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ONE THING'S FOR SURE: This activity called Arenaball that went on in Denver's McNichols Arena on Saturday night and drove 12,634 fans borderline bonkers is not football. Oh, sure, it looked like football. It was played with a football; the players wore football uniforms and represented the proud football cities of Denver and Pittsburgh; and football terms like "first down" and "pass interference" were used. Afterward, one fan even asked his young son, "How did you like the football game?"
But if this was football, what were those big nets doing out there? And why were balls bouncing off the nets at unpredictable angles, creating chaos? And where were the rest of the players? What Arenaball really is, is football with a smirk. The officials wear short pants and knee socks. Cute.
Indeed, this Arenaball stuff is either an enormous put-on or a wacky, weird and wonderful idea that demonstrates how wrong the NFL plays the game and how terrific it could be with a little forward thinking. Says Chris Brewer, a running back and defensive back for the Denver Dynamite who played a year for the Broncos, "It's Reader's Digest football. Everything is condensed."
The field is 50 yards long instead of 100, which means a team is always in scoring position. The field is only 28.3 yards wide, slightly more than half the normal width, which makes running nearly impossible. The goalpost crossbar is 15 feet off the ground instead of 10, as it is in the NFL, and only 9 feet wide instead of 18½. If a field goal attempt caroms off the nets on either side of the goalposts, the ball can be recovered by the kicking team for a touchdown or run back by the defense. O.K., laugh, you cynics, but then consider how boring a missed field goal is in the NFL, unless you have bet on the game.
There are other differences between Arenaball and Rozelleball. Each side has only eight men: The offense is missing the two tackles and a tight end, none of whom anybody ever watches anyway; eliminated from the defense are a couple of linebackers and a down lineman, which doesn't make any difference, either, except to their mothers. Only one player may blitz per play, and six of the eight players must play both ways. Everyone on offense is eligible to catch a pass except the center and one of the interior linemen. Punting is banned, as are zone defenses. These factors combine to produce amazing scores. A fortnight ago Denver edged Washington 73-57 in a game in which winning quarterback Whit Taylor threw 10 touchdown passes. Losing coach Bob Harrison groused, "When you score 57 points, you generally expect to win." Not in Arenaball. Nothing is expected in Arenaball, except the unexpected.
"It still is football," says the Arena Football League's executive director, Darrel (Mouse) Davis. "Guys get knocked on their butts and it looks like real football." So why have this knockoff product? "Because people laugh and scratch and scream and yell and have fun," says Davis.
Indeed, if you go to the game with the proper party attitude—i.e., if you leave your NFL seriousness at home—Arena-ball is exciting. It's a splendid summertime filler. In Denver the Pittsburgh Gladiators whipped the Dynamite 49-32, but even the losers had fun because it was fast-break football. It was, said Pittsburgh coach Joe Haering, "two and one-half hours of two-minute drill."
Arenaball is the brainchild of Jim Foster, 36, a former promotion manager with the NFL and executive with the Arizona Wranglers and Chicago Blitz of the USFL. What Foster has tried to do is eliminate the boring aspects of the sport and accentuate the positive ones. Hence, he has created a game that features throwing on almost every down (between them, Pittsburgh and Denver passed 73 times and ran nine times) and big wallops by defensive backs.
Somewhere George Halas is smiling just a little over Arenaball. Vince Lombardi isn't, but he has sent word that he likes the one-platoon, tough-guy nature of the game. According to Foster, the two-way provision guarantees that the league will attract "undersized, well-rounded overachievers who don't fit into the specialization of the NFL." In short, he says, Arenaball marks "the return of the iron man to pro football."
You have to hand it to the Arenaball folks for putting a new spin on an old idea rather than blindly pouring more money down the Rozelleball rat hole. Arenaball doesn't try to compete with the NFL. It is, as one writer put it, "flea market football with everything reduced." It also is, pure and simple, entertainment, a classic example of something to do when there's nothing to do and something for ESPN to put on the tube instead of another fishing show.