A little girl and boy tug at Rico Ochoa’s side, shyly asking to take a photo with him.
The 6-foot-3, 340-pound Spokane Shock offensive lineman looms large over his young fans and barely feels the small hand grab his baggy T-shirt.
An eager woman, who had followed Ochoa around the Mirabeau Park pavilion all evening, cuts in with camera in hand when the kids leave. She reaches out and plucks something from his beard — a would-be photo flaw.
Ochoa poses, issues a polite goodbye and after two more autographs heads toward the “cow cooker,” a 5-foot-wide grill warmed by 100 pounds of charcoal and covered with 120 pounds of pork ribs and 40 pounds of chicken.
Monthly barbecues are one of many amenities provided by the Shockwave Booster Club for their beloved arenafootball2 team the past three seasons.
Started by fans in 2006, the club aims to make it easier for the players to live on $200 a week, $250 if they win. In addition, the team pays for housing and meals. “I know they could live on it but it’d be really tough,” said Libby Moore, booster club president.
So, along with monthly meals, the club developed an adopt-an-apartment program. Boosters raise money through auctions and fundraisers for baskets full of toiletries, snacks, anything the players need, Moore said.
More importantly for fans who see the Shock as celebrities, the booster club offers a chance for personal connections.
Under the pavilion Thursday night, near piles of cornbread, pasta salad and brownies, players were simply men and fans were just friends.
Ochoa walked up to Nick and Christine Harlander and their two young sons.
“I love you guys,” he said to the longtime fans.
“We’re like family,” Christine replied with a smile.
Lineman Kyle Young, dressed in a plaid jacket and Ugg boots, plopped down at a table and started a game of spades.
General manager Adam Nebeker credits the players’ approachability to a love of the game and an understanding of bigger things to come.
“None of these people grew up saying they wanted to be an arena2 football player,” Nebeker said. “Most want to be in the NFL, spent time in training camps and got cut right before regular season.”
The season is “a college experience” for some, a chance to get game films to send off to AFL teams, he said.
“They have room and board paid for, tuition paid for. They’re not making a ton of money, but they’re getting by fine,” he said.
While some players hold part-time jobs at places such as Best Buy or the YMCA, or as personal trainers during the season, others rely on the booster club’s generosity.
“It’s awesome,” said wide receiver Andy Olson. “It’s a great opportunity for us to come together more as a team. And you gotta love free food.”
After Monday’s ArenaCup championship, Olson said he will move home, talk to AFL teams and, unfortunately, look for a job.
Quarterback Nick Davila will return to California and help coach high school football.
“Most of them are gonna leave and do everything they can to try out for NFL teams,” Nebeker said. “They see this as their fallback option.”
But head coach Adam Shackleford said the booster club’s contributions make it easy to recruit new players.
“If we’re doing a great job for the players, they’ll be enticed to come play here,” Moore said.
Davila said overwhelming support like the booster club’s lured him to Spokane and will persuade future players to do the same.
“I wouldn’t rather play anywhere else,” he said. “This is the place to be if you’re an af2 football player.”