- Melissa Isaacson, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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A path was cleared in the underbelly of the Sears Centre Arena late Saturday night, as Steve McMichael stomped through, muttering obscenities.
"It always comes down to the [expletive] kicker," Mongo sputtered.
In this case, the kicker was on the other team, and his 35-yard field goal lifted Rochester past McMichael's Chicago Slaughter, 49-47, before a hearty, announced crowd of 6,944 horn-blowing faithful in Hoffman Estates.
They had come to see this rather strange and strangely popular product called indoor football. And they came to see Jarrett Payton, wearing his father's No. 34 and revving up the crowd after his 34-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter by jumping up on the cushioned sideline wall and leading the cheers. Following a touchdown run in the third quarter, Payton handed the ball to a fan and patted the man's baby on the head for good measure.
"Where [else] can you score a touchdown, jump on the wall and interact with fans? Nowhere," said Payton. "Not the Not Fun League, not anywhere else I've ever been. This is the dream place for me to be. I love being close to the fans, I like being able to entertain and I'm on cloud nine right now."
Payton, who was a running back for the University of Miami and had a brief stint as an undrafted free agent for the Tennessee Titans before moving on to NFL Europe and the Canadian Football League, asked for his release from the Toronto Argonauts last year to work more closely with the Walter & Connie Payton Foundation benefiting underprivileged children.
When the Slaughter opportunity came around, Payton, now 29, clearly could not resist.
"I've been everywhere the last two weeks," he said of his new role of salesman. "My goal, to be honest, is not only just for our team, but I want to get this league to be seen more. I'm not out looking to benefit myself. I'm content with my life. I'm not trying to go to the NFL. I'm not trying to go back to the CFL. But I want to shed more light on this game so if other guys want to go, that more people are watching and more people are taking to heart what this game has and help people out.
Chicago Slaughter Schedule
- March 13 @ Richmond Revolution
- March 21 vs. Bloomington Extreme
March 27 vs. Alaska Wild
- April 10 @ Bloomington Extreme
- April 24 vs. Kent Predators
- April 30 @ La Crosse Spartans
- May 8 @ Green Bay Blizzard
- May 15 @ Bloomington Extreme
- May 22 vs. Green Bay Blizzard
- May 28 vs. West Michigan ThunderHawks
- June 5 @ Rochester Raiders
- June 12 vs. La Crosse Spartans
- June 19 @Green Bay Blizzard
"I feel sometimes like I'm part-player and part-GM, but that's what happens."
If Payton is part-marketer, then certainly McMichael is part-head coach, part-pitchman, along with former Bears quarterback Jim McMahon, whose title of owner is another good way to attract fans to the new 25-team, eight-man Indoor Football League (last year, they were the seven-man Continental Indoor Football League).
So hyped is McMichael that he has issued several challenges to the Mike Ditka-owned Rush of the newly reformed Arena Football League, the sport's Triple-A version to the IFL's Double-A. But a meeting between the two clubs is unlikely to happen, say the Rush, which helped stock last year's 14-0 Slaughter team when the Arena Football League suspended operations for a year and finally disbanded.
The Rush's season begins in April and overlaps with the Slaughter's season through mid-June.
"I don't look at it as straight competition like the Cubs versus the White Sox, and in some respects, I don't really look at the IFL as competition because we're two different leagues," said Rush team president Ken Valdiserri. "But it's only going to make our product better, that's the hope."
Valdiserri is a longtime executive in the Chicago Bears front office who is also an administrator for Ditka's Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund, which the Rush will help promote.
The product Saturday night could have been improved with a lot fewer timeouts and more passing, the result of a new quarterback. McMichael also blamed just two weeks of practice before the season opener for the ragged play early.
He also said it doesn't have to be a competition with the Rush, which will have six of its games televised this season on the NFL Network.
"I look at it like when the old Cardinals were in town and the Bears were here," McMichael said. "There's plenty of football fans in this town. I know we entertained the hell out of everybody tonight. Just a few gaffes, fumbles and missed opportunities."
The 15-team AFL, which has the same name but a new business model, lost $30 million in nine years before shutting down, but will be considerably more cost effective where it concerns player and operational costs, according to Valdiserri.
But one thing that can never be taken away from them is their claim to former Iowa Barnstormer and likely Hall of Fame-bound quarterback Kurt Warner. Valdiserri thinks the NFL would be well-served to look at the AFL as a farm system, particularly after the disbanding of NFL Europe. The four-team, 11-on-11 United Football League plays six games in the fall.
"In my opinion, and I think it's shared by a lot of NFL scouts and GMs, the NFL doesn't have an internal mechanism to develop quarterbacks," said Valdiserri. "Why not get a hold of the Bears and see if they'd want [third-string quarterback] Brett Basanez to develop his game in our league?"
In the meantime, Chicago-area fans thirsting for football to fill those long days between the Super Bowl and Bears training camp can get at least a partial fix with both the Slaughter and Rush. So excited was the Rochester kicker after Saturday night's victory that his phone conversation could be heard up and down a long hallway connecting the two locker rooms.
"We won, we won, can you believe it?" he yelped. "We won."
The Slaughter players, though disappointed with the loss, were no less enthusiastic.
"I told them [before the game] to go out and play with all your heart," Payton said. "We have an opportunity as athletes, not only to just be out there with the fans but to play a game for a check. We get to play a game for money. Are you kidding me?
"Like I told them, 'You can't do this forever. I'm 29 years old and I'm doing this until the wheels fall off.'"
Payton, who gave out approximately 150 tickets to friends and family, said his father would be proud.
"I know he was with me watching over me," Payton said. "Sometimes I get emotional because I wish he was here to be able to see everywhere I've been, from Miami to Tennessee to Europe to the CFL to here. It's been a long road for me and nowhere have I ever really felt I've fit in until I got here and I really do. I really enjoy it."
Jarrett Payton and Steve McMichael are bent on promoting the Slaughter.