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In the spring of 1987, 26-year-old Mike Hohensee, a former USFL and CFL quarterback, was making his living delivering containers of Coca-Cola premix to bars, schools and carnivals in the Washington, D.C., area. There's nothing wrong with this job, he told himself. It's a perfectly decent way to make a buck. But when he got a call from a former coach telling him that a new pro football league--this one with the goofy idea of staging its games in hockey and basketball arenas--was holding tryouts at the Boys & Girls Club Sports Park in nearby Mitchellville, Md., "I couldn't get out there quick enough," Hohensee says.
He impressed the league's scouts, and within weeks he'd ditched his job and signed on to play for the Pittsburgh Gladiators in the Arena Football League for $500 a game. Before the start of the AFL's inaugural season Jim Foster, the league's founder, addressed the players and told them they were pioneers. "We were kind of looking at each other like, Right ... just make sure we get our paychecks," Hohensee says.
Hohensee led the Gladiators to that season's ArenaBowl, where they lost to Denver 45--16. He recalls scrambling for 26 yards on one bootleg that day, the play coming to an end not with a tackle but with him tripping on the uneven turf at Pittsburgh's Civic Arena.
Hohensee, who has been in the league for all of its 20 seasons, finally made it back to the ArenaBowl on Sunday--this time as coach of the Chicago Rush--and with a happier result. Not only did the Rush defeat the Orlando Predators 69--61, but the turf, and just about everything else about the league, was of considerably higher quality.
Look at the AFL now: Its games have been aired on NBC for the last four seasons, it has its own developmental league (AF2) and an EA Sports video game, and it has grown from four teams to 19 (including New Orleans, which returns in 2007 after taking this year off because of Hurricane Katrina). Five of the teams are backed by NFL owners. And in the week leading up to this year's ArenaBowl in Las Vegas, the league staged lavish parties and held an Oscar-like awards ceremony at the Mandalay Bay Theatre--hoopla unimaginable 19 seasons ago.
Of course, no one would mistake the AFL for the NFL. At the Super Bowl they don't have mascots throwing free T-shirts into the stands or swaths of unfilled seats. (The crowd at UNLV's Thomas & Mack Center appeared smaller than the announced attendance, 13,476.)
The Rush, though, was glad to still be playing, and it made a fitting anniversary champion for this league of castoffs, because it had been written off after starting the season 4--8. Chicago then won three of its last four games and made the postseason thanks to the AFL's generous playoff format, in which 12 teams advance. The Rush even came in with a little swagger, thanks to the late-season addition of wide receiver Bobby Sippio, who joined Chicago in Week 12 after being waived by the Tampa Bay Storm following a dispute with coach Tim Marcum. Sippio, a 6'3" playmaker, made an instant impact, catching 17 touchdowns in five regular-season games.
Chicago also got key contributions from one of Hohensee's favorite players, wide receiver--linebacker DeJuan Alfonzo, who was on the field for nearly every possession as the Rush racked up three playoff road wins. "The kid never had respect from anyone," Hohensee says of Alfonzo, whom he picked up in 2003 after Alfonzo had been cut by the Indiana Firebirds. "He wasn't the fastest or the strongest player, but he was smart, and a tough, tough kid." Alfonzo is also the rare AFL player who doesn't need the job; he makes more money from his off-season business--buying and rehabbing properties for sale in Indianapolis--than he does from football. "I would play for nothing," Alfonzo says. "I love the competition, running around hitting people. I'm doing something that hundreds of thousands of people would love to do, and I'm taking full advantage of it."
Before Sunday's game, Hohensee huddled privately with Alfonzo, briefly tearing up as he asked his team leader for one more tireless performance. "He knows a lot of guys rally around me," says Alfonzo. "He said, 'You pick them up, and we'll get the job done.'"