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Can you put the quarterback in a sleeper hold?

For several months, that’s the sort of question Martin Mayhew has feared getting while on the job. The former Redskins cornerback recently became the first director of football administration for the XFL, the new football league founded by the pro-wrestling behemoth World Wrestling Federation. Because the XFL is a production of Vince McMahon, a latter-day P.T.Barnum, prospective players and future fans are rightly concerned about just how legitimate the gridiron action will be.

Forget the hype surrounding celebrity commentator Jesse “the Body” Ventura and those cheeky cheerleader commercials. According to Mayhew, the XFL is the real deal.

“It’s legit,” says Mayhew, from the XFL’s offices in Stamford, Conn. “No matter what you hear, this is going to be football.”

The former Florida State standout—his playing partner in the Seminoles’ defensive backfield was a skinny speedster named Deion Sanders—came to the Redskins in 1989 as an unheralded free agent from Buffalo and left four years later as one of the most sought-after corners in the league.

He’s got a big gold Super Bowl XXVI ring commemorating his contributions to the Skins’ 1991 championship team, considered by many to rank among the finest squads in NFL history. “I don’t really wear it,” says the soft-spoken Mayhew of his bauble, “unless I need to impress somebody.”

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Mayhew played big in the big game against the Buffalo Bills, tipping a Jim Kelly pass to teammate Brad Edwards for an interception that led to a Skins score, then KO’ing the quarterback with a brutal shot in the fourth quarter of the 37-24 win. Kelly later said that Mayhew’s hit, which snapped the quarterback’s head back into the Metrodome turf, erased his memory of most of the game. “The part I can remember,” Kelly said, “I didn’t like.”

The Super Bowl performance hastened Mayhew’s departure from Washington. When his Skins contract ran out, after the next season, Tampa Bay won a 12-team bidding war for Mayhew’s services by offering a four-year, $5.3 million deal, big bucks for a cornerback at the time.

Mayhew moved back to the D.C. area after retiring as a player following the Buccaneers 1997 season. However, he wasn’t ready to give up the game. So while finishing up his law degree at Georgetown University, he interned with the Redskins in the team’s administrative offices, then hooked up with the scouting department. A lot had changed since he had worn the burgundy and gold. Only two teammates from that Super Bowl squad, Darrell Green and James Jenkins, are still on the roster today.

Mayhew, now 35, says he got on quite well with the Redskins’ allegedly difficult owner, Daniel Snyder, and thought he might stick around the front office here. But when the opportunity to get into McMahon’s new league on the ground floor, and as a bigwig, came up during this past off-season, he looked into it. Mayhew admits that he, too, had some misgivings about the operation going into his first interview. He wore his big ring to that meeting.

“There was concern about what type of game the XFL was going to present, certainly,” he says. “So the first thing I asked when I came here was: Is it going to be competitive, hard-nosed, ‘real’ football? And they showed me that that’s what they were looking for.”

Minicamps, stocked with NFL castoffs and hopeful unknowns, opened last week for the XFL’s eight first-year teams—New York/New Jersey Hitmen, Los Angeles Xtreme, Chicago Enforcers, Birmingham Bolts, Las Vegas Outlaws, Memphis Maniax, Orlando Rage, and San Francisco Demons—all of which are owned by both the WWF and NBC.

Fans won’t have trouble picking up on some of the dissimilarities between the NFL and XFL versions of the game when the new league’s inaugural season kicks off Feb. 3. Among the XFL’s novel rules: Fair catches are banned, meaning all balls are live on punts; receivers are required only to have one foot in bounds on pass receptions; a 35-second play clock will be used. Halftimes will be just 10 minutes long. Coaches will be miked, and there will be cameras in locker rooms and in some players’ helmets.

The salary structure is also newfangled. XFL players will be paid according to both the position they play and their team’s success. According to league officials, the base salary of kickers will be just $35,000 per season; quarterbacks will get $50,000; all other players will get $45,000. Every active player will also receive $2,500 per win.

McMahon has emphasized that touchdown celebrations, such as the Ickey Shuffle and the Redskins’ own Fun Bunch, and taunts, including post-sack dances and that slash-across-the-throat gesture, will be not only permitted but encouraged in what he calls his “Extra Fun League.”

Cheerleaders figure more prominently than the players in the XFL’s current marketing campaign, which includes T&A-heavy TV spots with titles such as “Daddy Wants Some Popcorn!” “Cheerleaders in the Shower,” and “Shorty Short Shorts.” (Some of the copy from the latter ad: “The eyes, they tell us who she is. She is kindness, she is dignity…She is wearing the shortiest shorty shorts I have ever seen!”) Cheerleader tryouts were even Web-cast live on the XFL’s Internet site.

Despite the gimmicks and his history, McMahon has promised that the product will be pure, and he points out that nobody questions the legitimacy of Major League Baseball’s Anaheim Angels or the Anaheim Mighty Ducks just because they’re owned by Disney.

Mayhew says he’s seen nothing to indicate that the product will be adulterated. “I wouldn’t have gotten involved if it wasn’t football. Look at the other people in the league—guys like [former SMU coach] Ron Meyer and [former University of Florida coach] Galen Hall—and you’ll see other people who wouldn’t have signed on if this wasn’t legitimate.”

But he understands why some of the folks who are drawn to the XFL aren’t looking for the traditional gridiron game. While gathering talent to fill the eight rosters, he had to take calls from male models and actors who thought the football league could be their ticket to fame, as well as fans wanting to know if WWF wrestlers would be allowed to play. “I tell everybody that this is football, but I know some people—they won’t believe it until they see it,” he says. “When guys keep asking, ‘Is the Rock going to be out there?’ well, I just move on.”

Once the season gets under way, among Mayhew’s duties will be disciplining players for misbehavior. Anybody who ignores the no-sleeper-hold rule will have Mayhew to deal with. —Dave McKenna