In another era Matt D'Orazio would not have become a professional football star. Like most standout Division III quarterbacks, D'Orazio, who in the late 1990s set Otterbein College records for career passing yards, touchdown passes and total offense, was never invited to an NFL camp, much less drafted. But in 2000 he signed with the Milwaukee Mustangs of the Arena Football League. The rest, at least to die-hard AFL followers, is history.
A two-time ArenaBowl MVP, D'Orazio in 2008 won his second championship, with the Philadelphia Soul, and was the league's MVP. (He won his first title with the Chicago Rush in 2006.) This season he was due to make $125,000, making him one of the AFL's highest-paid players.
D'Orazio, 32, won't collect those checks. On Aug. 4 the AFL, which in December canceled its 2009 season, announced that it was suspending operations indefinitely. Two franchises had folded, fewer than half of the 15 remaining teams had turned a profit, and the 22-year-old league was struggling to come up with a model that might keep it in business. Even after taking over ownership and operation of all teams, cutting overhead costs by 40% and, with the players' union's consent, slashing player compensation by 50%, the AFL was still facing a $14 million debt. Unable to find a private equity firm to provide an infusion of cash, the league's owners shut it down.
The AFL may not return, but that doesn't mean the appetite for its quirky, pinball version of football has gone away. The average AFL crowd was 12,957 in its final season—its highest attendance ever—and its developmental league, af2, keeps on chugging in 25 cities, most of them smaller burgs such as Manchester, N.H., and Stockton, Calif. Of course, while the AFL had a minimum per-game salary of $1,798, af2 pays its players $200 a night plus a $50 bonus for each victory. The league, which has an average attendance of 5,200, says it will remain in the secondary markets, where it's thriving. "We know who we are," says af2 president Jerry Kurz.
The plight of D'Orazio and players like him mirrors that of the AFL itself: He's gotten too big for the small time, but he's too small for the big time. He can't support his wife and two kids on an af2 paycheck, so the Arena league's last MVP is working for a medical equipment sales company in his hometown of Columbus, Ohio. "There aren't too many opportunities for me at this stage of my career," he says. "I was hoping that the league would stick around not just for me, but for guys like me who might be trying to fight their way to the NFL or other leagues."