- Jon Greenberg, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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Bob McMillen concedes he is probably not the face of the Chicago Rush.
"I don't think so," McMillen said. "I'm probably one step below Ditka."
That's true. McMillen's mug doesn't sell tickets from highway billboards. But Mike Ditka, a part-owner of the previous and current incarnations of the local Arena Football League team, is a marketing mainstay in this city.
That's why the new ownership brought him back onboard when the team, and the league, resumed play last season after taking 2009 off to plan a new financial model.
"Ditka's in with both feet," McMillen said. "He's doing everything he can. I was just with Ditka last Thursday for a dinner, and he shot three commercials while I was with him."
But Ditka is there to sell tickets and lend his sheen to a franchise struggling to regain its tenuous foothold in a crowded marketplace.
McMillen is really the embodiment of the game. The first-year head coach played his high school ball at Immaculate Conception in Elmhurst and was a Division III All-America at Benedictine. He joined the AFL in 1995 and retired with the Rush in 2007, winning an Arena Bowl title with all three teams he played for, with the last one coming with Chicago in 2006.
Just 40, McMillen has already given a good chunk of his life to this game. The fullback-linebacker is second all time in the league in rushing with 1,514 rushing yards and fifth with 85 rushing touchdowns. This being a passing league and all, those marks speak to his longevity more than anything.
What has that longevity cost him?
"Four knee surgeries, four elbows, a foot," he said. "It's taken a good toll on my body. I had ankle surgery a couple months ago but it's finally healing. My body's good and I believe I'm thinking with a correct mind, I'm not banged up in the head like you hear so much about now. I'm very fortunate. I feel very lucky to have played 13 years in this league."
When the league went dark, McMillen joined a host of other Rush refugees with the Chicago Slaughter, then with the Continental Indoor Football League.
McMillen assisted on Steve McMichael's team, which went undefeated and won a championship.
When the Rush returned, so did McMillen, who went back to assisting longtime coach Mike Hohensee, who left the franchise before this season to join the Philadelphia Soul, who just so happen to be this Friday's opponent in the home opener.
Now the head man, McMillen's body is getting a breather, but he's busier than ever before.
"Being a head coach is more work," he said. "But I love what I'm doing. In any job, you want to look forward to going to work and I do."
He said he's been working 11- to 14-hour days getting things organized, while his wife Joan carries the load with their three children, who range from age 4 to 13.
McMillen was around to see the league's heyday, but after a year off, the AFL is trying to remind fans it's a stable operation. So he has to do a little proselytizing as well, but not as much as he expected.
"I think most people know the Rush is back," he said. "The No. 1 question I get is, 'Is Ditka still your owner?' Then they ask about this player or that player. It's amazing how many people know who the Rush are."
Having covered a handful of Rush games in the past, I can speak to McMillen's enthusiasm about the game. It is fun to watch, especially in person, where the hyperkinetic atmosphere is particularly welcoming to children. Of course the tickets are relatively cheap.
(It was always funny to watch fellow reporters scramble to write down scoring plays, seeing as points don't exactly come at a premium.)
While the game experience hasn't changed, the league's profile has diminished, and thus so have the players' salaries. That's one thing McMillen isn't excited about.
"In the heyday of 2008, the highest-paid player in the league made $190,000 for 16 games," he said. "Now the highest-paid guys get $18,000 for 18 games."
The average salary was around $40,000, so players treated it as their only job, in-season. Now McMillen schedules practices that end in the early afternoon so guys can work.
"I think for all coaches the toughest thing in the AFL is the money is not where it's been for the players," he said. "Eventually it'll be there. But the commissioner is taking things slowly so we don't get into trouble again. When the money's better, we can start signing guys to multiyear deals and market the players instead of the coach."
Still, the Rush (1-0) is rich with playmakers, from veteran quarterback Russ Michna to defensive lineman Joe Clermond, who had a cup of coffee as a practice-squad player with the Bears and led the United Football League in sacks in 2010. He had a game-ending sack in the team's season opener, a 49-41 win over the Milwaukee Mustangs.
"He's an exciting player," McMillen said. "He gets off the ball very well."
Michna threw seven touchdown passes in the opener, three of which went to his former Western Illinois teammate Reggie Gray.
Bears kicker Robbie Gould's brother, Chris, is the league's reigning kicker of the year.
McMillen said the win has helped ticket sales for the opener, which are still down significantly from the franchise's first incarnation.
"Slowly, it's coming back," he said.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.
23hPat McManamon and Jeremy Fowler