Mongo seeking perfection
Bears legend Steve McMichael takes Slaughter to brink of undefeated season
HOFFMAN ESTATES, Ill. -- It's around 8 p.m. on a Tuesday -- reality TV time for the working stiff -- when the assembled players for the Chicago Slaughter make their way to the middle of the artificial turf inside an empty Sears Centre.
Slaughter head coach Steve McMichael, the immortal "Mongo," is just one game from finishing an undefeated season -- the team will play the Fort Wayne Freedom in the championship game of the Continental Indoor Football League on Saturday night -- and he's addressing his team in its penultimate practice of the season.
"One more [fantastic] week," he said. "This will be a memory you have for the rest of your [fantastic] life."
And so on.
Now, you should know, I've swapped the word "fantastic" for another word that the infamous Chicago Bears legend uses to pepper his conversations. His star quarterback, Russ Michna, is amazed at his coach's swearing skills.
"He likes that F-bomb," Michna said. "It might be his favorite word in the world. He puts it into funny places, too, that's the thing."
The only bombs McMichael likes better are the ones that come off the right hand of Michna, who threw six touchdown passes in last week's 63-19 win over the Wisconsin Wolfpack.
Not that six touchdown passes are a big deal for the Western Illinois University graduate. Team officials said Michna, 28, has thrown a total of 84 touchdown passes, including the one playoff game so far. The next-best quarterback in the CIFL threw 33.
"Make no mistake, this is the reason we're heads-and-shoulders above the rest of the league. Him," McMichael said, pointing his Super Bowl ring at Michna. "He's the MVP of the league, hands down."
Not that Michna is printing CIFL MVP business cards. A Conant High School (Hoffman Estates) grad, Michna was the starting quarterback of the Chicago Rush until the Arena Football League canceled its season in December.
Now he's an accountant by day and a Midwestern indoor football star on the weekends.
"It's different, working a full-time job and playing," Michna said. "I've never had to do it before."
Michna and a half dozen Rush teammates wound up joining the lower-rent Slaughter expecting to have some fun and whup up on lesser competition, and that's pretty much what has happened this season. The Slaughter have outscored opponents by nearly 30 points a game. Yeah, that's right. On average.
Through last week's playoff win, the Slaughter have averaged about 66 points while giving up around 36, which has made for some pretty boring fourth quarters.
No wonder receiver Donovan Morgan, the 2008 AFL rookie of the year for the Rush, says even his fiancee doesn't like coming to games because they're too boring. How's that for a marketing problem?
Morgan, a New Orleans native who will turn 27 in July, is a physical specimen at 6-foot-2, 195 pound. He has led the CIFL in receiving and scoring this season despite missing a handful of games with shoulder and foot injuries.
He praised his teammates up and down but said that some of the competition leaves something to be desired.
"Sometimes you're sitting there thinking, 'How can these guys come out here and say they're competitive athletes and let this happen to them?'" he said. "You can see the fear in some guys as soon as you walk out of the locker room. Some guys, they feel, 'OK, I can make name for myself if I'm able to stop these guys.' It hasn't happened yet."
Morgan wasn't really trying to be cocky. He was just being honest. The Slaughter are a professional operation. The team practices twice a week, watches hours of film and generally comports itself well. More importantly, the team has some serious high-level athletes, such as DeJuan Alfonzo, a longtime Rush linebacker, and Bobby Sippio, an Arena star who wound up playing a season for the Kansas City Chiefs in 2007.
Morgan pointed out the unheralded athleticism of fellow receiver Dontrell Jackson, who led the league in receptions and the team in driving distance, commuting to the practices from his home in south suburban Harvey.
"It makes you appreciate football a lot," Morgan said of playing in the CIFL. "You look at where you were, what was taken away from you, and then you come here and see how much these guys respect this game."
When the Arena Football League announced it was closing up shop for the 2009 season, it left a lot of people in the lurch.
For McMichael, the raspy-voiced contrarian who has coached the team in all three years of its existence, the news "reaffirmed to me that God loves me."
After he got a load of his new players, he even thanked his buddy Mike Ditka, a part-owner of the Rush, at his restaurant downtown. Ditka wasn't as pleased.
The Slaughter's general manager, Alan Perkins, moved quickly to sign Michna and former Rush star Bob McMillen to serve as an assistant coach. The other players followed. Sippio came on late in the season when Morgan was injured.
The "Rushugees" had to adjust on the fly. The CIFL plays seven-on-seven -- one fewer player per side than the AFL. The pay is sparse. The arenas are smaller and emptier. One player got a staph infection from the turf in Wheeling, W.Va., where the team played in front of "30 people in the stands," Morgan mused.
"It's different, that's for sure," Michna said. "Once the Arena League disappeared, we just wanted an opportunity to keep on playing. It worked out for a lot of these guys because they were in town, and we got a chance to hang out and have some fun."
It has been fun for Michna & Co. Only two games have been decided by 15 points or fewer this season, and the Slaughter have scored 60 or more points 10 times. One of those close games was against the Freedom, the Slaughter's championship game opponent.
The Freedom certainly should be fired up for Saturday. The Fort Wayne franchise nearly fell to the common fate of unaffiliated minor league sports. According to the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, the team almost folded because of financial issues, but it persevered. Last week, with no practice, the team drove to Marion, Ohio, to claim the CIFL's Eastern Conference title and set up this game. It would be pretty fitting if the Freedom won, but given the talent gap, it's really unlikely.
"If they think they're going to see the same defense " McMichael said underneath a Slaughter cap and tinted glasses, not needing to finish his thought.
Morgan isn't sure he wants to see another blowout, what he called another old-school Mike Tyson fight.
"I love competitive games," he said. "I don't want to go blow teams out. Hopefully these guys bring their A-games, so we can compete at a high level."
There is talk of championship rings and victory parties, but after this season, the dynasty will probably be broken up in 2010, even if the AFL doesn't return. Few expect it to.
McMichael said he has told Bears general manager Jerry Angelo to look into a few Slaughter players, such as Michna, Morgan and Sippio. As for some of the others, he noted that he definitely played against worse in Bears training camps.
"Mongo's been saying, 'I set up a dynasty for them to leave here,'" Morgan said. "He's been saying it since we won those games last week, like, 'Thanks guys!'"
So is there a future for the Slaughter? McMichael said he'll be back. He told me he's never had so much fun in his football career.
"Winning is fun. Losing is not fun," he said. "There's an equation for you."
Michna said he'll have to think about it. Maybe the league can set up some feeder system for the fledgling United Football League, set to debut in the fall. Maybe other AFL expats will see how the Slaughter dominated and join up to have some fun.
But those are thoughts for another time. There's a championship game Saturday and a perfect record at stake. And what's more important than that?
As McMichael said, "It's an epic, [fantastic] undefeated season that people in Chicago have been praying for, so why are you going to miss it now?"