The D.C. Defenders jersey
The D.C. Defenders jersey Credit: Aman Kidwai

With the Alliance of American Football and Arena Football League shutting down this year, the U.S. is low on professional football options. That’s where Vince McMahon‘s reboot of the XFL hopes to fill the void. 

“We fully believe we can play good, crisp, quality, hot, fun football,” XFL CEO and commissioner Oliver Luck tells City Paper.

The new version of the XFL will have eight franchises, including one in D.C. League executives hope to provide a familiar but more entertaining version of the pro game through an innovative approach to the rules. 

The league will make its debut when the Defenders host the Seattle Dragons on Feb. 8, and some area residents are already fully committed. Andrew, 54, was among the first to arrive at a sports bar for a fan event earlier this month. He told City Paper that he gave up season tickets for the local NFL team that his family had held since the 1960s to dive into Defenders fandom.

“After doing my research … I feel that the fan experience will be better than the [Washington football team] experience.“ Andrew said. “The team losing is not really the problem … It’s just that that experience inside the stadium from the minute you walk in, to the minute you walk out … [It’s] not a fun time.”

Attendees of the fan event varied in their fervor for D.C.’s brand new football franchise, with some describing their interest as more of a casual curiosity. Nevertheless, the proposed rule changes were popular with the crowd.

Kickoffs will be completely different, the play clock will be shorter than the NFL’s, punting out of bounds inside the 20 will be a touchback, extra points will have higher stakes, and the overtime format will look more like a soccer shootout.

“I really like the kicking and punt return rules,” Brandon McMichael, 27, said. “In the NFL right now you see so many fair catches and touchbacks … But I think that those are some of the most exciting plays in football when they’re executed correctly.”

Over the past two weeks, the Defenders held camp in Cole Fieldhouse at the University of Maryland. Players stayed at a hotel in College Park and generally expressed enthusiasm for the opportunity to continue their professional careers. A handful of players at the camp have spent time in the NFL.

Cardale Jones, the former Ohio State star, will likely be the Defenders’ starting quarterback. The Buffalo Bills selected Jones in the fourth round of the 2016 NFL Draft, and he was traded to the Los Angeles Chargers the following season. After a short stint on the Seattle Seahawks practice squad, he was out of the league in September, having made just one appearance in three years.

Jones, who won the College Football Playoff’s national championship game in his third collegiate start, is embracing this chance to get back onto the field. He also highlighted the quality of the coaching staff as part of the draw for him.

“To have the opportunity to be under these guys and have them lead me through the next parts of my life, my career, I couldn’t pass up on it,” Jones says.

The Defenders will be led by head coach and general manager Pep Hamilton, who played football at Howard University and started his coaching career there after graduation. He had been an offensive coordinator at Stanford University and the Indianapolis Colts and was on Jim Harbaugh’s staff at the University of Michigan before taking the XFL job.

Hamilton has moved around a lotnine times in roughly the last 20 years—but he and his family are familiar with the D.C. area.

“We’ve always kept our off season home here,” Hamilton says. “We look forward to coming back. We love the culture and all the DMV has to offer.”

Since February, the teams have filled out their front office and coaching staff, come up with nicknames, created uniforms, and drafted their rosters. After wrapping up minicamp in the middle of December, they’ll start preseason play in January.

“We’re really, in essence, going to have to microwave a football team,” Hamilton says.

The Defenders’ team president, Erik Moses, joined the team in April after 10 years with Events DC, the public-private partnership that manages event venues including sports and convention centers across the city. He and Hamilton both have a deep affinity for D.C., which Moses says “doesn’t get its due, especially as it relates to sports.”

Moses adds that he and Hamilton are dedicated to making the Defenders part of the D.C. community. For a D.C. pro football team hoping to gain popularity locally, being within city limits is a great start. The team will play its home games at Audi Field in Southwest.

In a sport where productive players at the highest level can come from unexpected places, the XFL is offering hundreds of young men a chance to prove themselves in a way they might not get to otherwise. Kenny Robinson, who made the league by entering a tryout event in D.C. to get his name in the draft pool, is an All-Big 12 safety from West Virginia University. He was on NFL scouts’ radars before finding out he was academically ineligible and missing the entire 2019 season. He plans on using the 10 XFL games as a way to boost his stock ahead of the NFL Draft in May. Unlike in college, he’ll collect a paycheck with the St. Louis Battlehawks.

“They all have a burning desire to be great, to continue to play football,” Hamilton says. “They don’t take this opportunity for granted.”