Feature photo courtesy of Major League Football.
No one ever said making a career out of playing football was easy, but hardly anyone ever talks about how difficult it is. Thousands of aspiring professionals brave the tryout circuit, dedicating much of their time and money to working out, cross-country flights, lodging and tryout fees. They compete with one another for a limited number of vacancies in the United States, Canada and sometimes Europe, hoping their dedication is rewarded with the perfect set of circumstances that gets them noticed by an NFL scout capable of giving them an invitation to training camp and a shot at their dreams.
It’s exceptionally rare to encounter those circumstances because life isn’t perfect, not even for professional football prospects. Roster space isn’t an unlimited resource for the Canadian, Arena and Indoor Football Leagues. Individual teams within these leagues can be volatile, so a roster spot might not even guarantee a job, as some athletes have found out the hard way.
Former Delaware State quarterback Cory Murphy thought he would be playing this year for the Minnesota Havok, an IFL team. He, his girlfriend and his mother stuffed their essential belongings into a Saturn Vue compact SUV and a Toyota Corolla. Over the clothes and workout equipment, kitchen gear, a massage chair for Murphy (for recovery purposes), a massage table for his girlfriend (a masseuse), and their pet Chihuahua floating atop it all, Murphy could barely see out the back window. Likewise, his mother could only use her side view mirrors. The trio embarked on a three-day journey from California to Mankato, Minnesota.
Upon arriving, Murphy called his coach with an innocent question. “Hey, I’m just trying to find out where the stadium’s at, where we practice at, because I want to get an apartment near there,” Murphy recalled saying.
“Some things are out of my control,” the coach cryptically began, Murphy remembered. “You should call ownership.”
Murphy arrived in Mankato late Jan. 28. The Havok team he was set to spend the year with disbanded the very next day.
Former Saint Francis wide receiver Franklyn Williamson believed he had a spot in the IFL as well, after he signed a deal with the Billings Wolves in Montana. That was, until he got a call from his head coach Dec. 27, asking if Williamson had bought plane tickets yet to get to their Feb. 2 training camp. Williamson hadn’t. “Well, I’m gonna see if I can find you a team that’s closer to your home, ‘cause I know you’re in Maryland,” Williamson said the coach told him.
IFL teams are distributed in the midwest and beyond, the closest team to Maryland being in Wisconsin. “I knew kind of what he was saying,” Williamson said. “He was actually saying…basically, we’re gonna release you, we probably signed too many players.”
A Second Chance for Players
Neither player had time to bemoan missed opportunities. On the day of the Havok’s demise, those same Billings Wolves called Murphy, offering him a deal. Murphy headed down the same highway he had taken to get to Minnesota, setting a new, unexpected course to Montana.
Williamson, on the other hand, stumbled across a new football league–Major League Football (MLFB)–on the Internet, and noticed they had a tryout upcoming in Virginia. Noting the close proximity to his home and acknowledging the value of another chance to practice his footwork and improve his 40-yard dash time, Williamson decided to attend.
Attendance on this day–maybe less than 40 people–was light, Williamson said, comparing the number to the hundreds that had shown up to previous CFL camps he tried out at. But the camp was very professional, and the participants had plenty of AFL, CFL and even some NFL experience. “There was a plethora of talent there,” he said.
Someone he knew from within MLFB told Williamson the date of the league’s inaugural draft, so he spent Jan. 29 and 30 “waiting by my laptop on Twitter, and waiting by my phone, just sitting there waiting, and waiting, and waiting,” Williamson said. “It’s almost like how the NFL Draft is, just waiting for your name to be called.”
The text finally came to Williamson on the last day, during the National Draft portion of the selection process. Coach Galen Hall of the Florida Fusion selected Williamson in Round 68 of 70.
“It was pretty much a big sigh of relief, like finally,” Williamson said. “Just being so stressed out, just wanting to play football again, and now finally I could. I have an opportunity. I don’t have to go to another workout. Now I’m back to training camp, to get back to actual football, and not just like testing and forties and all that stuff.”
On the other side of the country, on a highway bound for Montana, Murphy received a similar notification: Coach Larry Kirksey had selected Murphy in the 61st round to play for the Ohio Union. Murphy pulled over and reversed course for Akron, Ohio.
“A Complement to Growing Football”
The people behind Major League Football have seen plenty of other football leagues go under before: the USFL, the XFL, the UFL, even the original Arena and Indoor Football Leagues have all bitten the dust for one reason or another. MLFB has been able to analyze its predecessors’ mistakes and believes the adjustments it has made to its own business model will allow it to prosper.
First and foremost, the league will play its games in the spring, refusing to battle with the NFL for the attention of football fans in the fall.
“Do you know how hard it is to compete against the NFL?” asked Michael Queen, MLFB’s executive vice president of finance. “It’s an impossibility.”
The USFL found that out the hard way in its three seasons in the 1980s. The league was actually a huge success, Queen pointed out, drawing large crowds and employing many quality players who would go on to have decorated careers in the NFL, including Steve Young, Jim Kelly and Reggie White. However, under the influence of New Jersey Generals owner Donald Trump, the league moved its games from the spring to the fall and sued the NFL for antitrust violations, citing monopolistic practices.
As conspiratory as some of the claims sounded, “the jury said, well, yeah, we think the NFL is an illegal monopoly, but that’s not the reason that you, the USFL, are in trouble,” said Gideon Mark, a lawyer who at one point worked for the company that represented the USFL in the case. “You…are in trouble because you’re mismanaged and you caused your own problems.”
The USFL won the case, but the jury awarded them only $1, which was tripled to $3 with treble damages. The league had essentially staked its future on winning the case, and a paltry $3 would not keep it afloat.
The XFL did not heed the lesson and debuted in fall 2001.
“The initial marketing strategy in part was attacking the NFL,” Mark said. “I think that was a poor strategy given how much the American public loves the NFL.”
Ratings were fine in the first week, Mark said, but fans quickly soured on the game’s “weird combination that couldn’t and didn’t work between wrestling and football,” leading NBC, the league’s host network, to drop the programming from its lineup. The XFL was scrapped after one season.
Queen hopes MLFB will avoid such complications.
“Our philosophy is we have a good relationship with the NFL,” Queen said. “We met with them, they know what we’re doing, they know that we’re gonna be playing in the spring and we’re more of a complement to growing football.”
MLFB also will avoid dealing with rogue team owners like Trump, at least at first. The league is being traded publicly and will own all its teams until MLFB is well-established, similar to how Major League Soccer began, Queen said.
The MLFB “had a hard time cutting down to eight” cities and teams for this season, and plans to expand as soon as next year, Queen said. In two to three years, the league will probably start selling franchises, he added.
“I don’t believe the problem will be us,” Queen said. “It will be the problem of finding the proper venue to play in.”
Rebounding from Early Complications
“It’s amazing the bureaucracy that you need to go through to rent a stadium that isn’t even being used,” Queen said, referring to MLFB’s negotiations with colleges to use their stadiums to host the league’s contests.
MLFB ran into another problem early on: a reneged stock purchase agreement. Robert Queen Jr. had an agreement to buy $20 million worth of shares from MLFB, but backed out at the last minute. That played a role in pushing back the start of the league’s first season, Michael Queen said.
However, a new investor has come forward, Asian Global Capital, Ltd., and gotten the league back on track. Training camp finally has a concrete date: March 30 at the the league’s headquarters in Lakewood Ranch, Florida. The certainty came as a relief to Williamson.
“I think what made me worried the most is that they weren’t necessarily giving the players and the public a lot of information,” Williamson said. “So they would say, like, in the next coming weeks, we’ll release this, and then two weeks later we still have nothing. So I’m on pins and needles, I’m almost preparing for the worst but hoping that they’ll come through with something.”
MLFB’s early turmoil stabilized, training camp is now officially on the horizon, and league executives, such as commissioner Wes Chandler and senior advisor Herm Edwards, can’t wait to get going, Queen said. They’ll have the chance to coach Murphy, Williamson and hundreds of other players who slipped through the cracks after college, for reasons injury-related or otherwise.
“We plan to give a lot of people a lot of chances,” Queen said. “That’s the thing that we are about. The foundation of the league is what we call ‘community-centric,’ and that is giving people, not only in the community that we’re playing [in], but people that just never got a shot…[the chance] to play.
“It makes you feel good when you go to work every day, I can tell you that. These young men, a lot of them just needed a chance or need a chance.”