Mall Americans

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

Getting into game mode, then, becomes a ritual. Griffin transforms from conversational to pregame mode in the time it takes to throw a referee's flag. All at once his size comes into focus; he's serious and monolithic in a wine-red jersey that bears the number 46 above his exposed belly.

He sits and removes his gold watch and the miniature gold helmet that dangles on a chain from his neck. Matt Audorff, the security guard, topples an empty water jug and props Griffin's leg atop, beginning the process of taping up. A communications radio cackles at his waist.

"These guys should be playing at another level," Audorff maintains, laying ribbons of white around his friend's ankle. "These younger guys should be playing college ball." He looks at Griffin, who is deathly quiet. "You should be getting pro tryouts."

Now to the wrists. Audorff wraps like he's reeling in a fish.
Griffin stares at the floor. Football gives him life. The kids give that life meaning. As long as he can pursue just one opportunity lost to the streets, as long as he can issue payback for a hard life lived, as long as he can clear his mind on a potent locker-room potpourri of perspiration and Ben-Gay, he says he can keep his anger level down.

The announcer does the Heat introductions to the theme from S.W.A.T. Today's game, against the Paradise Valley Thunder, will go down as the league's best yet, a see-saw clash in which the teams trade leads for 40 minutes of play, down to the wire.

After Glendale goes up, 20 to 16, with about 12 minutes and 30 seconds left in the second half, a legion of Heat tries to shake down the Thunder on the ensuing kickoff. When the flurry clears, a lone Glendale player is face down, motionless on the turf.

"Who's down?" one of the Heat says.
"Griff."
A couple of teammates kneel next to him. They call for the medic, but no one seems prepared for anything like this. Jerry Henige, coach and commissioner, heads onto the field, and then comes hefty Mike Passaro, and, as the seconds turn into minutes, Anna Griffin wanders onto the field from the stands, muttering distress signals into a two-way radio.

Griffin is rolled belly-up, flat on his back with his knees raised. He cannot feel his legs. He has faced yet another challenge head-on, and he probably has pinched a nerve, an injury players call a "stinger." He cannot get up.

AIFL administrators trickle onto the scene. They send for ice. They send for paramedics who arrive and lift Griffin onto a stretcher. They wheel him away to the applause of the 150 or so people left in the stands. Later, his stepson Tony Dunham, two years younger, says the same thing happened to Griffin last year, only that time he couldn't move his arms or legs.

Comebacks are the stuff of dreams, but with Paradise Valley up, 32 to 26, a Heat drive falls short in the closing seconds. There will be no winning one for the Griffer.

A few days later, Griffin is back in the pavilion office, ready to impress the scouts the next time out, should any actually show up. He really should take a couple of weeks off, everyone says. But he says no, he ain't goin' out like that. He, like the AIFL itself, is hoping for better days ahead.

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