The Misfits of Football
By Bill Gerdes
In the United States pro football is king. And not just in sports. It left poor baseball in the dust sometime around 1980 as Americans discovered it to be the perfect sport for a nation that was becomingly increasingly frantic and work-obsessed. “Who had the time?” people began to ask, to watch a three-and-a-half-hour baseball game, when we were all busy insider trading, watching Cyndi Lauper videos and snorting coke in badly lit nightclubs. The sport only grew faster with the advent of the Internet, fantasy leagues, online betting and endless content on ESPN and other channels and sites, all seemingly contributing to its ever-growing popularity. Theories about the rise of pro football abound—it’s a metaphor for war! No wait, a symbol of newfound imperialism! No, it’s a symbol of America’s vigor and strength. No matter what the reason professional football is the one thing that unites Democrats and Republicans, Fundamentalist Christians and atheists, Montana and New York City, concussion controversies, Spy gate and the existence of the Jacksonville Jaguars be dammed. Our obsession with the sport may not be rational or even healthy but it’s undeniable, even in an area without a team like ours-sorry Chargers you’re too far down the 15 and in another television market to matter all that much north of Escondido.
What’s that? We do have a team in the Inland Empire? Did Raiders finally move to Irwindale like they threatened oh so long ago?
No our team is the Ontario Warriors of the American Indoor Football League. Who knew?
Arena vs. Indoor
“Indoor football,” a silly term since many NFL games take place indoors, originated with the Arena Football League, which became known for its rather bizarre rules such as a 50 yard field instead of the traditional 100 and large netting devices that send missed field goals back into the field as a “live” ball. Arena football garnered some attention at the outset mostly for rules such as these and the fact that before the 2007 season most players played both offense and defense. For a while “Indoor” football became something of a punch line, even as it attracted a small but dedicated cadre of fans. Then most of us forgot about a sport that many considered “weird” and a funhouse mirror mutation of the NFL at that.
My first assumption when I heard about the Warriors was to assume that they played in the Arena League, but they actually play in something called American Indoor Football , which I had never heard of. Here’s what I found out on Wikipedia: Apparently the league was originally an all East Coast affair, starting off as something called the Atlantic Football League, becoming in the 2005-2006 season the American Football League. The league has had teams fold, a succession of owners, schisms where certain owners tried to create rival leagues and failed television contracts—a recurring phrase for the AIF seems to be “Suspension of Operations.” If Arena football is Reno to the NFL’s Vegas, American Indoor Football might at best be a Laughlin, Nevada, a broken-down cocktail waitress of a league grimly hoping to snare a few nickels off the next rube who walked into town.
Of course, I’d yet to see a game.
The Warrior Franchise
The Ontario Warriors currently sit in first place in the AIF Western Conference, and before you sneer at that I’d ask you when the last time was you sat in first place in anything. In terms of success for local teams they’ve already eclipsed the Clippers in franchise success. Like many “minor” leagues they’re a collection of players who either don’t have the talent to make it to the Bigs or who feel they haven’t been given a fair shot. Add to this mix a couple of veterans who’ve been to the majors and blown it somehow and you’ve got either the Ontario Warriors or a Charlie Sheen movie.
This desire to get back to the NFL is what drives a player like R. Jay Soward, who grew up in the IE playing high school ball in Rialto and then USC. Soward happened to be an amazing talent at wide receiving for the Trojans; he also happened to be smoking marijuana daily—not an awful idea for a philosophy major but for an athlete not so great—and taking money for his former agent Josh Luchs. Drafted by the Jaguars he found himself suspended for violating the NFL’s drug policy, and realized he’d become an alcoholic as well. Soon he was out of the league and looking to make it back—over 10 years later he’s still trying, currently with the Warriors. Indoor players do make it to the NFL—11 last year, according to team president Tom Mitchell. But still, Soward’s quest seems both incredibly unlikely and yet touching and admirable.
So out of a desire to see Soward and the rest of the Warriors in action I drove out to the Citizens Business Bank Arena (one either admires the brutally corporate honesty of modern arena names or one doesn’t) to see the Ontario Warriors play the California Eagles in a game of indoor football. There’d be beer, the Vixens (the Warrior cheerleaders) and football. It was the sort of mild excitement that one can only achieve when they see a C-list celebrity, get invited over to Aunt Jane’s for Easter or see a local community college production of Othello. I mean it was bound to be nice and all but . . .
My lukewarm feelings increased as I drove into the parking lot of Citizens Bank Arena; on the hopeful side parking was only $5 and there were plenty of slots. However Citizens Business Bank Arena looks exactly that, namely a very big bank, and has all of the verve and panache of a Mitt Romney rally. The inside is more serviceably generic, with snack joints like Burger Burger lining the floor level. Both food and prices are about what one expects when entering an arena or theme park these days. Tickets to Warrior’s games run as low as $20. Like the movie business the money is in the popcorn once they get in.
And now that I’m in I realize an enormous advantage in watching a sporting event in a mid-sized area like Citizens Bank, namely the view. There’s not an awkward, too high or just plain shitty seat in the house. I spend most of the game watching from up high in the press box but even there I get a great view of the action, including the pregame introductions, the Vixens dancing and a great montage from one of my favorite films as a kid, namely The Warriors directed by Walter Hill. The creepy bad guy begins his chant on screen, “Warriors, come out to play,” and then the team rushes out onto the field and soon I’m watching an indoor football game.
Which is a little confusing at first. AIF football teams play eight men to a side on a field 50 instead of a hundred yards. This gives the action a bit of a pinball game feel, something accentuated by the lack of a true sideline; instead blue pads line the wall and a player is considered down if pushed into one or if tackled in the field of play. This padding is one of vagaries of the AIF brand—some players tackle people up against the pads. This invariably leads to confrontations between Warriors players and members of the visiting California Eagles.
On any given play a ball might fly into the stands. At any moment a player may come flying into the first row. This may be why Shel Segal of the Fontana Herald News tells me, “There were a lot of penalties last game.” Segal has served to get me up to snuff on the rules more or less, although at times it seems as if no one in the press box has a handle on all of them.
By the end of the first quarter the Warriors are leading 20 to seven and R. Jay Soward has caught a touchdown pass from Warrior QB Kevin Warner. Maybe his comeback is possible after all. Segal told me the rules were designed for some sort of score on every possession and he appears to be right. Warrior season ticket holder Michael Trujillo tells me “I’ve been a fan of indoor football for awhile now. I enjoy it.” When I ask him why he says so, he tells me that it’s the constant offense and the chance to sit so close to the action. As we talk I can hear players talking on the field.
That being said the crowd itself is a tad sparse. When I ask “Denise,” a courteous security agent how this crowd differs from those at other events she says, “It’s smaller.” When I ask her if she cares who wins she says, “No.” Denise despite her pleasant nature starts to bum me out. “Of course I didn’t care about the hockey at first. You build allegiance over seeing it a few times.” Some of the fans at the game already seem to be into the Warrior thing; I see a lot of Warrior gear worn and the concession stands do a brisk business. Others in the stands project an enthusiastically sedate demeanor and rouse themselves only for the fun gimmicks like between the quarters when they drop T-shirts from the rafters or the one where Toyota gives an undetermined prize to someone in the crowd holding out Toyota keys.
While I prefer this key party to the ’70s version I’m also starving. It’s almost halftime with the score Warriors 34, Eagles 15. I hit Burger, Burger, grab a cheeseburger and fries and watch the people walk by. Everyone seems to be having fun. Unlike many sporting events I’ve been to the crowd is family friendly with no real obvious drunks or thugs looking for fights. Still I resolve to keep my head about me—the crowd is dressed in the monochromatic colors of the Inland Empire, black, silver and white. In my orange polo, I might as well be Liberace.
A skinny kid named Adrian wins the sausage-eating contest at halftime. Skinny guys always win the eating contests—one of the paradoxical cruelties of life.
Rules, Rules, Rules
Here are a few other interesting aspects of the rules of American Indoor Football. My favorite is that kick-offs that go through the goal posts count as a point for the team kicking off, although I didn’t see this happen the whole game. The Warriors regular kicker doesn’t play so they wind up going for two after each touchdown, a what-the-hell attitude you’ll rarely see in NFL. Also, there’s no punting, so teams simply go for it on every fourth down. Oh and the clock runs continuously unless a time-out is called. Indoor football moves fast; it hums along; it fits the zeitgeist.
Why then isn’t it more popular? We, as a country, love football—its connotations, its denotations, its tations. Why don’t we embrace the slightly twisted version that is indoor football? Cable has a need for content and die-hard football freaks have a need to watch the pigskin fly all-year-long. Why can’t the two come together and give spring sports a run for its money?
Or perhaps indoor football is like a Baldwin-brother-too-far, the female boxing of the football world. No matter. America loves a freak-show. Newt Gingrich is a candidate for president of this country. And the Ontario Warriors only want to put on a good show, just like Newt. As I head toward the exits the Warriors have won again—their record now stands at 4-0. That’s impressive. So is the effort the players and staff put into the games. Indoor football lives in the Inland Empire—perhaps the two lovable misfits are made for each other.
Ontario Warriors at the Citizens Business Bank Arena, 4000 E. Ontario Center Pkwy., Ontario, 1 (888) 519-0211; www.ontwarriors.com. Season tickets as low as $99; individual game tickets as low as $20