Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 29, 2007

By David Shaw
Salisbury Post
CONCORD ó You’d think the American Indoor Football Association is a place where NFL dreams go to die ó but you’d be wrong.
Dreams die hard in the AIFA, a league filled with players hoping for a shot at NFL tickets, much less the NFL. On the surface, with its loud music, field-goal kicking contests and circus-like atmosphere, it looks like fun and games. But don’t be mistaken. The product on the field is most definitely serious business.
“Some guys are here for the love of the game and some because they want to get to the next level,” said Mike Mink, coach of the expansion Carolina Speed ó a playoff-bound team with local flavor that works out of nearby Cabarrus Arena. “Others are just here for a paycheck. But our main objective has always been to send guys to the next level.”
To date, some 43 AIFA players have been promoted to various indoor leagues, where salaries like the $250-300 per game earned by Speed players seem ridiculous. Listen to former Catawba defensive end Steve Williams, who finds himself on a number of Most Wanted lists:
“I figured my last game was in Arkansas in ’04,” said Williams, who earned three rings and played in the Division II national semifinals for David Bennett in 2001. “Then I came to watch (former teammate) Cole Bean here early in the season. I met Coach Mink, and he asked me, ‘Do you still have it in you?’ So I joined the team, and now I have all this interest. I’m not worried about making the NFL. But Arena I or the CFL? I’ll take a couple hundred thousand and be happy.”
Williams is one of the league’s more fortunate players.
Far more common is the story of defensive back Jamel Jackson, a one-time All-American at Catawba who suffered a high ankle sprain five games ago and hasn’t returned to the Speed lineup. In 2003 he drew luke-warm interest from the NFL’s Panthers and Colts.
“They actually sent someone to Catawba and tested a few players,” Jackson recalled. “Unfortunately nothing worked out. It’s a business. They come check you out, and either you have what they’re looking for or you don’t.”
Playing football indoors is a high-risk business. Injuries are common ó especially to shoulders, elbows and knees. Former Lenoir-Rhyne lineman Jake Helms learned that first-hand when he suffered a torn MCL against Baltimore on May 5.
“This game isn’t for anybody,” he said. “That turf isn’t very giving.”
No one knows that better than public address announcer Charles Curcio, known as “Double-C” to the arena faithful.
“This sport is brutal, absolutely brutal,” he said. “I’ve never seen a team get beat up the way these guys have. They’ve gone through five or six quarterbacks. They’ve replaced the entire defensive backfield. They’ve had so many injuries I’ve lost track of who’s on the team.”
The Speed may have endured enough injuries to fill a medical journal, but it completed its first regular season with an 8-7 record after falling 39-21 to visiting Lakeland on Friday. That’s good enough for fourth place in the South Division standings and a first-round playoff game at Lakeland or Mississippi on June 9 or 10.
“We still hate to lose,” said Mink, co-founder of the AIFA. “It pro football. We always want to win.”
Close to 1,000 fans witnessed Friday’s loss, many of them regulars who paid between $10 and $50 for tickets. They were treated to an amped-up pre-game parade by the Carolina Thundergirls dance team, escorted on Harleys while Motley Crue’s “Girls Girls Girls” blared over revving engines. Face-painted spectators rattled cow bells and pebble-filled juice containers. Another blew incessantly into a gazoo. You got the feeling that somewhere there was a carnival running itself.
“Coming here is affordable,” one front-row spectator said. “It costs an arm and a leg to go to the Panthers or the Bobcats, so we come here.”
Mink understands.
“We catering this to blue-collar, NASCAR fans,” he said. “And we’ve got a pretty good product.”
Another part of that product is players like 325-pound lineman Bill Houston. He spent six years at Livingstone and another six playing for semi-pro teams. Now married with two children, he’s not looking for a future in football.
“I’m just here because I love the game,” he said. “And my son loves watching me play. That’s all I need.”
It was linebacker Eddy Bell, out of Elon College, who wrote the majority opinion.
“About 90 percent of the guys in this league are trying to go somewhere else, somewhere better,” he said. “When you go to a tryout, they ask you where you’ve been since you got out of school. I can say I’ve been playing Arena football.”
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