Your money is no good tonight, George LaFrance is told. Where would you like to eat?
Given carte blanche, the Jerry Rice of the Arena Football League cocks an eyebrow and asks, "Are you sure?" Moments later he steers his car into the parking lot of a Red Lobster.
There is much to love about the cramped, curious species of football that LaFrance plays: cheap tickets; a Fans' Bill of Rights; seats so close to the action you can hear the breath whistling out of a player's lungs as he is mashed into the wall; a Chewbacca-sized commissioner who hugs everyone, enjoys the works of O. Henry and composes country-music lyrics.
But the best thing about this resilient, 13-year-old, 15-team league is its labor pool. Four or five players per 24-man roster make $50,000 to $60,000 for the five-month season. The rest earn closer to 20 grand. No one is getting rich. No one has a wardrobe consultant. Many hold down second jobs during the season. A big night out is dinner at Red Lobster.
LaFrance is an offensive specialist for the Tampa Bay Storm, meaning he's one of two players on offense (the other being the quarterback) who don't play both ways. In the Arena off-season he coaches high school football and counsels students on the Navajo reservation in Chinle, Ariz. Tonight, he has 90 minutes to eat and get back to his apartment in Tampa. At 10 o'clock his wife, Darlene, is calling. On this night she is driving 30 minutes from the couple's work-in-progress dream house to use the pay phone at a convenience store. "If I miss that call," says George, "I'm in trouble."
The AFL was in its second season in 1988 when LaFrance, not long after playing at tiny Baker University in Baldwin City, Kans., signed on with the now extinct Detroit Drive. After helping the Drive win ArenaBowl II, he reported in the summer of '88 to the camp of the Green Bay Packers, who had signed him as a free agent. Two weeks later he was cut.
"They kept a bunch of old vets and one rookie, Sterling Sharpe," says LaFrance. He sighs, exhaling a decade's worth of what-ifs. "But that's history. I have no bitterness, no regrets." What he does have are 10-plus seasons in the AFL, 16 career league records, four ArenaBowl rings and a spot awaiting him in the league's Hall of Fame, in Des Moines. "I feel like the most fortunate person you've ever met," he says.
He is one of the toughest. At Chinle High, LaFrance not only coaches football but also presides over the internal-suspension room. That means the students with whom he spends much of his day are doubly surly: They've been suspended, but their transgressions have been deemed so severe that they don't get to serve out their suspensions at home. "George is good with those kids," says Darlene, who clerks for two judges at the tribal court. "He can talk to them. If they're losing hope, he reminds them how close they are to graduation. He shows them a little light so they can go on." Not all of them see the light, she admits. "Eventually, I see half those kids in my court."
She is a sharp-tongued, full-blooded Navajo who met her future husband at Eastern Arizona College, a juco where he played before transferring to Baker. They have two daughters: Ahsaki, 8, and Nizhoni, 6. While their dream house is being built in Beshbetoh, about a 90-minute drive from Chinle, the LaFrances live in an apartment in Chinle.
Unbidden, George has brought to dinner a photo album containing pictures of the work in progress. The house should be finished by next summer. This month the log siding goes up and the electrical wiring goes in. Construction can't go any faster. "We're paying as we go," he says. "When we're done, we'll have a house! It'll have five bedrooms, three bathrooms, 4,700 square feet. See, you don't have to be a millionaire to build a house like this. It's not how much you make, it's what you spend it on."