Mall Americans

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

He is unable to provide any official record to support his story, and New Times could find no documentation detailing the incident. However, Griffin's chest bears testimony of some traumatic event--scars running down the length of his torso. "I was a knucklehead, like everybody else, in the wrong place at the wrong time," he says in the living room of his apartment near 44th Street and McDowell, a neighborhood in which he says it is still necessary to carry a handgun, which lays in a sheath on the coffee table. "It was one of those things that just happened."

"I've seen the scars. I've seen the holes," says friend Mike Passaro, the AIFL's promotions director who is also a nurse. "He has been shot." But the circumstances surrounding Griffin's shooting remain in doubt.

At the time, Griffin says, he was two weeks away from a tryout camp with the Detroit Lions, two weeks away from the birth of his third child. But instead of showing off his 40-yard dash or waiting at home for his newborn, he was in a hospital bed.

He'd thrown away his ticket to the NFL. After the shooting, he says, football meant nothing to him.

In 1989, he was arrested for robbery and possession and sale of narcotics and was sent away for three and a half years. But he'd met Anna, 18 years older and a friend of a woman he'd been dating. "I loved her since the first time I saw her," Griffin says. "Our eyes just met."

She cared for his kids and waited while he did his time of awakening at Perryville.

"We stuck it out. We endured the bad. She's 43. Some of the guys don't understand, but she stands behind me 110 percent," Griffin says. "That's what I need."

They were married March 31, 1992, after he promised to give up street life.
"His cousin says I stole him away," says Anna, "but John did that himself."
"I had a whole career of NFL football snatched away from me in one night," Griffin says. He points to faded tattoos on his forearms, one reading "OG Cowboy." "I'm all tatted up; I can't get rid of that. But what I can do is make sure my kids are taken care of.

"People say crime pays. Yeah, it pays a hell of a lot--it puts your life in a judge's hands, that's what crime does."

Anna: "The one thing I think John learned being in prison was how precious freedom is."

The kids who live in his apartment complex have the baggy pants and the "I'm bad" attitude, and Griffin tells them what his eyes have seen, how he's buried nine friends since moving to the Valley. He gives the kids tickets to come watch him play.

"Kids--that's what makes all the shin splints worth it," Griffin says.
"The broken feet," says Anna, motioning at her large son, Tony, who is beached on the sofa in a cast.

Griffin talks about how every Ironman football game helps fulfill that goal through its charity affiliations. He talks about how someday, if he tries hard enough and the stars are positioned just right, the pro tryout could come again. Dreams adjust with time, but Griffin has learned to meet challenges head-on, the way he does on the football field.

"Basically, my object in this league is to live my dream as long as I can," he says. "What makes me happy is playin' football for these kids--makin' a sack, gettin' up and seein' the kids' faces glowin'. Whether I'm playin' NFL or not, or in the CFL, or the Rattlers or whatever, I'm happy. This will make my life worthwhile."

And the kids in the stands are about all he's got to lay those dreams on, because the AIFL's charity operations constantly face fourth-and-long situations. Unfortunately, in the AIFL, punting is not an option.

League representatives and players regularly invoke the AIFL's involvement with Valley charities. Some of them, like John Griffin, go so far as to say it's why they chose the nonprofit AIFL over other local amateur leagues.

Primary among those charities, according to AIFL promotional materials, is Scottsdale-based Every Kid Counts, an organization founded in March 1994 to work with youth using sports activities and participants as a vehicle.

Co-founder and board member Rob Perelka says the name Every Kid Counts emerged from a comment he made while discussing the possibility of starting a charity with local merchants interested in helping kids. A former video coordinator for the Arizona Rattlers, Perelka says he has coached Pop Warner football and mentored school athletes.

Every Kid Counts sponsors an annual benefit golf tournament and a line of bottled spring water available at ABCO supermarkets. Last year it took in $9,600. Since its inception, it has also awarded seven junior-college scholarships of $750 apiece and refurbished a couple of baseball fields with matching grants, Perelka says.

As the budding AIFL was forming, he says, commissioner Jerry Henige recruited him to be operations director, "Whatever that means," he says. Both men, he says, shared the same goal--helping youth through the medium of sports.

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