In Los Angeles, every performer fights to get noticed. They hock their youth, their vitality and every bit of their essence in the great hope that it will be enough to become someone. Most go largely ignored. Some might be lucky enough to have one breakthrough, but then, that’s it. It’s over before they know it and they fall back to earth, waiting for lighting to strike a second time. Some are able to combine luck and skill and turn it into real success, but they are soon brushed aside by a new generation of hopefuls desperate to prove themselves. Some lucky ones get smart and preserve their youth by immortalizing their brand. An extraordinary few defy all of this, remain true to their craft and make magic forever.
This is the career arc for anyone with a dream. Writers, directors, dancers, models, comedians, actors, photographers and musicians—artists offer the best part of their lives as a form of human sacrifice. They hope something special in them will live a little longer than they do. Football players do the exact same thing. They sacrifice their bodies, their minds and every bit of their youth, literally curtailing their lives to win some lasting attention. Most never make it to the NFL—let alone Canton—and some make it only as far as the Arena League.
Steve Martin once said, “You have to be so good they can’t ignore you.” This applies to athletics as much as art. To defy your circumstances through willpower and work ethic is part of the American ethos. No sport personifies this more than football, no league better than the AFL. Donovan Morgan, the star receiver of the LA KISS, once told me that the players, no matter what, had to be responsible for the magic. Win and people might take notice. The KISS had to be so good in 2016 that Los Angeles couldn’t ignore them.
It didn’t turn out that way.
They made the postseason, but then again, every team in the AFL did, as if the playoffs were nothing more than a Little League participation trophy. They finished with the best record in franchise history, but it was a losing one: seven wins, nine losses. It was still good enough for a home playoff game, but “home” meant two hours and 124 miles to the south of Los Angeles.
Due to a scheduling quirk, the KISS lost the Honda Center to Ringling Brothers’ circus. When they tried to book the game for the following day, they found out WWE’s Monday Night RAW had taken the arena. Suddenly homeless, the KISS were forced to hit the road. They ended up in San Diego, at the Valley View Casino Center.
The team gave away free tickets, hoping to lure enough fans so the KISS wouldn’t to play to an empty building. Official attendance was listed at just north of 4,000, but even the most generous eyes would have only seen a thousand people in the stands. A few proud veterans of the KISS Army rallied to the flag, wearing tribute costumes to their heroes, Star Child and the Demon. Some wore black replica jerseys with Simmons and Stanley stitched on the back, but none with a player’s name. Like the band KISS itself, what was being sold here was the front men, not the other artists on the stage.
As the lights dimmed before kickoff, the arena became dark and hushed, while an ad for a Dolly Parton concert gleamed on the video screen above. Then the thunderous shred of an electric guitar was cranked over the PA, shattering the stillness. A few KISS legionnaires began to head bang and play furious air guitar solos in the aisles. An announcer began to rasp out the players’ names, one by one, as they ran out through a cacophony of fireworks, flames and heavy metal. It was game time.
I saw Joe Windham, the president and CEO, down in the media pit. He looked haggard with stress.
“Where’s Gene and Paul?” I asked.
“In Minnesota, on tour,” he said.
Gene and Paul were actually in Wisconsin motoring between La Crosse and Milwaukee on the “Freedom To Rock Tour.” I was reminded of what their brand manager, Mark Stroman, had promised me back at the team’s first scrimmage, that they would take forgotten cities by storm. Yet here they seemed to have forgotten about their own team.
“What happened to the Honda Center?” I asked Joe.
He stopped, almost embarrassed to say.
“The circus had it booked for three years, but that following Monday, the Honda Center f—– me,” he said. “They put the WWE in there and we had a handshake deal.” (The Honda Center declined to comment.)
In San Diego, the KISS’s field carpet wasn’t big enough to cover the playing surface inside their borrowed home, so new turf had been hastily laid down, stuffed unevenly into the corners and spray-painted black to match. I looked closely and thought I could still see it drying.
The KISS played hard all game, a back-and-forth shootout fought like drunk uncles settling a grudge. With less than a minute left to play, the KISS led, 46-41, but faced a dilemma. The Cleveland Gladiators had the ball on the goal line: Should L.A. try to make a defensive stand, or let the Gladiators score so they could get the ball back with enough time to retake the lead? With 39 seconds to go, Cleveland waltzed into the end zone and added a two-point conversion to go up by three.
The KISS’s season would come down to one final drive.
Cleveland kicked off and the ball tumbled end over end, arcing high into the arena before mortaring down toward the net at the back of the field. Below, the returner traced the flight path as it screamed toward the net. He angled his body to field the kick. And then, fatefully, the ball struck the upright with a loud clang that echoed throughout the building. It squirted back onto the field, slipping through the crowd like a lost child at an amusement park, only to find a streaking Cleveland player who scooped it up and ran into the end zone for a touchdown. Before anyone knew what had happened, two seconds had come off the clock and Cleveland had scored twice, taking a 56-46 lead to ice what would be a four-point win.
Stunned and gutted by the defeat, the KISS players walked around in a daze after the clock expired. No one seemed more crushed than Donovan Morgan, who’d been named to his fifth All-Arena team in 2016. He had nine catches, 132 yards and three touchdowns on the day, leading all receivers and accounting for more than half of the KISS’s total yards. In the confusion after the game, he tried to make his way off the field but fell to his haunches in the end zone and sobbed. Only when a friend brought him his daughter did he rise, dry his tears and take her hand to walk away. I found him later, as the somber KISS players dutifully posed for pictures and signed autographs for fans after the game. As always, his line was the longest. I asked him if there would be a next year. He shook his head with a tight-lipped smile, and then, unable to meet my eyes, he said, “No, this is my last game.”
Many of the others were just starting their climb toward their own dreams. They knew there’d be other chances. This loss, no matter how painful, was the sort thing that made them burn for another shot.
No one realized it at the time, but for the LA KISS, this was everyone’s last game.
* * *
Change is a constant in the Arena League. In the offseason, teams come and go as regularly as the players do. Never in the AFL’s 30-year history has the same slate of teams that finished one year returned the next. A least one team will relocate to a different city, or sometimes switch to another league. Some teams will fold outright or, in the case of Portland in 2016, be propped up by the league. It’s a single-entity model, meaning the AFL owns everything. This also means that poorly performing franchises are a drag on the healthier ones, so new investments are needed to keep the ship afloat. Departing teams are viewed as a dead past, while new teams are touted as a bright future.
After the 2016 season ended, the first rumblings of change came on October 12. The Orlando Predators announced they were folding after 25 years in the league. Hours later, the Jacksonville Sharks said they’d be leaving for the National Arena League, formerly a developmental league for the AFL. The next day, the Arizona Rattlers leaked that they were considering a jump to the IFL, another more cost-friendly indoor league. The Portland Steel closed shop, with no comment from the league beyond a PR statement that said the AFL was “focused on solidifying its foundation.” The AFL, ever confident, had yet another new franchise, the Washington (D.C.) Valor, which they were peddling as the way forward. One month later, that same owner launched another team, the Baltimore Brigade, effectively doubling down on his AFL bet.
For the LA KISS, the writing was on the wall at the end of 2016. They had their worst attendance in history, down 11% from 2015 and 36% from 2014. The fans just weren’t coming. Neither were the wins. After the playoff loss, Donovan Morgan received a text from Paul Stanley that said, “D-Man, I appreciate everything you did for this organization … But, we did all we could do.”
“When you see that,” D-Mo said, “it’s done. It’s over with. In order to be somebody in L.A., you have to win. We didn’t win.”
Publicly, the KISS went quiet, but behind the scenes CEO Joe Windham and coach Omarr Smith worked furiously to save the team. They explored cheaper alternatives for a home: a move to the Citizens Bank Arena in Ontario, Calif., and a move to the Valley View Casino Center in San Diego. They also tried to find new investors, but no one wanted any part of a used KISS franchise—without the KISS brand, it would just be an empty billboard for a crummy football team that needed the helmets, the field turf and everything else replaced. Those on staff who had other job offers took them, while others stayed on until the very end. According to a team source, Windham told people that he was still trying to find a buyer for the team even as the last of the staff left the building: “Hold out hope, I’ll let you know as soon as I hear anything.” Finally, even Coach O was cut loose.
“I was devastated, to be honest with you,” Omarr later told me, “but that’s the decision that was made. Myself and Joe tried to exhaust every resource that we could to keep it going, but it wasn’t meant to be.”
On October 14, the AFL held a dispersal draft, liquidating the rosters of four teams. The KISS’s roster was among them. Nate Stanley went to Washington; Derrick Summers to Cleveland; Pete Thomas, Caesar Rayford, JJ Unga and Marcus Pittman to Tampa Bay; and finally, Justin Wilson went to the Arizona Rattlers, only to be released three days later when they made their departure to the IFL official. Some players found out they’d been fired only when their new coaches called. Some, like Nate Stanley, found out when pissed off friends and family wondered why he hadn’t shared the “good news” with them. “My sister-in-law called, mad,” Nate said. “She was like, ‘How come you didn’t tell us you signed with Washington?’ And I was like, What?!”
Some KISS players who went undrafted were also called, being offered new jobs they didn’t know they needed. That’s how Clevan Thomas found out. “A coach from another team asked me—if I was gonna play—if I’d come play for them,” he said.
Rumors started flying on social media. Parents and friends called those who thought they still had jobs to let them know they didn’t. No one on the team—not Omarr, not Joe, not Doc, not Paul, not Gene—no one ever called the players to let them know the KISS were done.
“Not one person,” said Nate. “It’s just how things go in this league. People don’t give a s—.”
When asked why he didn’t reach out, Omarr said, “The KISS was up and going when my employment was terminated, so I wasn’t in a position to tell the players before the team shut down.”
On October 17, The Orange County Register reported that the KISS had “apparently folded.” Panic spread amongst season-ticket holders. They couldn’t get a hold of anyone at team headquarters. Voicemails went unreturned. The message board on the LA KISS Facebook fan page lit up. No one could believe it. Surely, Gene and Paul would make some announcement, wouldn’t they? Some fans publicly demanded their money back for a 2017 season that wouldn’t be played, some vented their anger at everyone involved, some just resigned themselves to the inevitable and thanked KISS for the memories.
Ken and Elizabeth Ash were sorry to see them go. They had been AFL fans for more than 20 years, ever since a chance encounter with a group of linebackers in a Las Vegas elevator inspired them to ditch their anniversary plans and see a game that night. When the KISS came to town in 2014, Ken surprised Elizabeth with season tickets for her birthday. Ken, a retired police detective, and Elizabeth, a retired middle school teacher, are in their seventies and doted on the team. They became the KISS’s No. 1 fans, delivering home-baked cookies to the players after every Wednesday practice. They loved football, but they really loved the immediacy of the Arena game. “It’s fast paced, it’s exciting; you’re right there next to it,” Elizabeth marveled.
Before last season began, Joe Windham called the Ashes with an offer to put them even closer to the game. Nate Stanley needed to come out early to California to train, but league rules prevented the team from putting him up, so Joe asked the Ashes if they would open their home. The KISS’s No. 1 fans got to have the ultimate fan experience: the starting quarterback of their favorite team lived under their roof for a few months leading up to training camp. “Nate was so polite,” Elizabeth remembered. “After he watched TV, he would change the channel back to whatever station we were watching last.”
Like all KISS fans, the Ashes were stunned by how the 2016 season ended, but they took it harder than most. They found out on Facebook that their favorite team was done; it was seemingly impossible to believe. They’d kept hearing how much the band KISS was dedicated to this team and to this league, and how they were in it for the long haul. But now, as they put it, they felt “abandoned.”
“Bottom line,” said Elizabeth, “I don’t have my team anymore.”
Nearly a month later, on November 7, while the band played in the middle of the Caribbean to fans who’d paid thousands to be a part of the sixth annual “KISS Kruise”, the KISS made a statement on their Facebook page, their only public statement so far.
To the LA Kiss Fans and Season Ticket Holders:
We regret to announce that the LA Kiss will not be playing in the 2017 season. Our coaching staff and players gave one hundred percent to the game, and our fans supported us throughout our wins and losses. We thrive on breaking the typical rock band “rules” and could not be more proud of these past three seasons. We once again have to thank the sponsors, the Honda Center, our amazing office staff and, most of all, the KISS Army for showing what makes them the gold standard. All ticket purchases for the 2017 season will be fully refunded, and by the end of the week, we will be providing detailed instructions on how to obtain a full and prompt refund. We will be processing those refunds as quickly as possible, with the goal of completing the process by the end of November.
Paul Stanley, Gene Simmons and Doc McGhee
The KISS sent fans an email with instructions and most got their money back within a month, but according to gripes on Facebook threads, some had to chase their refunds into 2017. As of this month, one fan was still on the message boards, waiting to be paid back by the KISS. (The KISS, through brand manager Mark Stroman, declined to speak on the record for this story.)
Like their restaurant, Rock and Brews, their wine, their “Kondoms,” their “Kaskets” and funeral urns, the AFL had been another way for KISS to market themselves. What they were selling was incidental; the KISS logo on the outside was what mattered. The team was meant to elevate their brand, not the game of football or the players’ careers. It was the reason why Simmons (Gene) and Stanley (Paul) were on the backs of the jerseys, rather than Derrick Summers or Nate Stanley. When football stopped being able to help their brand, KISS gave the LA KISS a kiss goodbye.
“They didn’t have a lot of experience,” AFL commissioner Scott Butera says of KISS’s foray into football. “They’re brilliant, their brand is outstanding and it’s stood the test of time, but it just wasn’t a match for sports ownership … when the guitars stop playing and the ball kicks off, now you’re running a football team and that’s a different business.”
* * *
One of the truly remarkable things about the band KISS is their staying power. Their real genius has never been their music but their marketing. Even if you can’t name a single song, you probably know the face paint, the outfits, the toys and the lunch boxes. Most would agree that a band like Led Zepplin had a greater impact on music, but try to conjure John Paul Jones in your mind. Now try to imagine the Starchild, the Catman, the Spaceman or the Demon. You know the brand. Even more than their music, that is what keeps them relevant, especially now so many decades beyond their youth.
In 2013, the band played at the Arena Bowl in Orlando. There they met Orlando’s owner, Brett Bouchy, an AFL vet who saw the league “as an undervalued asset” and sold KISS on the AFL. They brought in Schuyler Hoversten, a promotions whiz from the Dodgers, to serve as president and co-owner. The plan was to bring “pro football” to the football-less vacuum of Los Angeles, the country’s second-largest media market. “L.A. is the entertainment capital of the world,” Bouchy told me. “I wanted it to be a full entertainment experience and leverage the KISS brand.”
They wanted to do things that had never been done before. “Big grandiose things that would keep us in the headlines,” Hoversten said.
There was a massive PR push: a reality series on AMC, lengthy and fawning profiles in Rolling Stone andESPN the Magazine, SportsCenter anchors wore KISS face paint, and Gene and Paul made an appearance on the Today Show, where they offered Tim Tebow a contract. The games were like rock carnivals, and the opener was like nothing football had ever seen. Donovan Morgan descended from the ceiling like a god; dancers grinded provocatively around stripper poles on chrome stages floating above each corner of the field; Lemmy from Motörhead was given the honor of the first coin-toss; other players raced onto the field through towers of flame; Steel Panther played during halftime amidst a laser show; BMX daredevils spun and flipped through every possible break in the action—and underneath all of it was the hard rock sound of KISS. It was a blitzkrieg of the senses.
“Our games lasted about two and a half hours and there was entertainment going on for two hours and 29 minutes of that game,” said Brett Bouchy. “As soon as there was a break in the action there was something happening on the field.”
In ESPN the Magazine’s “music issue” released on Feb. 2, 2015, Gene Simmons summed up the goal of every KISS game: “What we do is to make sure you don’t have a chance to dip your chips … They go there for the spectacle. It’s a must-see event. And if you take away the spectacle that is the Super Bowl, the music and the fireworks, if you take away all that, what do you got? How could you have cheerleaders without music? And when the guys run out to the field, isn’t that music that heralds their arrival? Don’t teams—if they are lucky—have their own anthem? Words to those anthems mean something: This is who we are … and we’ve been very successful because in one season, our very first one, we were the only team in the AFL to pull at least 10,000 people to every home game. That’s unheard of.”
In 2014, the LA KISS went 3-15 in their inaugural season but managed to pull in more season-ticket holders than anyone else. But it was an expensive undertaking. “We spent more money than probably all the other teams combined on in-game entertainment,” said Hoversten. “Like first-class bobbleheads that were a $200,000 expense . . . when the team was losing over and over and over again, we needed something else that would keep [fans] coming back.”
With team expenses going one way and its football fortunes going the other, Bouchy and Hoversten were gone after the first season. Joe Windham was recruited to overhaul the team. He had run the Arizona franchise, which produced the on-field model the KISS wanted to emulate. Joe felt embarrassed by the overt sexuality at KISS games, so much so that he felt uncomfortable bringing his daughter to games. The focus needed to be football, he thought, so sex and music were dialed back. The violence of the game would have to shine on its own. In 2015, the KISS went 4-14. What had been entertaining losses the year before became dull ones. Attendance fell to the AFL’s third worst, besting only two teams that went bankrupt by season’s end.
In 2016, they brought in a new coach, who brought in new players and tried to install a new culture. It was a make-or-break year. “We didn’t meet my expectations,” Omarr Smith reflected months after the season had ended. “To win a championship, you have to have championship people—not just the best players, it takes a collective.”
Omarr was never able to win over the locker room, and factions formed within the team.
“It was a hostile environment,” Terrance Smith said. “You had the LA KISS veterans and new free agents, and then you had his people from San Jose. If you weren’t one of those people, he didn’t care about you.”
Omarr, who’d been an assistant coach in San Jose before joining L.A., denied it. “There were times where we played for one another, when we believed what it took to win football games,” he said. “And there were times that guys were just out there in it for themselves.”
Clevan Thomas, who had played for Omarr in San Jose, called the lack of trust amongst players toxic. “Coach O’s been successful, he’s won championships,” Thomas said, “and when he came to L.A. we had guys who were All-Arena for quite some time, guys who weren’t used to reaching for a team goal.”
Donovan Morgan was one of those players whom Omarr didn’t win over.
“Me and Omarr Smith didn’t see eye to eye from past experience,” Morgan said. According to D-Mo, Omarr had tried to recruit him to play in San Jose. When he refused, Omarr allegedly mocked him, essentially telling him to have fun losing in L.A. Two years later, Omarr became L.A.’s coach. “I didn’t think he was the guy for the team. I tried to talk Joe [Windham] out of it. From the jump, it was kinda bumpy with Omarr. A lot of that was because of coach telling guys certain things that wouldn’t come true. He told Amarri [Jacskon] he’d be a big part of the offense; and then didn’t play him; told T. Smith he’d be our starting DB and then not giving him a fair shot; telling Pete Thomas he’d start, then change his mind the day of the game . . . These guys felt like, Well, I have to get me first. Guys wasn’t buying in. He was feeding them so much bulls—.”
D-Mo had always been close to the band. When the team began to implode, he says the owners called him.
“I got a call from Doc, and he was like, ‘Do you want to be the head coach?’ ” Morgan says. “I was like, ‘Doc, I would love to, but my heart is still in playing.’ We had to have a meeting: me, Omarr and [assistant coach] Hous. I told [Omarr], ‘I don’t trust you. I don’t like the route you’re going.’ And he was like, ‘If that’s the case, somebody’s gonna have to go.’ And I basically told him, ‘I’m not the one who’s gonna have to leave.’ ”
Omarr denied this as well. “Those things are not accurate. Donovan was a great player for us,” he said. “I never had bad blood with him at any point before or after becoming the head coach of the LA KISS.”
According to Terrance Smith, a similar meeting was held with him but little changed. The KISS, who’d broke training camp as a group of individuals fighting for roster spots, never coalesced into a true team. Clevan Thomas, ever the philosopher, summed it up: “You have to understand that life is bigger than you. We are a piece of the puzzle. Playing football, with everybody telling you how good you are, you start to think you are the puzzle, instead of a just a piece of it.”
A spate of injuries compounded the chemistry issues. Terrance Smith made it back from his ankle surgeries, only to get into a late season car accident and be cut. Five-time All-Arena safety Rayshaun Kizer had a knee injury that limited him to just 17 tackles all year. Brandon Collins was in the middle of a breakout season when an ACL tear sidelined him. In a game in Arizona, Nate Stanley was banged up so badly that he was taken to the hospital. He battled a separated shoulder and knee injuries all season long. He fought his way back onto the field for the playoffs, feeling the pressure to help the KISS win even though he wasn’t fully healed. During his exit physical after the season, the team declared him healthy. Because he’d returned to the field, he was no longer their responsibility. Nate was forced pay for the rest of his rehab on his own. “They’re cheap,” Nate said. “It would be one thing if guys were making good money, but you’re not. You’re out here playing ball for pennies.”
* * *
When I first set upon this project, I wanted to explore the difference between professionals and amateurs when the world thinks of the pros as rank amateurs themselves. What I discovered is that these players are capable of the same kind of magic that exists in the NFL, but it’s the league that often makes them look amateur. It pays them as if football is merely a hobby but works them as if it’s a full-time job, which it is. They deserve better. Better pay, better owners, and full arenas. Rather than walk away from the game, the men of the LA KISS kept fighting for their dreams. Playing in the Arena League is just as dangerous as the NFL—if not greater because of the wall—but AFL players earn a wage that’s just 3% of the NFL rookie minimum. There is no minor league for the NFL, and other than the CFL, the Arena League is the only place where guys like this can go. Sure, many aren’t “so good that they can’t be ignored.” They’re too small or too slow or didn’t have the discipline to avoid off-field mistakes that make it easy for the NFL to pass on them. But they possess an unmistakable toughness that makes them, truly, professional football players. It’s that pursuit, with just the barest glimmer of reward, that separates them from real amateurs.
Sadly, by definition, the LA KISS players were amateurs last season. One week, the players didn’t get paid. The league denied it ever happened, and team sources blamed a “clerical error,” but according to the players and their union rep, Ivan Soto of the AFLPA, a few owners didn’t pay their dues on time. That game the KISS players were forced to play for free. They were only given their checks the following week. In the interim, team CEO Joe Windham dipped into his own wallet to help out anyone in a tight spot.
In many ways, the 2016 KISS were simply another sad link in the woeful chain of the AFL. There had been bankruptcy in 2008, a “year off” in 2009, and since 2011, the Arena League had fallen from 18 teams to five, with an astounding 23 teams coming and going during that span. There had been the Pittsburgh’s owner who, in 2012, fired his entire team as they ate dinner at an Olive Garden. In 2013, the Chicago Rush had three different owners in six months, the last of whom claimed to be an investment banker worth millions who promised “a whole new ballgame,” but was actually a three-time convicted felon worth $50 and going through bankruptcy proceedings. Three months later, that same owner bounced the rent check for his own arena and was arrested for fraud at his mother’s house, where the FBI alleged he pocketed $5,000 in tickets sales to pay for groceries, gas and his car loan. (The owner later pleaded guilty to bankruptcy and wire fraud.) In 2014, the owner in San Antonio couldn’t even pay his mascot and blamed his divorce as the reason. In 2015, Vince Neil’s Las Vegas Outlaws couldn’t afford to pay for home jerseys. They couldn’t even afford ice to treat players’ injuries; their head coach had to grab it from convenience stores after practice.
The AFL owes it existence to the idea that America has an insatiable appetite for football, but I wonder how true that is anymore? I also wonder if the AFL might be a canary in the coal mine for the NFL?
When The MMQB greenlit this series, there were no NFL teams in L.A. Now there are two. Rams owner Stan Kroenke couldn’t resist the allure of the country’s second-largest media market. He bet that the fans would flock to him automatically, and they did at first. Preseason games sold out and celebrities stalked the sidelines. But the Rams stumbled through a 4-12 season and by the end, the novelty had worn off. (Sound familiar?) Officially, the Rams’ attendance numbers remained high. But as the season went on, you could see more and more empty seats. Most telling: the Rams’ local TV ratings were well below other NFL games in L.A. They were even lower in L.A. than they were in St. Louis.
The Chargers have since joined the L.A. bonanza, bringing another 4-12 team to the City of Angels. These owners are betting that we’ll support them no matter how mediocre they might be. Over the past two decades, we have lavished $6.7 billion in public money on NFL stadiums. The Raiders were just given $750 million in taxpayer money to move to Las Vegas, while the taxpayers in Oakland are still on the hook for $95 million. Superficially, Sin City might seem perfect for Raiders Nation, but they’re abandoning the city that gave them that identity. In other words, the NFL is betting solely on its own brand and tempting fate by becoming more package than product. (Doesn’t this, too, sound familiar?)
Last fall people began to ignore the NFL for the first time in recent memory. Ratings dipped by 8% in 2016. League executives and networks became worried: football had been the last sure-bet in television. For decades, the NFL owned Sunday afternoons the way the church owned Sunday mornings. Those 11-hour broadcasts were a fortress and no matter what happened—war, famine, recession or protest—the Disney dream it sold was immune. The magic of Sundays was a refuge from the world.
Publicly, the NFL blamed the ratings dip on the volatile presidential election. Afterwards, the ratings crept back up, but not to where they’d been the year before. And it begs a fair question: Could the NFL’s shield be cracking?
Some fans blamed Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protest for turning them off. It was an ugly reminder that the world was not as harmonious as football would have us believe.
Some fans felt guilt over the lingering specters of concussions, player safety, prescription drug abuse and domestic violence. If they knew the game wasn’t safe—that it valued the logos on the helmets far more than the players’ brains inside them—how could those Sundays remain an innocent refuge? Even Bo Jackson himself said, “I would have never played football,” and more damningly, “there’s no way I would ever allow my kids to play football today.”
Some fans felt turned off by crass commercialism. During game broadcasts, commercials are thrust into every possible break, so much so that they take up one hour of a three-hour game. That number becomes even more astonishing when you realize there’s just 11 minutes of actual game play. All the while, the league is cracking down on everything that makes it fun, trying to promote absolute regimentation (the NFL’s brand) and squelching any sense of individuality (the people responsible for the magic).
Some fans felt that the level of play has diminished. Coaches and general managers have complained that the quality of football has gotten worse as the game gotten younger. It’s becoming harder to be a veteran. Compared to a decade ago, the average age of the NFL is younger by almost a year. In a 2015 interview with The Ringer, Titans GM Jon Robinson said, “The way the CBA is structured now, it’s really no different from any other workforce in that you want to find the healthiest, youngest, least-expensive talent and infuse it into your corporation. We’re the same model.”
Some fans stopped watching TV altogether. As we’ve moved from the newspaper to the radio to the television to the internet, the way we consume media has changed. The NFL makes most of its money from television. Those commercials, those sponsorships, those TV mega deals that drive profits—they all depend on the fans tuning in. It could be that football was the perfect game for the age of television, but as we cut the cord, we could be cutting out football as well. Some think we might be on the backside of “peak football.” If the country’s appetite for the sport is no longer insatiable, the NFL would be wise to heed the lesson of the LA KISS: the product matters more than the package.
Or maybe they’ll remain just like Gene Simmons, who just before he was fired from The Celebrity Apprentice, couldn’t remember the name of the product he was selling. “I don’t care,” he said, “I sell emotion.”
* * *
We often minimize the struggles of artists and athletes like those in the AFL because we view them as careers of choice. They play the games we all played as kids, but most of us grew up and got real jobs, so they should too—or at least stop complaining. But while it may be a choice to follow your dreams, and while there are sacrifices to make, no one deserves to be exploited along the way. The athletes of the AFL who break their bodies and fly into the wall deserve better than minimum wage. As my friend Adam Green, who fights for better wages for stage actors, puts it: “It may be a labor of love, but it’s still labor.”
Most of the coaches and players whom I got to know on and off the field are still at it . . .
Omarr Smith is a head coach again, now with one of the AFL’s expansion teams, the Baltimore Brigade. Coach Hous is there too. Josh Victorian will be there next year, roaming the defensive backfield. Clevan Thomas might join him as well, although he’s at the stage of his career where coaching might be what gets him in the door.
Brandon Collins wants to be there, but first he has to rehab himself back from the torn ACL. He was being taken care of by the team while it was still around, but he was cut loose on worker’s comp when it disbanded and forced back home to rehab with physical therapists in Houston. He still dreams of making it back to the “big field.”
Nate Stanley doesn’t know if he’ll play again. Both he and BC were in San Jose the year the SaberCats won the championship and then disbanded after the season. Both players received hats and T-shirts declaring them “World Champions,” but they never got their rings. About a month ago, Nate received an email from the former owners of his old team—who are also the owners of the multi-billion dollar Fry’s Electronics Empire—saying he could now claim his ring, but he’d have to pay for it. The were various price points, with the nicest option (14k white gold and diamonds) costing $13,789. Or nearly one year’s salary in the AFL.
“I still love ball,” Nate told me, “but at a certain point I gotta ask myself, Is it worth it? I had a good thing going in San Jose and all a sudden, that team folded. Had a good thing going in L.A., and bam, that team folded. I’m 28 and want to start thinking about a career.”
Ironically, Nate did a bit of acting this year. He was typecast as a quarterback on a football team. His lines consisted of little more than “hut, hut, hike,” but he was paid $900 a day pretending to be a football player, versus $900 a week to actually play the game. Winston Wright, a rookie defensive back, caught the acting bug as well. He texted me one day from the set of a commercial shoot, where he was an extra in football pads. He couldn’t believe how much money they were paying him, at least relative to what he was paid to play football.
I asked Nate if he wanted to get back to the NFL. “Yeah, it’s something that I want,” he said, “but in all honesty, it’s a little far-fetched.”
Receiver Andre Lewis ended up quitting the game after he was cut, and he now helps deliver the dreams of others. He’s a lab tech in a fertility clinic in Berkeley. He’s also taken to coaching the wide receivers at his old high school. This year, he worked hard to secure two of his players Division I scholarships.
Back-up quarterback Pete Thomas turned down the chance to start for Tampa’s AFL team. He is instead going to start coaching at Appalachian State.
After he was cut in camp by the KISS, Tyrone Goard caught on with Portland. He never forgot that the KISS cut him, and in his second game against L.A., he lit them up for 103 yards and four touchdowns. Afterwards, he proudly wondered aloud why L.A. had been dumb enough to let him go. Portland was being funded by all the other teams and operated on a shoestring budget. Ty says he saw some dangerous and sad corners being cut. Their practice facility was a kid’s indoor soccer field that wasn’t even the same size as an AFL field. Also, the team could only field one trainer who found it impossible to look after all the players’ injuries. Ty says he and others were discouraged from getting X-rays and other medical care to save money. (AFL commissioner Scott Butera denied this. “Portland was given access to and allowed all the resources of any other team,” he said. “From the league perspective we take care of the players, we do not jeopardize any player’s health.” Cameron Hamilton, Portland’s trainer, attributed any perceived hiccup in medical care to a switch in providers, which “had adverse effects in terms of getting people in and seen. There were only a couple of clinic days available and so that was always difficult.”)
Linebacker Derrick Summers is going play in Cleveland this year. An Ohio boy, he’s excited to play close to home. When I asked him how tough it was to cover me on special teams, he laughed and said, “Damn, I didn’t mean to make you look like that Neal. That’s my fault, man. I should’ve at least made it look kinda competitive.”
Fredrick Obi and Rayshaun Kizer will also be in Cleveland with him.
This offseason, Rayshaun and Terrance Smith ended up in China, as player-coaches in the new China Arena Football League. Ironically, they made more money after their jobs were shipped overseas.
Football has sent Terrance to China twice now. It’s fun, but he remains a critic about the food. “You gonna get the live Chinese thing over there,” he said, “you get stuff still moving on the plate.”
On March 1, 2017, Terrance became a dad for the first time. He’s in Washington, D.C., with his daughter and her mother, where he’ll play for the Valor. He’s excited to get the season underway. His first game is on April 7—today—against Omarr’s new team in Baltimore.
“I can’t wait,” Terrance said, “but I’m gonna have to wear a muzzle.”
Dan Buckner ended up back in Arizona at the end of the 2016 season. He said he and Coach O had a falling out during practice one day and he was cut. When I asked him why, he said, “People look for reasons for things not going right. Let me put it this way, my time in Arizona was a great time, and it was a night-and-day difference between the organizations.” Citing the chaos around the AFL, he does not plan to return to football this year.
Donovan Morgan is back home in Katy, Texas, just outside Houston. He lives there with his wife, Mary, and their four children. He’s working on getting a sports-wear clothing company off the ground called I Don’t Need Your Motivation, which he says is harder than football.
Something D-Mo said to me during my time in training camp stayed with me—and bothered me—for nearly a year. Unprovoked, he started telling people where they’d be on a slave plantation. At the end of his monologue, he pointed at me and said, “You was the master.”
“Do you remember that?” I recently asked him.
He laughed so hard he nearly broke my phone.
“Just f—— with you, man,” he said. “By me doing things like that, it allows me to see who’s true and who’s not. And you laughed. I seen you get a little flustered, but you laughed, and I was like, ‘This guy’s a clown.’ But that showed me that you’re able to take a joke. Regardless of how far that joke is . . . body language tells me everything.”
“So, it was a litmus test?” I asked.
Joe Windham, the team CEO, has moved back to Arizona and devoted himself to his granddaughter’s acting career. He told me he plans to open a bakery.
Gene, Paul and Doc are still developing a kaleidoscopic array of merchandise for their brand. Their latest product is KISS branded air guitar strings. For $3.99 you get a paper label with Gene, Paul, the rest of the band, a KISS logo and an empty plastic bag.
* * *
There’s one last story I’d like to share. Before my first tryout, Terrance Smith offered to coach me up, and I gladly accepted. He told me to meet him on the field in Santa Ana, where we’d run through the route tree, practice techniques and just get comfortable catching passes.
It was a cool and misty day, and Terrance was out on the field early. He might have been there an hour before I arrived, practicing in a world of his own. He had two bad ankles that needed surgery, and both were painfully swollen. But it felt good for him to just be working toward his dream.
When I got there, I stayed on the edge of the field and watched him work out. I thought he looked like a classic hero fighting off a supernatural army: His dreadlocks whipped around as he cut through the grass, blowing past and knocking down imaginary foes. It seemed as if he was trying to recapture something. The few quiet mortals who power-walked or jogged on the surrounding track made his moves look even faster.
I walked over and apologized for being late. “All good,” he said. For the next two hours he showed me his craft: cuts, chops, the violence, the deceptive steps, head fakes, the “kung fu of the first five yards” off the line, the ease of the catch and then the smooth bliss of the open field.
“Just put them records on, smooth slow jams records…” was his advice, “…just catch it.”
Pass after pass … easier and easier …
Afterwards we talked.
He told me that he was in a bad place. One of his best friends had been killed in a car wreck along with his whole family. Terrance also said his mom was back home in Aiken, S.C., working herself into an early grave. His brother was in danger of getting mixed up with the wrong crowd. Even though he was so far away, he felt he could make a difference by playing football.
“If I could just be better,” he said, “everything in my life would be different.”
There’s no way football could live up to that, I thought. He was putting too much pressure on himself. But I had to admit that I held similar dreams. We were different—he from the rough side of Aiken and I from the cushy side of Seattle—but I understood that need, that want, that desire. I thought of myself at 18, rootless, a high school dropout, fresh out of rehab, still lost in a haze of drugs, booze and stupidity—every chance in my world seemingly blown. Or younger even, as a boy watching my home life implode. I forged this belief that acting would be my way out, that it could carry me like a ship to a distant shore where my real life would begin. If I could just be better, I thought, everything in my life would be different.
Terrance told me he’d been on Green Bay’s practice squad for a brief, shinning moment, but a freak collision with Donald Driver caused a knee injury that made him sit out the rest of practice. At the end of that day, he was cut. “I just wasn’t good enough,” he said, solemnly. “Up until 6 a.m. some nights, just thinking about what I could have done differently.”
As I listened to him, I thought of my own haunting failures. I thought of all the missed chances, the roads not taken, the bridges burned—all those moments that I failed to recognize my life as it was happening. The fading belief that next year I’d finally have my breakthrough, just like so-and-so did when they were older, just like Terrance might have been thinking too.
All that remained now for him was the game. Here he was, without those he loved, yearning to be back on the field. The world went quiet when he played football. “For sixty minutes,” he said, “nothing else matters.”
All that remained for me was the stage, my pretend world where everything somehow made real sense. It was my own quiet refuge where I owned the moment, found clarity, and felt purpose.
He asked me about Hollywood.
“It’s not really what’s you’d think,” I said. “You gotta put up with a lot of bulls— to do what you love. But maybe, just maybe, when you’re able do it, it might be worth it.”
“I agree,” he said.
There we were, an artist and an athlete, lost somewhere in vastness of Los Angeles, trying to find a way to be so good that we couldn’t be ignored.
Thanks for following our Delicate Moron series over the past year. We’d love to hear your feedback about this unique project. You can email us at email@example.com and you can find Neal Bledsoe on Twitter. If he doesn’t respond right away, that means he’s still icing his hands because of the JUGS machine.