Life in the Arena Football League: The VooDoo and a prayer
Life in the Arena League isn't glamorous; players make $400 a game
New Orleans VooDoo are coached by Darryl Stingley's son, Derek
The VooDoo have had a long, lost season and seek first home win Saturday
NEW ORLEANS -- The season is lost. The numbers don't lie: Defeats to teams from Georgia, Oklahoma, Illinois, Arizona, two places in Pennsylvania and three in Florida, one of them twice. Shut out at home, in The Graveyard. Yes, there have been turnovers. Yes, there have been injuries. Yes, there have been transactions. Lord have there been transactions. On the active roster of 24 players, 11 remain from training camp, some of whom joined through open tryouts at City Park, paying $60 for the chance, which was all they were ever promised, a chance, that and a T-shirt. The latest addition is 37 years old. He's a skill player: A defensive back.
Maybe these are just the breaks of Arena Football, the bouncehouse sport of also-rans. Maybe this is just the function of a bankruptcy reorganization designed to concentrate power in the league office. Maybe this is just the fate of an expansion team, even one with a venerable name bought and paid for. These men earn $7,200 for the season -- $3,690 below the federal poverty level -- plus any treatment that counts as sports medicine from Tulane and complimentary lodging at the Magnolia Ridge Apartments between I-10 and the Causeway in Metairie. Their coach, Derek Stingley, still in the game despite what it takes away from his family, or maybe because of what it already has: He rides the sleeper bus too. Their quarterback, Danny Wimprine, the hometown ace out of John Curtis Christian School, a minor folk hero in a town with more of them than it can use; he gets $400 a game too.
But who among us isn't making a last stand? Who isn't doing more with less? Who didn't chase the dream, settle for the dream job and keep on humping when it hardly even qualified as a job anymore? Who isn't leaving the voice mails, demonstrating the functionality, leveraging the deliverables, flying back on the redeye, tweeting the tweets, taking out the trash and praying to God this is as bad as it gets?
"People come see me: 'Oh, hey, Danny, how's football?' That's how they relate to me," Wimprine says, pumping three-and-a-half-dollar unleaded into his white Nissan Titan, the one with the team logo window sticker, as he juggles sales calls for his father-in-law's sanitation business. "I'm not relying on that anymore."
The city was lost. By 2008 the population had stalled, according to the most optimistic count, at 70 percent of what it was before the storm. The murder rate led the country, unless the population figures were wrong. Vacant houses stood waiting for teardown; people were sleeping under the CCC Bridge. The Saints were done in for the year after finishing 7-9.
But the VooDoo were ascendant. No, better: Transcendent. They were the boys of football-country summer, offseason royalty in a place not unwilling to be charmed. Under the indulgent ownership of the Benson family, they lifted weights in an NFL gym, dined in an NFL cafeteria and mended their wounds in the care of NFL doctors. And, yes, they won football games. Lined them up and knocked them down. At home they dispatched the Orlando Predators, the Tampa Bay Storm, the Cleveland Gladiators, the San Jose Sabercats and the Utah Blaze all in a pretty little row. Friday nights at the New Orleans Arena, 16,000 customers would pay $8 apiece to watch them come crashing through their pyrotechnically armed inflatable mausoleum with their cheerleaders flinging beads at the slightest provocation and Rita Benson LeBlanc orchestrating the whole football-as-Mardi Gras spectacle from the skybox where her shrimp cocktail spread went untouched. Young Danny Wimprine would fire touchdown after gratifying touchdown and pose with the VooDoo Dolls and sign autographs for the kids and then go back to his bedroom at his parents' house and think not much at all about what could have happened if he'd grown a few inches taller or played at LSU.
So you could say they had their fun. Yes, the streak ended. Yes, Mr. Benson folded the team. Yes, the league ceased operations not long after. Danny Wimprine found a desk job at River Parish Disposal, married his high school sweetheart, took out a mortgage, moved on with his life.
And who needed them anyway? Diligent recitation of The Pledge of Allegiance to the Saints, posted above the bar at the Chart Room, soon paid out Super Bowl winnings. A new mayor took office. There were blighted neighborhoods to restore. There was an oil spill to survive. The city moved on.
The coach was lost. After quitting major league baseball, playing some arena ball and taking his best shot at the NFL, Derek Stingley had spent the better part of his 30s in the AFL's development league, which was ... the AFL's development league. At the end of the 2008 season, he was named defensive coordinator for the beloved but suddenly bewitched VooDoo of New Orleans. The gig promised a bigger market, a more serious athletic proposition and a much shorter commute to his wife and family in Baton Rouge. His father would have been proud. His father had been his most trusted coach, in life and football both. His father had patiently explained what he could never demonstrate: How to shadow a wide receiver. How to respond to a coach. How to know what's important. From his wheelchair, he'd advised Derek: "You don't have the technique, but you have the speed, so if you mess up you can catch up."
But the VooDoo folded before Derek could even report to work. He took a job at a gym. He was considering an offer from a refinery when the call came: The Bossier City/Shreveport Battle Wings, his most recent development league employer, would move up to New Orleans, acquiring the name, logo and "history" of the VooDoo out of bankruptcy. The old head coach, the one who'd recruited golden boy Danny Wimprine, was employed as a scout for the Saints. The job was his.