Mall Americans

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

The players are mostly blue-collar workers who range in age from 18 to 41. They provide their own insurance and sign waivers. Pain is a certainty; injury a constant possibility. Anna's son, Tony Dunham, who plays for the fledgling Peoria Hurricanes, broke his ankle and tibia in the season's first game. His brother Doug is still playing.

"That wall don't move," says Griffin, who last year played in the outdoor Arizona Football League and says he creamed somebody so hard, the guy had a seizure. "This arena can hurt you seriously. But if you're on defense, it's your friend." So far, he says, six games into the season, he hasn't been hurt.

Can Griffin make the pros? Can any of them? "That's debatable," says Henige, the commish. "A lot of players think they can, but whether that's realistic . . . I question that. A large amount of them play for fun. We'll see, as this league grows, which direction that will take--probably in another year or two."

Griffin doesn't have that long. He already has his mind made up. He's six-foot-one, weighs 260 pounds and claims he can sprint 40 yards in 4.6 seconds.

"Somebody out there wants me. I just gotta find out who it is."

As far as being "the Man," there are bigger and better places. But around here, Jerry Henige is it. As AIFL commissioner, Henige, who once was a quarterback on the Nebraska Cornhuskers freshman team and has since compiled years of organizing flag-football leagues, has the AIFL cradled under his arm like a Wilson pigskin. He's dodging his way downfield while his subordinates provide blocking.

In a do-it-yourself league like this, however, one must wear many helmets. "I'm commissioner, janitor, whatever," says Henige, who, in addition to commishing, coaches the Glendale Heat and plays back-up quarterback to his brother Bob.

As with any self-respecting sports league, there are a lot of people with titles. Bob is also the league's general manager. Another brother and teammate, Mark, runs the sports shop.

The league's promotions director, Mike Passaro, is a 340-pound nurse who plays offensive line for the Heat; a former trenchman for the Arizona Wranglers of the defunct United States Football League, he sets up chairs in a makeshift beer garden before games. His wife, Susan, serves up draft beer for patrons of In the Zone, which is what they call the lounge overlooking the field from the east end zone.

The AIFL's operations director, Rob Perelka, coaches the Tempe Outlaws, while media-relations guy Chuck Fasse is a Tempe wide receiver; on Easter weekend, Fasse put on a big bunny outfit and distributed Tootsie Pops.

In recent weeks, Jerry Henige says, attendance has ranged from 1,200 to 1,800 spectators daily, but Bob Ryan, a partner in the group that rents the facility to the AIFL, says the total is closer to 300 or 400. Ryan's figures seem more accurate; during several visits, not more than 150 people dotted the bleachers at any one time.

The first two weeks of AIFL action--which included a flag-football game between Phoenix police officers and members of the Arizona Rattlers--brought in significantly larger crowds. But then the novelty wore off, and Henige says marketing money has been scarce. For a while, he and brother Bob were pushing league highlights on a cable-access TV show called Arizona Ironman Football Today.

"We're not making a whole lot of money," Jerry Henige says. "To be honest with you, we're losing money. I haven't been paid a dime."

Henige, whose paying job is running a financial management firm, and his brother run the league under a nonprofit umbrella called Arizona Heat Sports. They rent the pavilion on Saturdays from RSBP Investments, which leases the building from owner John F. Long. Henige says the only administrator on the league payroll is operations director Perelka, co-founder of a charity known as Every Kid Counts, which the AIFL promotes as the prime beneficiary of some of its nonprofit proceeds.

"We've gotten a lot of the hard work done," Henige says. "We're not going to make any money this year, but we believe in the future."

For Henige, that future holds the necessity of corporate sponsorship and, until then, the comments he hears about possible player salaries will keep him chuckling.

Things like rent and charity obligations have been less funny. As it is, he's hoping to give away a pair of San Diego vacations to the offensive and defensive players of the year.

This season, the top four teams will get tee shirts; the top two, plaques. But down the road, and he's just thinking out loud here, he could maybe see $1,000 packages--fitness-club memberships and athletic shoes and stuff to go along with the tee shirts and plaques.

Almost every team has a chance for reward once the playoffs begin, because six of eight teams qualify. As the ten-game season grinds on, John Griffin and the Glendale Heat maintain a winning record, their losses coming at the hands of teams like the Mesa Warriors and the Scottsdale Outsiders, which dominated the league they played in last year, the Arizona Indoor Football League.

The contests are human-destruction derbies, nonstop and ripe with collisions, speed-bumped only by a hail of yellow flags. But, like those in the wildly successful Arena Football League, a league that is prospering while others stagnate, Ironman games dispense with all that slows down the NFL version--things like punts, a clock that frequently stops and a field that stretches forever.

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