Commentary

Defunct AAFL gave false hope to Crouch, others

Originally Published: May 21, 2008
By Bill Williamson | ESPN.com

In the back of his mind, Eric Crouch knew the new league he attached himself to would never get off the ground.

But the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback from Nebraska bought in anyway. It was a chance to play again.

The All-American Football League, even if it was a flop waiting to happen, was intriguing.

Crouch became the face of the league and was in the center of a media blitz. AAFL officials sent out -- what at times seemed to be daily -- e-mail propaganda to media members. Many of the e-mails were letters from Crouch. He moved to Houston, where he was the premier name of the franchise that was to play at Rice University. He was attending minicamps for the team after being the No. 3 overall draft pick by Team Texas in January. He was all in.

And then it all went away. The league canceled the 2008 season before a single down was played. Because of the lack of funding, the whistle was blown three days before training camps were to start and about a month before play was to start April 12. The league has said that it plans to play in 2009, but several players are skeptical it will ever happen.

[+] EnlargeEric Crouch
Gwyneth Roberts for ESPN.comFormer Heisman Trophy winner Eric Crouch, looking for one last shot at football, was supposed to be the face of he AAFL.
"You can't think it will get off the ground now," said tight end Landon Trusty, who was going to play for the Little Rock, Ark., entry. "I don't see it happening."

League officials -- who never personally told players of the decision to cancel the season -- released all players from their contracts. Players were to be employees of the league itself, not of the six franchises that were to be located in Houston; Detroit; Birmingham, Ala.; Gainesville, Fla.; Little Rock.; and Knoxville, Tenn. A spokesman for Rice said the league didn't owe the school any money because all lost income was to be made during the season.

AAFL media relations director Risa Balayem and business development director Matt Basta did not return calls to ESPN.com. For a league that was diligent in its public relations prior to postponing the season, it quickly went underground.

"It was all too good to be true," said linebacker Justin Warren, who was set to play for the Houston team with Crouch. Now Warren, who starred at Texas A&M and was briefly with New England, is toiling in a sub-Arena League in Spokane., Wash.

"The AAFL seemed so perfect, but we all know there is nothing perfect in football other than the NFL," Warren said. "But if you want to keep chasing that dream, you got to do what you got to do."

At 29, the dream may be over for Crouch, and he's fine with it. He was with St. Louis, Green Bay and Kansas City, leaving the Packers and Rams at his request. He also played in NFL Europe and the Canadian Football League.

He said he was going to give the AAFL a try just for kicks. Now that the light has been turned off, Crouch, who has had nine football-related surgeries, said it would take a special offer for him to get back in the league. He is currently living in Omaha, Neb., and runs Crouch Recreation, which sells playground equipment to schools.

"It didn't work," Crouch said of the crashed league. "But I'm at terms."

While Crouch is secure, not everyone is at terms with a league that folded shop so suddenly. The AAFL's hasty decision affected the lives of several players -- most of whom were to be paid about $50,000 for the season -- and coaches who were preparing for the 10-game season. Because the league cancelled the season so soon before camps were to start, players were left scrambling. Several players, including quarterback Jeff Mroz, who recently signed with the Columbus (Ohio) Destroyers of the Arena Football League, were en route to camp when the plug was pulled.

"The timing was horrible," Mroz said. "One day, you think you're going to get a shot to impress people and then it just disappeared."

[+] EnlargeMaurice Simpkins
AP Photo/John RaouxPlayers like Maurice Simpkins (pictured) attended try outs in Orlando, Fla. in July hoping to earn a spot on an AAFL roster.
The cancellation of the season was just another slap in the face of the struggling player. NFL Europe is a distant memory, and the AFL is specialized for passing-game players and notorious for low pay, although it has come a long way since its first year, when players made just $200 a game. Now, the average AFL salary is $85,000 and tops out at $250,000 -- not bad for six months of work.

However, like other leagues, the AAFL represented hope for players struggling to stay afloat.

Many players were romanced. Now they are betrayed. The league held draft parties and players met with league representatives.

"You should have seen the draft party," said Warren, who gave up a coaching opportunity at Texas A&M to play in the spring league. "It seemed like the real deal. I think everybody who was there felt really good about the league. It seemed so legitimate."

Trusty, who was with Dallas, San Diego and Denver in the NFL, said he was starting to buy in as well.

"I think you want to play so bad you really start to believe," Trusty said. "A lot of guys got burnt by this thing. Guys gave up jobs in the 'real world' for this thing."

The concept of the AAFL was to combine former NFL players still looking for a chance to play, with lesser-named players. A prerequisite for the league was a college degree. In addition to Crouch, the name players who were set to play included Chris Leak and Peter Warrick. Now, "name" players and relatively unknown players who signed with the AAFL are all left wondering what the future will hold.

"I like to eat, I'm looking for a real job," Trusty said. "This league taught me that you can't keep hanging on waiting for something to happen. These leagues just aren't what you hope they are."

The former face of the AAFL agrees.

"It's a tough way to go for a lot of these guys," Crouch said. "I've played in a lot of leagues and I've seen a lot. I wanted to make this work because I thought it would be fun. I'm OK with this, but not everyone else is. It can be a tough life for guys who still want to chase that dream."

Bill Williamson covers the NFL for ESPN.com.

Bill Williamson | email

ESPN San Francisco 49ers reporter