Mall Americans

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

In John Griffin's visions of the future, it is always do or die.
They are visions probably not unlike those of his counterparts in the amateur Arizona Ironman Football League: It is a must-win situation, and he is playing for some pro team like the Minnesota Vikings, and the other guys are pinned at the doorstep of their own end zone. But his teammates' heads are hanging, and he thinks, I have to be the one. His number is called for the blitz, and he bursts toward the ball and whomever happens to be attached to it.

In the reality that is the present, however, John Griffin has made few scratches on the statistics sheet of the Glendale Heat. The Heat is one of eight teams in the AIFL, which plays eight-man, indoor football on a turf-covered roller-hockey rink at the largely comatose Maryvale Mall.

The games are part neighborhood fiesta, part junior-varsity football and part third-tier celebrity appearance--which is not to say that they are not entertaining. Curious might be a better word.

A few players suit up in the parking lot while the sound system inside the Desert Sports Pavilion blares a mix of classic, head-banger rock and contemporary R&B. Banners hawk beer, a diner, a pawnshop and a hair salon. The announcer calls for a pair of last-minute volunteers to handle the ten-yard chain markers on the sidelines. Questionable practices abound--financial mayhem in the front offices, unsportsmanlike conduct on the field, painted toenails in the bleachers. The whole scene is very Tonya Harding.

Players don't get paid. Instead, they crash heads and yell at officials every Saturday for love of the game, or because they're reliving high school memories, or because they're old pros who can't stay away.

"I like to call them Al Bundys," says Scott Brock, who plans to start his own Ironman team next year. He roams nightclubs for potential players, scouting six-foot-five, 280-pound bouncers. "You know, they were great in high school--like Al Bundy is always saying, 'I scored four touchdowns in one game in high school.' These are the guys still living that dream."

Or, as in the case of John Griffin and so many other AIFL players, they are average guys longing for an unlikely shot at the National Football League, the Canadian Football League or even the Arena Football League, which includes the 1994 champion Arizona Rattlers and of which the AIFL is an infant cousin.

The AIFL has sputtered around in some form for eight years, but with new management, a new facility and a new name, those involved have been quick to characterize spring 1996 as the AIFL's inaugural season, hopeful that the league will someday be taken seriously as a launching pad to the pros. Or at least as weekend entertainment.

The season got under way in late February and, as it wends its way toward May's "Iron Bowl," there have emerged various fires to put out--empty seats, players who skip practice, a mutinous dance team and some major kinks to iron out in the charity department.

But, commissioner Jerry Henige points out, it's cheaper family fun than trying to go to an Arizona Cardinals game.

The facility itself, originally the Pride Pavilion of indoor soccer, is an impressive, convention-hall-size structure poised to inject much-needed life into the Maryvale neighborhood. Artificial turf is blanketed over a roller-hockey rink lined with cushioned walls and transparent barriers that prevent both pucks and airborne ironmen from pummeling spectators. League officials are especially excited about the pavilion's height, a lofty improvement over past seasons when kickoffs kept hitting the 16-foot-high ceiling of the nearby Phoenix Sports Centre.

The AIFL uses rules adapted from eight-man high school football that resemble those of the Arena Football League, whose rapid-fire battles also are waged on a 50-yard field where punts are verboten. However, there are differences. For instance, in arena football, the ability to play the ball off an end-zone net.

John Griffin has his eye on the Canadian Football League. A buddy of his made it; so could he. "It's been a goal of mine to get to the CFL," says Griffin, who was one of a throng of game-day security workers employed by the AIFL until sparse crowds prompted a drastic cut in staff. Now he is unemployed. "I still could do it. I'm 25 years old. I could maybe make $80,000 to $100,000 a year."

Griffin looks older than 25. He's got a smooth, chocolate complexion and a Hollywood handsomeness reminiscent of actor Richard Roundtree. He says he had a real shot at the pros years ago, but it was all blown in a matter of seconds. A bullet remains lodged in his back as a reminder. But that was another time, another life, and, once again, he is a man in motion. He has found new motivation--his wife, Anna, and the attention of youngsters who come and go in shifts during a full, four-game Saturday of Ironman football.

Anna Griffin, 43, is the pavilion's concessions manager. She wears John's extra jersey as she takes admission fees, $5 a pop, from the families and wives and girlfriends who have come to applaud the Heat and the AIFL's other seven teams: the Mesa Warriors, the Tempe Outlaws, the Scottsdale Outsiders, the Paradise Valley Thunder, the North Phoenix Irish, the West Phoenix Renegades and the Peoria Hurricanes.

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.

"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.

"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.

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.

The idea, he says, was to make Every Kid Counts the league's primary beneficiary while letting it dole out proceeds to--or coordinate promotions for--kid-related charities throughout the season. Among the benefiting agencies that AIFL officials name are the Single Parents Association, Sexual Assault Recovery Institute, Boys & Girls Clubs and the Police Athletic League.

Some folks have had the impression that a charity-of-the-week-type program is in place, in which the benefiting charity would receive a portion of Every Kid Counts' proceeds.

But the league so far has been in no position to offer charities anything other than promotional opportunities and donated ice cream, with attendance much lower than expected and what little money there is tied up in a dispute with landlord RSBP Investments. As a result, "We're always bailing water," Henige says.

The league has been unable to pay Every Kid Counts anything more than a $500 expense-reimbursement check, Perelka says. In turn, other charities say they have not gotten proceeds they were led to believe they would.

"We have not received any funds," says Ed Price of the Single Parents Association, a Scottsdale-based group with 400 members. The group was invited to be one week's beneficiary and set up an informational table at the game. But Price said proceeds from raffle-ticket sales that were to benefit the group never materialized because the league's dance squad revolted and refused to sell them.

Every Kid Counts has its glitches. Although it is registered as a tax-exempt organization with the Internal Revenue Service, other credentials have fallen by the wayside: It is not registered as a charitable organization with the Arizona Secretary of State's Office and its nonprofit status was revoked by the state Corporation Commission in May 1995. Perelka was not aware that the organization's nonprofit privileges had been revoked until New Times brought it to his attention.

He is in the process of clearing up the matter. "This is kind of embarrassing," Perelka says.

Bob Ryan of RSBP Investments, which leases the facility from John F. Long, says AIFL officials have good intentions and a viable idea, but haven't found a way to make it sell. He says bad bookkeeping and poor decision making have mired the league in high overhead and unnecessarily high expenses, including an $800-a-week bill for referees.

However, Perelka says RSBP controls the finances and that the AIFL's hands are tied until the league sees the money, money that Ryan of RSBP says has been used to pay overhead expenses.

Had attendance figures in the preseason dreams of AIFL officials and RSBP Investments borne out, it's possible that charity intentions could have been fulfilled, too. Instead, it appears both went for the long bomb when they perhaps should have played more conservatively.

The dispute came to a head on April 10. Leveling charges of shoddy bookkeeping and office management, Ryan and RSBP tightened the reins on the league's daily use of the pavilion for football operations and barred the AIFL from using the offices, except on game days.

"This is not the plan we laid out in September," a disappointed Perelka says.

There is a guy from the outdoor Arizona Football League, a guy named Scott Lavender, who has earned a tryout with the Charlotte Rage of the Arena Football League. What he had to do to earn that tryout was be the premier player at his position in every game for an entire amateur-league season.

"If you can't dominate at this level, you can't get a shot at the next level," says Kevin Pakos, commissioner of that outdoor league.

John Griffin has a long way to go.
But when he looks back on his years in football, there is one game that stands out, one that spelled a change in mindset that he believes made him the player he is today.

Phoenix College was playing Ricks College, a low-level powerhouse junior college in Idaho that feeds Brigham Young University. On the 20-hour bus ride to Ricks, Coach Pat Lavin rattled strategy and pep. Everybody knew what he had to do.

But in the first half, in front of 3,000 rabid low-level powerhouse fans, Griffin got his butt kicked. He couldn't free himself to make a tackle. Coach Lavin, he says, yanked him out of the lineup, gave him a battleground stare and said: Did you come here to play football, or to get your butt kicked? Do what you have to do.

In the second half, Griffin says, he had six sacks and 13 tackles, numbers bordering on superhuman.

Says Lavin, who now coaches at Independence High School, of John Griffin, "I remember the name, but not the face or what position he played." When told of the verbal spanking he administered that whipped Griffin into shape, he pauses and asks, "What position did he play again?"

Memories, like dreams, have a way of adjusting with time, and whether the stats are right, it's the attitude Griffin says he carried away from the memory that he values.

"I had never played in front of that many people. I blocked out everything around me. Now the only thing I hear is that ball when it moves. That's the only thing I care about."

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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