti-Disney. In 2003, the league ordered the team to remove a "Get Behind Your Team" billboard that showed a female model taking a three-point stance. A year later, the league fined the Predators again, this time for a contest that involved inflatable sex dolls.
The Brigade's inaugural game in Dallas begins badly. On the team's first possession, quarterback Andy Kelly throws three incomplete passes. Tight end B.J. Cohen is flagged for a false start. The drive concludes with kicker Tim Seder missing a field goal.
A Desperados fumble returns the ball to Kansas City. But two plays later, Kelly throws an interception.
The Brigade's ragged play frustrates head coach Kevin Porter, who played safety for the Chiefs from 1988 to 1991. Porter, who is normally soft-spoken and guarded, barks at an assistant coach after a bad play. "Get your shit together!" he yells.
As the quarter unfolds, Prochnow, the Brigade's president, stands on the turf in the back of the end zone. Wearing a conservative suit, he's flanked by two bored-looking women in Hooters outfits. An air horn behind him wails every time Dallas scores. "Come on!" Prochnow begs after a referee calls a personal foul on a Brigade player. On the next play, the Dallas quarterback rushes for a touchdown.
Prochnow grew up in Atlanta. In college, he played soccer and got involved in politics. He interned in the U.S. Senate office of Mack Mattingly, a Georgia Republican. After graduation, he wound up in Colorado, where he served as an assistant in the state House Appropriations Committee. He liked political work but not political pay, so he got a law degree at the University of Denver.
Prochnow moved to Kansas City in 1997 to take a job at the firm of Lathrop & Gage, where he served as general counsel to the American Teleservices Association. The group represented businesses operating the kind of call centers that interrupt supper with unwanted sales pitches. "It was a group that obviously came under a lot of fire at the time," Prochnow tells the Pitch. "Most of that was a misunderstanding." Prochnow describes his work as "an educational process, making sure that when the state and federal governments were drafting laws to rein in people that were a problem, that they were only going after the people who were the problem and not hindering legitimate businesses that people use every day."
Just the same, the telemarketing association's opposition to the do-not-call registry was far from popular. As it became clear that the law would pass, Prochnow argued that consumers should pay to sign up for the registry. Now, he admits that the list a free service utilized by tens of millions of thankful Americans has "worked pretty well," though he points out that people still find frustration with phone calls from charities and political campaigns, which are exempt from the law.
In 2003, Prochnow started a sports-management business called Golden Peak. He and his partner, Reggie Harris, represent about 30 clients, including Deion Sanders and Olympic gold-medalist Amy Van Dyken. When one of his NFL clients was considering retirement, Prochnow looked into buying an arena team on his behalf. The player ended up staying in the NFL for another season, but the arena league left an impression on Prochnow. "On the second or third day, we all kind of looked at each other and went, 'Why in the world do we not have a team here?' All the things that this league speaks to, it's all the things that we kind of think of in terms of Kansas City," he says.
Stories about arena football successes in other cities reminded Prochnow of the tales he had heard about the Kansas City Royals in the 1970s and '80s. "Not just that they were a winning baseball team, but the players lived here, and they were a part of the community, and they were a visible part of the community," he says. "You saw them out. You could approach them. They felt like they were part of the Royals organization from a fan's standpoint and that they helped contribute to the team's success, both on and off the field. That's exactly what the AFL is built to be in every market."
Prochnow announced his intention to pursue a team in 2004, shortly before voters in Kansas City approved a plan to build the new downtown Sprint Center arena. He led an investor group that paid the AFL an expansion fee of $18 million.
Last August, The Kansas City Star reported that the league and Prochnow didn't want to begin play at Kemper Arena without an understanding that the team would move into the Sprint Center when it opens. But AEG, the management company that runs the new arena in partnership with the city, appeared to put little value on having an arena football team. Negotiations to get the Brigade into the Sprint Center have gone nowhere. Prochnow downplays the appearance of contentiousness. Just another "misunderstanding," he says. Prochnow says the two sides are close, but significant issues remain.
Hurricane Katrina changed everything. The damage to New Orleans persuaded AFL officials to expand into Kansas City for the 2006 season. In early October, the league sent 13 former VooDoo players to Kansas City. But with less than four months remaining before the start of the season, the organization lacked virtually everything else.
Ten days before the season began, the Brigade office on Shawnee Mission Parkway in Shawnee was a riot of cardboard boxes and streaks on dry-erase boards. "In a perfect world, I think you'd want at least a year, probably 18 months, to put an organization like this together," Prochnow says, sitting at a conference table. The details were overwhelming. "When you buy your football helmets, helmets come without decals, and they come without face masks. Somebody has to sit down one night before our players show up and screw in all the face masks in every helmet and put the chin straps on. Those are very time-consuming things that have to be done before anybody can ever step on the field. There's thousands of items just like that that are small issues in the grand scheme of things but very time-consuming and very labor-intensive."
In preparation for the halftime show, the Desperados Dancers make a costume change. Off come the matching spangled chaps and short shorts; on go the leather pants and plaid miniskirts. The dancers take the field and contort to a medley of rock songs, the arena lights catching their orange tans. The commissioner's pledge of wholesomeness notwithstanding, the routine celebrates T&A. It offers a small preview of what fans can expect of the Brigade's own dance team.
After trailing by 12 points at the half, the Brigade manages to narrow the Dallas lead in the third quarter. With 1:56 remaining in the quarter, Andy Kelly connects with Calvin Spears on a 10-yard touchdown pass. Dallas 37, Kansas City 30.
The touchdown is the 720th of Kelly's arena football career, good for second on the all-time list. It's not a record Kelly expected to hold. After leading the University of Tennessee to three bowl games, Kelly participated in NFL training camps in Arizona and Pittsburgh and played in NFL Europe. But he never made it onto an NFL roster. In the midst of his job search, Kelly played part time in the arena league. By the time he hooked up with the Nashville arena team in 1997, he figured the indoor league was his destiny.
Indicative of a man who has quit worrying about impressing NFL scouts, Kelly sports a second chin and a paunch that hangs heftily over the shorts he wears during practice. He'll turn 38 before the season ends. Kansas City is his sixth AFL city. "Maybe that's why I've never been married," he says.
One of the former members of the VooDoo, Kelly evacuated New Orleans before the storm hit. When he returned, he recovered the belongings he had left in his apartment. But just a few miles from where he lived, the destruction was evident. "You could see people's homes where they had gone back and just taken everything out of their homes and piled it in the front yard," he says. "You could tell there was nothing in those houses. It was pitiful. They couldn't save hardly anything. It was sad really, really sad."
Cohen, who also came from the VooDoo, was supposed to fly into New Orleans from Atlanta on the day the hurricane landed. He pushed his flight back a day, and the airport closed. The images of the hurricane and its aftermath haunted Cohen. A newspaper in Atlanta ran a picture of a New Orleans man holding a baby in one arm and draping a blanket over a corpse with the other. The man was wearing a VooDoo jersey with Cohen's number.
Cohen entered the arena league in 1999. He made $800 a game in his first year, but his play drew the attention of NFL scouts, and he spent four weeks on the Oakland Raiders' practice squad that fall. Like Kelly, a full-time NFL job never materialized. Instead, Cohen has built a solid career in the arena league. Last year, he made the All-Arena team. "I just love the game," Cohen, 30, says. "I feel like I'm in a position where I'm established. I'm not in the NFL, looking over my shoulder every week, [thinking] 'Oh, I missed a tackle. They might cut me.' Or 'I missed a block, I fumbled.' Here it's like I'm able to relax ..."
Cohen is able to relax but not live in splendor. The average AFL player makes $40,000 a year. The highest-paid "star" earns less than $200,000. Most players take other jobs in the off-season. Cohen has tried his hand at real estate and the hauling business. Yarnell, the veteran lineman who looks like he swallowed a sea turtle, spent three months in 2004 as an extra on the Adam Sandler remake of The Longest Yard. "They were looking for guys to fit certain roles," Yarnell says. "I guess 'big fat white guy' was the role I fit."
Yarnell grew up in Topeka and has lived in Olathe since 2000. When he's not making movies, he helps coach the Olathe East High School football team. Yarnell, 32, says he probably would have retired if arena football hadn't arrived suddenly in Kansas City, though he's not certain what a future with football holds. "I'm scared, I think, to get to the real world," he says. "I think that's why I think I can still keep coming back and try to play."
Lineman Abdul-Salam Noah jogs off the field with 1:19 remaining before the start of the fourth quarter. "This is the money quarter now," he yells.
Noah's teammates fail to respond to the pressure of the money quarter. A Dallas touchdown early in the fourth puts the Desperados ahead by 14 points. Kelly throws an interception on Kansas City's ensuing drive.
Butler, the Brigade fan who fashioned a costume, realizes that the turnover will make it difficult for Kansas City to mount a comeback. From his seat in Section 106, Butler begins looking forward to the next game. "As soon as we get the first game out of our system, we'll be doing OK," he says.
Four plays later, Dallas scores another touchdown. Butler looks up at the scoreboard: Dallas 51, Kansas City 37. "Hey, I get a free pizza," he says, remembering a public-address announcement that promised ticket holders a free Papa John's pie if Dallas scored 50 or more points.
Aside from the score, Butler likes what he sees, though some of the rules are confusing. Still, the view from Butler's seat explains a lot of the league's popularity. The short and narrow field seems to emphasize the gladiatorial elements of the game. Bodies streak and bang. Tackling a guy into the padded wall often lands the player into a fan's lap. Arcing spirals sail through the air. Punting is illegal. When the ball is not in play, loud rock and hip-hop boom from the speakers. The arena's announcer says a player is not just tackled but "hammered." For the requisite playing of "Y.M.C.A," five promotion types run on the field dressed like the Village People. The crowd reported generously at 11,571 makes enough noise to compensate for the fact that there are hundreds of empty seats.
"We're in a good position because the game itself is such an exciting product," Prochnow says. "We don't have to get out there and start to convince people, 'You should really go see this game, because it's great.' People kind of understand the excitement around the game."
The Brigade's ticket sales support Tyler's contention. In selling 8,000 season tickets, the Brigade already ranks among the top three or four teams. But the arena league seems incapable of becoming something more than an entertainment option on a par with movie theaters and dart leagues. The sport is watched but not followed. Going on year four of the NBC deal, even Sports Illustrated subscribers would struggle to name an arena league player.
Reggie Harris, Prochnow's partner in the sports-management business and the Brigade's general manager, got a feel for the partial nature of the victories in the arena league when he ate at a Dallas steakhouse the night before the game. During the meal, he learned that his server had been to a Desperados game. She said she had enjoyed herself, but not because of the game. The reason she had a good time, Harris says, "was because she won a Whataburger contest."
With a minute to play in the game, lineman Noah plops his 6-foot-2-inch, 280-pound frame on one of the folding chairs that serve as the Brigade's bench. He rests his helmet on a thigh. "Oh ... my ... God!" he says to no one in particular, an expression of shock at the looming defeat.
Kansas City scores a late touchdown, but no miraculous comeback is in store. Dallas wins 58-44.
In arena league tradition, players and cheerleaders hang out by the sideboards after the game to sign autographs. A few Brigade players chat with several New Orleans VooDoo fans who attended the game. "I want you back, man," a middle-aged woman in a purple VooDoo jersey tells Cohen.
Speaking to a small group of reporters, defensive specialist Pointer blames the defeat on his unit giving up too many big plays. "If you look at the whole game, we really beat ourselves," he says. "We just gotta bounce back. It's the first game of the season. We've got 15 more."
In the Brigade locker room, players undress. They use scissors to cut the tape on their ankles. The room smells like sweat, sports cream, and pizza that's been left in boxes on a folding table. The players seem disappointed but not disheartened by the loss. In spite of three turnovers and 11 penalties, the team still managed to finish within two scores of its opponent.
Fans saw a "team on the road, playing with new guys and anxious to do well instead of settling down and making plays, including myself," Cohen says between bites from a slice of pizza. "You can't do that when you're on somebody else's turf.... We might have lived through the penalties, but we definitely couldn't have lived through the turnovers."
Quarterback Kelly meets reporters after a shower. He walks gingerly, the way that men do when they feel groin pain. He's wearing team-issued gray sweats and holding a small plastic bag he picked up at Kansas City International before the flight to Dallas. "I think we're all still confident," he says. "We're a good team, and we're going to come out and play hard every week. If we just limited some of the mistakes, we'd have had a chance tonight."
Outside the arena, a bus waits to take the team to its downtown hotel. Cohen and a few other players spot former VooDoo head coach Mike Neu, who now works as a scout for the New Orleans Saints. Neu gives Cohen a good ribbing.
"Going bald?" Neu asks Cohen, tapping his scalp.
"A little bit," Cohen replies.
Eventually, the door of the idling bus closes. At 5:42 p.m., the driver pulls away from the arena. A sheet of paper taped to the front window of the bus announces the passengers as the "Kansas City Brigades."