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The Command averaged 3,838 fans per home game last year on its way to a 6-12 record — a far cry from its final season as the Brigade in 2008, when 12,828 fans regularly invaded the Sprint Center. Eager to build a local following in the Command's second year, McCabe admits he is handicapped by the structure of contracts that come with league-exempt clauses. A player is free to leave at any time if he receives an offer from the NFL or the Canadian Football League. (If a player loses that pro berth and wants back into the AFL, the team he left retains first-refusal rights.)
The Command has already come close to losing Parker. Several CFL teams have reportedly expressed interest in the wideout, with a potential deal in the works as late as mid-February.
"The AFL doesn't want to be a feeder league," McCabe says. "At the same time, we take pride that the guys we evaluate get picked up by the NFL. And nobody is going to turn down an NFL contract."
Four gleaming sets of aluminum bleachers sit between two practice fields of artificial turf, each cordoned off by a wall of Plexiglas panels spanning the length of a football field. On one side, the defensive- and offensive-line players work on pass rushing. The AFL skews heavily toward passing. The Command ran 152 rushing plays as opposed to 420 pass attempts during the 2011 season. The defensive backs and wide receivers square up on the other half of the practice field.
Eight years after he reported to River Falls, Wisconsin, for the start of Chiefs camp, Parker is back in a Kansas City uniform. He holds onto the white barrier on the far side of the field, standing between advertisements for an urgent-care clinic and a dog-training service. He swings his right leg up like a ballet dancer and stretches his hamstrings.
O.J. Simpson, a rookie wide receiver trying to make the team, pinches the corners of his jersey with his thumb and forefinger and holds his number up after making a catch near the sidelines.
Simpson, who played at Truman High School and Missouri Western State University, announces: "3-2 — remember that number." He looks right at Jack Belcher. "Big Dog," as Belcher is known to Command players and staff for his favored choice of T-shirts, is the only fan here for training camp.
An oversized bald man with a single gold hoop gleaming in his left ear, Belcher is clad in a Kansas City Brigade jacket — the previous incarnation of the Command. That team lasted from 2006 to 2009, when the AFL suspended operations. When the AFL returned to Kansas City in 2011, the logo remained, though the name changed.
Belcher will be the unofficial statistician for McCabe this year. As one of the three founding members of KC Flight Crew, the team's fan club, he'll be in the front row of the end zone for every home game at the Sprint Center.
"It's me and football," Belcher says. "I don't love anything else, and I love this game better than anything. Here the guys get more personal. You've got to be a people person to play in this league."
The defensive and offensive lines cross between the barriers. Several players banter with Belcher on their way to a touchdown drill. Defensive Backs Coach Eldrick Hill lays out orange cones 10 yards apart.
"This is the end zone. You've got three [downs]," Hill shouts, and then sends two short blasts through his whistle.