Special to Page 2
"I'm just trying to capture the spirit of the thing."
-- the great sportswriter Dickie Dunn, in "Slap Shot"
At least that's what I told myself, and what I told my wife when she reminded me that it's not my body that's the commodity, but my mind. And while Dunn was a little pathetic for trying to buddy up to the athletes, at least he wasn't trying to be one.
I am 29 years old, and a long time ago I identified myself as a football player. In retrospect, there is a lot wrong with that -- limiting oneself to an identity forged on playgrounds and in weight rooms isn't the right way to go. But neither is real life, with its bills, taupe houses and pretense, which is what years 22 through 29 have shown me. It's still better to be out on the field, pulling a hammy, than it is to be the guy with the tape recorder asking the athlete how he is feeling.
Hence, this article, this day and this tryout.
This is why I'm stretching on a swath of turf (feels nice, kinda spongy, like real grass with little chunks of rubber between the blades), getting ready to run a 40-yard dash, a short shuttle (sometimes called the "Jangle") and hurl my body against other guys with a $50 tryout fee and a dream. The dream, in this case, is to earn a place in the professional indoor football food chain -- a spot with the Battle Creek Crunch of the Great Lakes Indoor Football League. While my buddies spend their afternoons at Home Depot, picking out marble countertops, I'm about to see how many times I can lift 225 pounds off my chest.
The Great Lakes Indoor Football League is the brainchild of two entrepreneurial brothers from Canton, Ohio, the city that hosted the meetings which resulted in the formation of the NFL in 1920. The GLIFL, in its inaugural season in 2006 (which begins in March), will feature 7-on-7 football played indoors on a 50-yard field. It is a brand of football that has sold well in small to midsized cities across the country -- fans can see real, live, violent pro football, for a fraction of the cost of the NFL experience. The league also hopes to serve as a launchpad for many great athletes who, by nature of the numbers game, don't have the opportunity to ply their trade on the NFL stage. There are several of them here, as well as some on the other side of the fence -- middle-agers or office workers looking for one more thrill. But nobody is getting rich. My agent, Mike O'Brien, who is in the process of signing first-round prospects for this year's NFL draft, will make a commission of $3 per game check on me (the Crunch have guaranteed me a spot on the roster as a long-snapper and reserve linebacker and running back) -- not quite enough for a hot dog and a Coke at Kellogg Arena.
The key to the tryout seems to be to look as big as possible. There is lots of Under Armour in the room, which, if worn in the privacy of one's home, makes one feel like Superman -- an effect that completely wears off in the presence of great athletes. They ought to put that on a warning label. And there are lots of great athletes here. You know them -- they're the guys who don't look nervous, not even a bit. When they jog, when they toss a ball, when they talk they make everything look easy.
One of those athletes is Cullen Davis, a lanky, 26-year-old semi-pro wide receiver who matriculated "at the school of hard knocks." Davis can run and catch, but he's one of the many who have fallen through the cracks. There are linemen here from the University of Toledo. A fullback from Michigan State. And a quarterback, Ken Kubiak, 39, who hasn't played organized football since 1992, when he played for a semipro outfit called the Lansing Crusaders.
"As a coach, I'm always throwing to my kids anyway on the practice field," Kubiak says. "So I guess I never really stopped playing."
Another player puts Kubiak's age in a different perspective: "I think that quarterback was my eighth-grade gym teacher," he says.
There are conversations all around me, in octaves-lower tones, about where you played and who you played for. Personalities reveal themselves in my group of running backs and linebackers. There is the nervous talker. The cocky guy. The guy with the injury that he uses as an excuse for his performance in every drill (this guy is also the nervous talker). I have already developed a nickname: ESPN to the younger guys, and "Paper Lion" to the Kubiak generation.
With the bench, shuttle and broad jump in the books, my group makes its way to the 40-yard dash, which has become the crown jewel of football talent evaluators. The players are upset because everybody is timing slow today. Chalk it up to the spongy turf and the fact that we're running alone, instead of being paired with another player to push each other down the field. The big linemen waddle through the 40 yards, while players like Davis never seem to touch the ground.
With the combine drills over, we move on to the business of playing football. Kubiak is clearly the most effective quarterback on the field during the 7-on-7 scrimmage, consistently getting the ball out on time and hitting receivers in stride.
"I feel good," said Kubiak, a phys ed teacher at Loy-Norrix High School in Kalamazoo, Mich. "Once I got out there and started going through things, the timing came back; it's just, at my age, you lose the zip and the explosion in your legs."
The pain in my ankle is something that I will feel good about the next day, but this day it just reminds me that I have a family to think about, and that football danger is real danger. You walk it off. You try to look tough. You realize you are about to square off against a guy who was playing D-1 ball last year, while in the mid-'90s you had a cup of coffee (more like a sip as a medical redshirt) at an NAIA school known more for theologians than gladiators, and then spent the last several years bouncing around the semi-pro leagues, trying to recapture the past. But it's all good. It's good to be breaking a huddle again. It's good to be lining up.
I catch Kubiak's eye as he walks off the field, grinning from ear to ear.
And that, I think, is the spirit of the thing.
Ted Kluck is a frequent contributor to Page 2 and the author of "Facing Tyson" to be published by the Lyons Press. He will be reporting his experiences as a long-snapper for the Battle Creek Crunch in a series of columns and a forthcoming book.