Balls and Walls: Arena football comes to D.C.

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Gary Briggs grew up dreaming of playing for the Redskins at RFK Stadium. But, as he turns 33 this month, he’ll settle for playing arena football in the building next door.

“I’ll give it one more year,” says Briggs, a receiver and longtime arena baller who is one of the first signees of the D.C. Armor.

That’s an expansion squad in the American Indoor Football League (AIFL), a confederation with teams in Baltimore, Harrisburg, Pa., Charlotte, N.C., Reading, Pa., and Trenton, N.J. The Armor begins play in March at the D.C. Armory.

Briggs got hired after the franchise’s first job fair, held in late November on his field of dreams, RFK.

Briggs, a D.C. native now living in New Carrollton, played outdoor football as a receiver and defensive back for Eleanor Roosevelt High School and West Liberty College of Wheeling, W.Va. He took his game indoors in 2000, and has been bouncing off walls, and from arena team to arena team, ever since.

For the uninitiated: The indoor game, as played in the AIFL, consists of eight men per side playing on a 50-yard field and using mostly conventional football rules. Some exceptions: Offensive players can move forward behind the line before the snap, and teams get a one-point “rouge” if their kickoff sails through the uprights. Because of the small space, there’s a lot of scoring without many highlights.

Now seems like a lousy time to launch any business, particularly any sports business, and specifically an arena football team: Last week, the Arena Football League (AFL), the oldest and biggest of all indoor football leagues and an operation that was heavily subsidized by ESPN and stuffed with NFL personalities (plus Jon Bon Jovi), cited economic woes in announcing the cancellation of its entire 2009 season.

What’s more, the D.C. market has a long and not real pretty past with indoor football.

When the AFL debuted in May 1987, the Washington Commandos were one of four original teams. The squad played at the Capital Centre, and a crowd of 13,587 watched the team’s first home game against the Denver Dynamite. The Commandos averaged more than 11,000 fans that first season.

But the team went on hiatus after just one season, and when the Commandos returned to the Capital Centre in 1989, half the fans didn’t. More disappeared when the franchise moved to Fairfax a year later, so the squad went away for good after the 1990 season.

The Chesapeake Tide of the Continental Indoor Football League, founded last year, played for two seasons at the Show Place Arena in Upper Marlboro before folding a few months ago.

And one local arena franchise went out of business before ever getting into business: Dan Snyder bought the D.C. market rights from the AFL in 1999, shortly after buying the Redskins, and Snyder even registered a trademark on a team name: the Washington Warriors. But for reasons Snyder hasn’t yet explained, he has never formed a team to go with the name.

Yet Armor brass claim that neither the soured economy nor the dubious local history of arena football have scuttled enthusiasm for the team’s launch. Armor owner and general manager Corey Barnette even says the AFL’s disappearance bodes well for his operation.

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“The AFL was paying players at a level you can’t sustain,” says Barnette. “They had a formula for disaster. Their situation doesn’t damage our position at all, doesn’t say anything about the viability of the sport of arena football. First, the talent that was playing in the AFL is going to continue to play football, so that means our talent base is increased: We’re already getting calls from former AFL players. Other sports leagues are contracting; we’re expanding.

“Secondly, the AFL situation makes us feel like our business model is the right one,” he continued. “People are having a hard time out there—there’s no need for us to come out with $100 game-day ticket. That’s ludicrous. We’re going to take a more localized approach, and make it a very affordable form of entertainment. We can run on a $20 ticket price per game. And my season ticket is $155—that’s for the entire season. A family of four can go to our games, get a T-shirt, cap, hot dog, fries and Coke—and…end up spending less than a hundred bucks. Where can you get an evening of family entertainment for that?”

While arena football’s attractiveness as a business or a spectator sport is debatable, the pastime’s appeal to players isn’t. The Armor will give Briggs a chance to stay in the game he’s been playing since boyhood and to keep his grandest boyhood fantasy—making it to the Redskins—alive.

He knows how unrealistic his goal is. Mathematically speaking, players in the AIFL have only a slightly better chance to make it to the NFL than the guy serving drinks at the corner bar.

But every arena leaguer can name one guy who made it from indoors to out.

“Everybody who plays knows the Kurt Warner story,” Briggs says of the Arizona Cardinals quarterback, who played for the Iowa Barnstormers of the AFL in 1996 and 1997, then was the NFL’s MVP by 1999. “That was a while ago, but it’s something that’s still going around, still talked about. He’s still the inspiration for me. He’s still the inspiration for everybody: This dude can do it, why can’t I do it?”

Dreams of following in Warner’s cleatsteps have brought Briggs to places you’ve never been to, to play for teams you’ve never heard of.

Among the jerseys Briggs has worn: the Wheeling Greyhounds (so named because of a nearby dog track), Roanoke Steam, Norfolk Nighthawks, Rio Grande Valley (Texas) Dorados, Lubbock (Texas) Lone Stars, and Marion (Ohio) Mayhem.

“I’ve played everywhere but in my hometown,” says Briggs. “Now I get that chance.”

Playing in all those small markets helped him land his first D.C. gig.

“I knew about Gary from his other teams,” says Armor head coach Danny James, who has also been bouncing around arena leagues for a decade—he’s moving up from Orlando, Fla., for this job. “I knew that he’s been around, that he’s a dedicated guy, the kind of guy I wanted on my team.”

The money Briggs and all Armor players will earn is paltry. There are no contract negotiations with Barnette: Every Armor player, like every player in the AIFL, will get $200 per game plus a $50 win bonus. (The departed AFL, meanwhile, had a minimum salary of $1,900 a game, and many players earned six figures.)

“We ask our players to get jobs, jobs outside of football,” says James.

Briggs plans to keep his job as a teaching assistant for special needs students in Prince George’s County.

Despite the economics, more than 140 wannabe players paid $50 and up to participate in the Armor’s first tryout.

“And we didn’t buy ads in any magazine or really get the word out much about the tryout,” says Barnette. “We just put an announcement on our Web site, and all these guys showed up.” (The Armor will hold a second and final open tryout on Jan. 10; the location hadn’t been announced by press time.)

Briggs wasn’t surprised by the turnout. He knows nobody gets into arena ball for the money.

“It’s the NFL,” he says. “Even with the AFL gone, guys in arena football can still look up to playing in the NFL, like they always did. Here you can get exposure. And if you get exposure, well, who knows?”