Mall Americans

A fledgling indoor-football league is a steppingstone -- for some, to the future; for others, to the past

In John Griffin's visions of the future, it is always do or die.
They are visions probably not unlike those of his counterparts in the amateur Arizona Ironman Football League: It is a must-win situation, and he is playing for some pro team like the Minnesota Vikings, and the other guys are pinned at the doorstep of their own end zone. But his teammates' heads are hanging, and he thinks, I have to be the one. His number is called for the blitz, and he bursts toward the ball and whomever happens to be attached to it.

In the reality that is the present, however, John Griffin has made few scratches on the statistics sheet of the Glendale Heat. The Heat is one of eight teams in the AIFL, which plays eight-man, indoor football on a turf-covered roller-hockey rink at the largely comatose Maryvale Mall.

The games are part neighborhood fiesta, part junior-varsity football and part third-tier celebrity appearance--which is not to say that they are not entertaining. Curious might be a better word.

A few players suit up in the parking lot while the sound system inside the Desert Sports Pavilion blares a mix of classic, head-banger rock and contemporary R&B. Banners hawk beer, a diner, a pawnshop and a hair salon. The announcer calls for a pair of last-minute volunteers to handle the ten-yard chain markers on the sidelines. Questionable practices abound--financial mayhem in the front offices, unsportsmanlike conduct on the field, painted toenails in the bleachers. The whole scene is very Tonya Harding.

Players don't get paid. Instead, they crash heads and yell at officials every Saturday for love of the game, or because they're reliving high school memories, or because they're old pros who can't stay away.

"I like to call them Al Bundys," says Scott Brock, who plans to start his own Ironman team next year. He roams nightclubs for potential players, scouting six-foot-five, 280-pound bouncers. "You know, they were great in high school--like Al Bundy is always saying, 'I scored four touchdowns in one game in high school.' These are the guys still living that dream."

Or, as in the case of John Griffin and so many other AIFL players, they are average guys longing for an unlikely shot at the National Football League, the Canadian Football League or even the Arena Football League, which includes the 1994 champion Arizona Rattlers and of which the AIFL is an infant cousin.

The AIFL has sputtered around in some form for eight years, but with new management, a new facility and a new name, those involved have been quick to characterize spring 1996 as the AIFL's inaugural season, hopeful that the league will someday be taken seriously as a launching pad to the pros. Or at least as weekend entertainment.

The season got under way in late February and, as it wends its way toward May's "Iron Bowl," there have emerged various fires to put out--empty seats, players who skip practice, a mutinous dance team and some major kinks to iron out in the charity department.

But, commissioner Jerry Henige points out, it's cheaper family fun than trying to go to an Arizona Cardinals game.

The facility itself, originally the Pride Pavilion of indoor soccer, is an impressive, convention-hall-size structure poised to inject much-needed life into the Maryvale neighborhood. Artificial turf is blanketed over a roller-hockey rink lined with cushioned walls and transparent barriers that prevent both pucks and airborne ironmen from pummeling spectators. League officials are especially excited about the pavilion's height, a lofty improvement over past seasons when kickoffs kept hitting the 16-foot-high ceiling of the nearby Phoenix Sports Centre.

The AIFL uses rules adapted from eight-man high school football that resemble those of the Arena Football League, whose rapid-fire battles also are waged on a 50-yard field where punts are verboten. However, there are differences. For instance, in arena football, the ability to play the ball off an end-zone net.

John Griffin has his eye on the Canadian Football League. A buddy of his made it; so could he. "It's been a goal of mine to get to the CFL," says Griffin, who was one of a throng of game-day security workers employed by the AIFL until sparse crowds prompted a drastic cut in staff. Now he is unemployed. "I still could do it. I'm 25 years old. I could maybe make $80,000 to $100,000 a year."

Griffin looks older than 25. He's got a smooth, chocolate complexion and a Hollywood handsomeness reminiscent of actor Richard Roundtree. He says he had a real shot at the pros years ago, but it was all blown in a matter of seconds. A bullet remains lodged in his back as a reminder. But that was another time, another life, and, once again, he is a man in motion. He has found new motivation--his wife, Anna, and the attention of youngsters who come and go in shifts during a full, four-game Saturday of Ironman football.

Anna Griffin, 43, is the pavilion's concessions manager. She wears John's extra jersey as she takes admission fees, $5 a pop, from the families and wives and girlfriends who have come to applaud the Heat and the AIFL's other seven teams: the Mesa Warriors, the Tempe Outlaws, the Scottsdale Outsiders, the Paradise Valley Thunder, the North Phoenix Irish, the West Phoenix Renegades and the Peoria Hurricanes.

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