Darryl hammond has spent his pro football career playing up to 75% of the snaps a game on a walled-in field that's slightly more forgiving than the top of a pool table. He's 38 years old, still plays both ways, and has only one complaint. "Watching film takes forever," says Hammond, a 6'3", 220-pound wide receiver and linebacker for the Nashville Kats, the fifth team he has played for in his Arena Football League--record 15 seasons. "You have to watch both sides of the ball. Last week it seemed like it was about three hours, easily."
Studying film wasn't much of an issue during Hammond's first season, with the now-defunct Albany Firebirds. "My coach used to want to get through practice fast so he could make his tee time," Hammond remembers. In the league's inaugural years, players earned $500 per victory and $400 per loss. Teams were often transported to arenas on school buses, and training tables were unheard of. "Back then," Hammond says, "breakfast and lunch were on you."
Nowadays not only is Hammond better fed, but he has also seen his salary increase twentyfold (it peaked a few years ago at $102,000). Yet those who have known him since his career began say he hasn't changed much from the 24-year-old rookie who drove a forklift at a Ben & Jerry's plant to make ends meet. Hammond still maintains a strict diet of oatmeal for breakfast and lean meat and vegetables for dinner; he still wows his teammates with his intense workouts and yoga sessions, which have helped him avoid serious injury; and he still gets 71/2 hours of sleep a night and takes a 30-minute nap every day. Most important, his effort on the field has never wavered. "He still lays out for balls every day in practice," marvels Kats coach Pat Sperduto, who played against Hammond in the early '90s.
Though Hammond is now financially comfortable, he continues to work during the off-season--although a recent job as Michael Irvin's body double in the upcoming remake of The Longest Yard was decidedly more glamorous than the forklift gig.
Long ago, when he was an honorable mention All-ACC strong safety at Virginia, Hammond had NFL dreams. He was invited to the New Orleans Saints' training camp as a free agent in 1989 but was cut before the season began. The New York Jets signed him the next year, but on the eve of his flight to their camp, right after he had completed his last exam for his sociology degree, he decided that he was too burned out to focus on football. "Everyone thought I was crazy," he says. "I don't regret it at all." The NFL didn't call again.
Hammond is big enough to play receiver or safety in the NFL but a touch too slow; he's fast enough to be an NFL linebacker but slightly too small. He is, however, a prototype player in a league that rewards versatility and smarts over size and speed. While most Arena leaguers are forced to learn a second position from scratch, Hammond's understanding of both offense and defense was fully formed when he entered the AFL; he had played wideout for three years in college before switching to safety.
Hammond's career statistics corroborate Sperduto's description of him as "hands down, one of the best" two-way players in Arena league history. Hammond ranks fourth alltime in receptions (776), ninth in receiving yards (8,324) and third in tackles (622). He turned in his finest offensive season two years ago with the Georgia Force, when he caught 89 balls for 1,040 yards and 21 touchdowns--at age 36.
But Hammond's most impressive statistic is his tenure in the league. "The dude is unreal," says James Baron, a Kats lineman who for six of his nine AFL seasons has been a teammate of Hammond's. Says Hammond jokingly, "It's like I've played 30 years in NFL time."
Despite Baron's assurances that his friend has three or four more years in him, retirement thoughts aren't far from Hammond's mind. (Of course, he once said he'd be surprised if he made it to 10 Arena seasons.) After a 62-49 early-season loss to the New York Dragons, during which he absorbed a brutal, crowd-quieting hit from defensive back Corey Johnson, Hammond sat by himself, the sweat still dripping off his scalp, and admitted that he wasn't that 24-year-old rookie anymore. "It used to take me a day after a game to recover," he said, smiling. "Now it's taking me two days. I do notice that."