Mall Americans

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

"Look at them," Clark says, motioning to where Bonner and the well-manned Outlaws are directing pass patterns toward suspicious-looking strangers holding clipboards. "That's what gives them the advantage of beating us."

When the wins won't come, volunteer players stop trying to change their work schedules, stop telling their families they won't be home until late.

And the closer they are to 30, the harder it is for those who envision pro careers to keep those dreams alive.

More than 150 hopefuls showed up to the last Rattlers open tryout, and only two--newly graduated from UNLV and Rhode Island--were signed. Rattlers spokesman Brent Bender says the players fit the general profile--guys right out of college who didn't get a break in the NFL but are good enough to be there.

The Rattlers themselves are viewed by some as a farm system for the higher leagues, and Bender mentions a pair of alumni--Carlos Brooks of the Cardinals and Paul Justin of the Indianapolis Colts--who have gone on to the NFL.

He doesn't know of anyone on the Rattlers roster who has played in the AIFL or any of the Valley's other amateur leagues. "A lot of those guys are looked at as weekend warriors," he says. "They have primary jobs. For us, this is it."

Bender says the Rattlers don't scout the AIFL. "If you're 30 or over, you're not gonna get a shot, really. Definitely not in the NFL, and I doubt very much in the CFL. When Stump [Mitchell, a former NFL Cardinal] played with us, he was 32--but we knew what we were getting."

"Age catches up with everybody," says Bill Henderson, known as "Commander Bill" on the rush-hour traffic reports he does for Skyview Metro Traffic. He is in his ninth year playing with the guys who make up the Mesa Warriors. "There will be a day we can't play football. The body will say it just can't take any more and we'll have to say, 'That's enough.'"

He scoffs at notions of the league as a steppingstone to the Rattlers, not to mention the CFL or NFL.

"You would have to be a total stud in this league for the Rattlers to even take a look at you. That's just the way it is. But talk about guys playing for the love of the game--walk in here."

Nevertheless, John Griffin figures there is still time. He knows people, people with connections. The NFL, he knows, won't consider him--too many operations, ankle surgeries and that matter of a bullet in his back.

"The doctors say it don't move," says Anna, his wife, with a look that says she knows better.

John says, "It's a foreign object in my back, and I can tell you when it moves."

"Griff is very committed to playing football," says Jerry Henige, the commissioner who, as Glendale Heat coach, has used him at nose guard as well as linebacker and on special teams. "His ability on the field is there, but to see how he'd match up at a higher level, that's where a combine helps. He's one of the quicker nose guards in the league."

And if not for a single incident, Griffin says: "I would have played in the NFL. No doubt about it. When I think about it now, I kick myself. I shouldn't even have been there."

Like many AIFL players, John Griffin is a likable guy who seems to stretch reality to enhance his imagined stardom. He says he led the Arizona Football League last year in tackles, but that turns out not to be the case. He says he was second-team all-American in high school, but his former coach, Trevor Browne's Herb Mitton, says if Griffin was second anything, it was second-string.

This is how Griffin explains the circumstances that led to a bullet being lodged in his back: It happened in November 1988, in the predawn hours. He was on a Phoenix street, taking care of business. He'd grown up in Compton, California, and was on his own by the age of 14. By the time he wore number 55 for the Trevor Browne High School Bruins, he had a girlfriend and two kids. He never graduated.

He got his GED and then a walk-on spot on the Phoenix College football team, he says, but he'd never abandoned the dope-selling duties he'd assumed growing up in a rough neighborhood. Coming from Compton earned him not only respect, but expectations.

And then, that November morning, he says, some guy stuck a .38 to his head. "He thought he was gonna rob me," Griffin says.

Griffin says he punched the man, who fell and began shooting. Griffin pulled his own gun and fired back. When it was over, Griffin had been hit five times in the chest, but he was the one who lived. The shooting, he says, was ruled justifiable homicide.

He can remember a date, an approximate time, even a location. But John Griffin cannot remember the name of the man he killed, a man who almost killed him. Travis, he thinks it was, but whether that was the first or last name he does not know. He also cannot remember the names of the detectives who handled the case.

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