This has to be the coldest practice in the history of arena football. It's February 21, and despite abundant sunshine, a bitter wind is whipping through Saints Field at Baltimore Lutheran School in Towson, where there's nary a wall nor a roof to be found. Driven from their normal indoor facility on campus by a youth basketball tournament, it's here the Baltimore Mariners have assembled for the first day of their 2009 weekend training camp.
"Let's go, let's go!" general manager and offensive assistant coach Greg Justice bellows at the 30 has-beens and might-bes who comprise his roster. "What's your ring size? We'll all be wearing diamonds in July!"
Ignoring the chill, the players run through drills with an extra dash of opening day enthusiasm, as if they were back in pee-wee ball and there is no place in the world they'd rather be. Actually, there isn't—if there were, they'd surely be there.
"You've got to be having fun to be out here," says kicker J.R. Cipra, by day a teacher at Hartford Heights Elementary School. "I haven't made a dime in this league. But it's so much fun to play for your team, the fans, and your city."
For your wallet, not so much. Players on all 14 American Indoor Football Association teams—this is the minor league of the more famous AFL, itself the red-headed stepchild of the NFL—are paid the princely sum of $200 a game, plus a $50 bonus if they win. Last season, Cipra, a York, PA, resident, played for the franchise in Erie. Between car rental and occasional hotel stays, he finished the season as the league's leading scorer—and $4,000 in the red.
"It's a sacrifice," says head coach Chris Simpson, who's trying to flip the Mariners' 4-10 record from a year ago. "You have to ask yourself, why are you here? The pay's not great. Guys from out of town leave jobs, families. It can feel like you're going from practice to bed to practice again. Each guy has to decide if the sacrifice is worth it."
It's just after 8 p.m. on Thursday night, and Richard Johnson slowly puts on his pads for the impending three-hour practice. Four days after breaking training camp, the team is now in regular-season mode, practicing three or four nights a week from 8:30 to 11:30 p.m.
Three hours is more sleep than Johnson's had in the past few days combined.
"I'm exhausted, but I'm here," says the 26-year-old cornerback, who has a break between shifts at his "other" job as a youth counselor. "I've been playing football my whole life. I love it. I'm not ready to hang it up. There are still possibilities."
The shortish, spry Johnson starred for Millford Mill High School in Randallstown, then went on to play big-time college football at Virginia Tech. A wide receiver for the Hokies, he once scored a touchdown in the Gator Bowl, but NFL scouts were more drawn to his roommate, DeAngelo Hall. Earlier today, Hall, a former first-round draft pick, signed a six-year, $55 million contract with the Washington Redskins that will pay him $572,916 a game.
Eighty miles north on I-95, Johnson and his teammates wait for a kids' soccer game to finish so they can take the field.
Before arriving to practice at Freestate Arena in White Marsh, Johnson put in an eight-hour shift as a counselor working with children at Villa Maria in Timonium, which provides a full range of behavioral, health, and special education services. After work, he raced to the Owings Mills home he shares with his girlfriend, Danielle, and her 3-year-old daughter, Mickelle, to grab a bite to eat. After dinner, it was off to practice, where for the next three hours he'll leave everything he has on the field. Around midnight, he'll head back to Timonium for an overnight shift at Villa Maria.
"He works doubles all the time. I don't know how he does it," Danielle says. "He's out by six in the morning, and gets back at 11 at night. Between work and practice, we barely get to see each other. Everyone's making a sacrifice. It's hard, but he's focused. This is his dream; he's going to make it happen."
Like many of his Mariner teammates, Johnson still harbors NFL aspirations. He's been scouted by several teams, but never granted a tryout. He points to untimely injuries and perceptions about his undersized frame as the culprits, but remains undeterred. At his agent's urging, he switched from wide receiver to cornerback, where he thinks his speed will be more of an asset, his small stature less of a hindrance.
But make no mistake—it's a long way from second tier arena ball to M&T Bank Stadium. Prior to this season, most AIFA players' immediate goal was the Arena Football League, the ESPN-backed league which has sent numerous players, most notably Super Bowl quarterback Kurt Warner, to the big time. But the AFL suspended operations this year, leaving an even bigger gap between rungs up the ladder for players like Johnson.
"While the odds can be long for a [AIFA] player to make the jump to the NFL at some point, it isn't impossible," says a Baltimore Ravens scout who's familiar with the Mariners and their league. "The cases are few but there are guys who are overlooked early in their careers and can blossom late into NFL-type talent."
Johnson prays he'll be that trailblazer, but he's not consumed by such thoughts.
"Until my heart's not in it or my body's so beat up I can't take it, I'll keep playing," he says after practice, passion and fatigue equally evident in his eyes. "I love the game. I'm not ready to hang it up yet. When I'm ready, I'll know."
Two hours before the March 15 season opener at 1st Mariner Arena, quarterback E.J. Nemeth is meticulously working through his pregame routine. At 25, he's already a grizzled minor-league arena ball veteran, having played three years in places like San Angelo, TX, and Anchorage, AK.
"It was an experience," he says of his time spent in Alaska. "You can be in a strip mall, and a moose will walk right by you in the parking lot."
"To be able to get out here and wing the ball around every play, as a quarterback you can't ask for much more," says Nemeth, referring to the league's pass-first, gunslinging mentality. "If you don't love it, at 25 you're not going to be doing this."
Listening to his standard pregame iPod mix that includes Metallica and Johnny Cash, Nemeth roams the field, visualizing the plays. As always, he's wearing a ratty Iron Maiden T-shirt and walking around barefoot, to "feel the turf."
"Other than that, I'm not too superstitious," he says.
A half-hour before kickoff, the creaky old arena remains virtually empty, but new owner Alan Taylor is confident the fans will come. He bought the team last year in "a moment of gin-induced insanity," paying "a little too much" for the franchise. "It was in the six figures, but not close to seven."
Taylor worked as a manufacturers' representative in the electrical field for more than 30 years. After merging his company in 2002, he got involved in youth sports marketing. Since buying the team, he's been working tirelessly to raise its profile—and profitability.
"We're a minor league sport in a major league city, so we have trouble getting attention," says Taylor, a Pikesville resident. "I just know that Baltimore is a football town."
Taylor's task hasn't been helped by the struggling economy, but he believes the team's grass roots marketing efforts already are paying off. Last year, the team averaged 1,750 fans per game, but there are 3,500 fans here for the season opener. Outside the arena, a group of Ravens Roosters dressed to the purple nines are tailgating in the dreary drizzle, fueling up for their first Mariners game.
"We had a fellow from the organization come to our nest to speak," says Matt Andrews, better known as "Fan Man." "He convinced me that we should support this. It's Baltimore—it's football."
"I'm going to go with a theme tonight, gentlemen," Coach Simpson barks at his troops just minutes before kickoff. "Take from them everything, and give them nothing! Let's go out and win this one for the city of Baltimore, because they deserve it!"
The players leave the locker room fired up—but less than two minutes into the game they're trailing 7-0. (Nemeth's second pass was tipped, intercepted, and returned for a touchdown by the Erie River Rats. "Not exactly the way we drew it up," Nemeth said after the game.) But Baltimore's confidence never wavers, and when Nemeth hits Scorpio Brown (who sports a "Football is Life" tattoo across his chest) for a 43-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter, the Mariners take the lead.
Points fly fast and furious in arena football, where touchdowns are more common than defensive stops. Drives can cover the 50-yard field in the blink of an eye, and even when offenses stall, teams attempt field goals regardless of their field position. (In the second quarter, Cipra nails a 57-yarder—from his own three-yard-line.)
"It's high-energy, fast-paced football," says John Morris, cofounder of the league and a Baltimore native. "Our goal is to give affordable entertainment to the fans. You can come out here for about the same price as taking the family to the movies."
The fans in attendance today are being treated to a fine performance by the Mariners, who, since their initial stumble, haven't looked back. In the second quarter, the crowd (which includes three NFL scouts) watches as Johnson picks off his first pass of the season.
"I think I got a concussion on the opening kickoff," he says after the game. "I had a real bad headache, so I sat out a few plays, but then I felt fine. I went in and made a play on the ball."
When the final seconds tick off Baltimore's 60-32 victory, the team heads back into the locker room for a brief moment to unwind. But there's no time to rest. After this and every game, each player marches right back onto the field to sign autographs and visit with the fans.
"It was such a blast," says Cipra, as he signs a young fan's T-shirt. He'll have little time to savor the victory—tomorrow morning, as always, his alarm will sound at 3 a.m. By 4 he'll be in the gym working out, and by 6 he'll be on the road to Baltimore, arriving to school at the crack of dawn to prepare his lessons.
Richard Johnson is joined on the field by his mother, Danielle, and Mickelle, all beaming with pride. After dishing out his final hugs and autographs, Johnson walks slowly off the field, exhausted from exerting his maximum effort. There's no rest for the weary: A shift at Villa Maria beckons tomorrow.
Luckily, he doesn't need sleep to dream.