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Paul Zimmerman
July 11, 1988
In the cozy world of Arena Football, the fans can reach out and touch someone
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July 11, 1988

Off-the-wall Ball

In the cozy world of Arena Football, the fans can reach out and touch someone

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It has been five months since the Super Bowl, and NFL training camps won't get into high gear for another three weeks. So where can a fellow go to get a football fix this time of year? Last week he could have gone to the Rosemont Horizon auditorium just outside Chicago to watch the Chicago Bruisers play the New England Steamrollers in an Arena Football game. The Arena Football league calls its show the War on the Floor, and, you know, it's not half bad. Except Eve got a better name—Six No-Trumps. The league has six teams, and not one of them is owned by Donald Trump. That's the first thing I like about Arenaball.

"Yeah, we've flushed out the big ego guys," says Arena commissioner Jim Foster. "We tell 'em, "Look, you don't own the team, you rent it.' That gets rid of the Donald Trumps right away."

The league is a modest outfit with modest aspirations, the most prominent of which is to entertain. It's a nice-guy league, and the commissioner's office controls everything, including the pay scale of the players and coaches. "Your teammates are good guys," says Jim Rafferty, a wide receiver and defensive back for New England. "You don't have people walking out of meetings. Somebody gets arrogant, you tell him, 'Look, we're not in the NFL. We're not even close.' That brings him down to earth. Plus, we're all getting paid the same, so no one's jealous."

The second thing I like about Arena-ball is that they usually don't play the national anthem before games. They like to play America the Beautiful, which is a much nicer song. "I just like it better," says Foster. "When I hear it I think of the Statue of Liberty and of my grandparents coming to Ellis Island and seeing it for the first time."

O.K., they did play The Star-Spangled Banner on Friday night before the undefeated Bruisers—they're 10-0 now—beat the Steamrollers 68-25. But they played America the Beautiful, too. And the P.A. announcer, Wayne Messmer, sang both of them. Then, during the game, he announced, "Ladies and gentlemen, as you know, smoking is not permitted in the arena." Pause. "And the wave is not permitted."

So everyone did the wave. Messmer was putting 'em on, see. That's the kind of night it was at the Horizon—loose, friendly, relaxed. Chicago quarterback Ben Bennett, who set four NCAA career records at Duke between 1980 and '83, signed autographs and chatted with fans during the game. So did Bruisers coach Perry Moss.

"So how do you like our little ol' game?" Moss asked me at one point. As we were talking, a wide receiver was tackled on the sideline and crashed into the padded board—kerwhump—three feet away from us. That's how close I was to the action, three feet. The only time I was ever closer to a game, I was in it.

I like it, coach, I like it. What's not to like? No one's faking it; everybody runs hard and hits hard. O.K., so it's not the NFL. Arenaball has different rules and differently shaped people playing different positions.

The field is only half the length and just over half the width of a standard football field, each team has only eight players on the field, and everyone but the quarterback, his replacement on defense, and the kicker plays both ways. The running game, 50-yard passes and chippie field goals are all but nonexistent. In their place are gimmicks: drop kicks, which are worth a point more on extra points and field goals than placements; boards along the sidelines ("No place to hide," says Los Angeles Cobra wideout and cornerback Cliff Branch, the former Raiders All-Pro receiver); and nets. That's the wildest gimmick of all. Kickoffs and missed field goals bounce off a pair of 30-foot-wide nets strung taut beside the goalposts, and the ball is live, which sets up all sorts of interesting plays.

Chicago's 5'4", 170-pound Reggie Smith, who was nicknamed Super Gnat in his Atlanta Falcon days, is a great net player. On Friday night he returned two kicks for TDs, after having caught the ball off the net. "It's like an outfielder learning how to play the wall," says Smith. "If the ball hits high on the net, it'll drop straight down. If it hits low, it'll come out farther, and if it hits the metal on the side, it could kick out 20 to 25 yards."

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