Mall Americans

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

"Nothing wrong with the NFL," says AIFL spokesman Chuck Fasse. "I love it. But you know how it can drag. This doesn't drag. It's go, go, go."

"This is quality entertainment for low cost," Henige says one midseason afternoon in the pavilion offices that AIFL honchos use as their own. And four games for five bucks, even for budget-rate ironmen, does seem like a deal when you consider it costs $8 to $36 to go to a single Rattlers game and $20 to $50 for a Cardinals game.

"We believe this is a good thing that can grow," he says. As he speaks, an older, athletic man in a white cap reading "World Football League" enters and is greeted by one of the office staff. A moment later, the staffer interrupts and asks Henige if he wants in on the conversation, one that will lead to talk of sponsoring a "combine" in which players can showcase their skills for WFL scouts.

"Well, I am the commissioner," Henige says, quietly amused. "It might be good."

But to get people into the stands, he needs better promotion. To get sponsors behind his product, he needs to upgrade its quality. And to do that, well . . . getting guys to show up for practice would be a good start.

Ice Cream Man does not have to worry about showing up for practice. This is because the Mesa Warriors, defending champs of the old Arizona Indoor Football League, find practice superfluous. That the strategy works makes it all the more insulting. They sail through the season undefeated, flicking aside opponents by an average score of 30 to 2.

Ice Cream Man is 30 years old and wears a huge, gold ice cream cone on a chain around his considerable neck. There is another one painted on his sweat shirt and a furry cap on his head. His real name is Tony Battiest. An offensive lineman for Mesa, he played for South Mountain High School and then Northern Arizona University.

"I love this league," he says of the AIFL. "I'm here just for fun, to keep in shape."

The Warriors can avoid practicing because they, like the other league power, the Scottsdale Outsiders, have played together in various leagues for so long. Both teams are solid machines of moving parts working in near synchronicity.

"Most of the guys on the Outsiders have been playing flag football together for eight years," says Matt Audorff, a pavilion security guard taking time off from football because of a neck injury. "They don't have the speed, or the agility, of other teams, but they have experience. They know what the other guys are gonna do."

On the losing end of the coin flip are teams like the Peoria Hurricanes. The Hurricanes are like those runt-of-the-litter cookies you add to the baking sheet so as not to waste the leftover dough.

When the AIFL was taking shape, it had only six teams. League officials wanted eight. They convinced Sherdrick Bonner, who quarterbacked the Arizona Rattlers to the Arena Football League championship in 1994, to come out and coach. They sent him 60 players with which to make two teams. The recruiting of "Mr. Bonner" is a feat cited as a certificate of AIFL legitimacy. Which is probably why no one complained when he took the 30 best for his own.

Those players became the Tempe Outlaws. The Hurricanes are the leftovers. Their quarterback looks like Alan Thicke. Their center is a former high school tailback who sat around for four years, gained 75 pounds and is now trying to learn how to be an offensive lineman. They manage three points a game to their opponents' 35. On the rare occasions a sensational play happens to them, the pavilion's paid deejay plays the Scorpions' "Rock You Like a Hurricane."

"They've just got to jell as a team," says AIFL promotions director Mike Passaro.

For the Hurricanes and other struggling teams, even practice sites are prone to turmoil. At Madison Park in Phoenix one March evening, the Outlaws and North Phoenix Irish cross paths and quarrel over use of the field, which, in the first place, they have to share with soccer teams and rugby squads. The Irish lose out and have to run short-pass patterns on the baseball diamond.

A charcoal-tinged sunset and the smell of freshly mown grass accent the gusts of 16th Street traffic 30 yards away. The minutes pass and still the Irish amount to no more than a dozen guys under the field lights. Mark Faust, who canceled a family trip to show up after teammates assured him they'd be here, slams his helmet to the ground and storms off in disgust.

John Clark, Faust's friend since boyhood, sighs, "Man, we had more guys out here three months before the season started."

Clark, 33, played semipro ball in Seattle, then moved to Phoenix last year, sat around and gained a lot of weight. He has a Huckleberry Finn grin and a lineman's nose that bends to two o'clock. "I said, man, this is ridiculous. I gotta do something," he says. He started playing football again. But at this point, the Irish were 1 and 3 and had done their part to contribute to the league's problem with gridiron etiquette. Referees once tagged the Irish with three straight calls of unsportsmanlike conduct, tossing one growling lineman out of the game and pinning the team to its own goal line.

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