So the Arena Football League reinvented itself this year, with a new fiscal model that is (A) sane and prudent, if you’re an owner/investor, or (B) a full-time gig at hobby wages, if you’re a player.
That new teams – or old, mothballed ones from the previous incarnation – already are signing on for next season suggests that somebody thinks the salary structure is the league’s salvation. But the question remains – can the AFL, with such limited payrolls, still attract the kind of talent that would unearth the next Kurt Warner?
Let’s ask the last Kurt Warner.
He’s in town today for the AFL’s National Conference championship game between the Spokane Shock and Milwaukee Iron, doing commentary for the NFL Network telecast – something the former Super Bowl MVP is using to fill the hours between his retirement last January and his induction speech for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in a few years.
In doing his broadcasting homework, Warner chatted with Shock quarterback Kyle Rowley and was struck by how “his story is so similar to mine – what he went through, sitting on the bench and waiting around and working different jobs trying to get the opportunity. It’s fun to talk to those guys now.”
Having been one of those guys back when, he means.
Warner is the AFL’s favorite totem, the underdog’s underdog. He was a third-string quarterback until his senior year at Northern Iowa, undrafted, released as an NFL free agent and finally found work stocking shelves for $5.50 an hour at a Hy-Vee store while he coached at his alma mater. Eventually he auditioned for the AFL’s Iowa Barnstormers in 1995 and lit up the league for three seasons before bouncing to NFL Europe and finally to the St. Louis Rams – steering them to a Super Bowl title at his first opportunity.
That would be enough for a Hollywood uplifter – the other triumphs and redemptions would have overloaded a script. He had the Rams back in the Super Bowl in 2001 – then was injured, benched, released, signed by the New York Giants, benched again and finally resurrected with the lowly Arizona Cardinals.
And he took them to the Super Bowl, too.
It’s hardly a wonder that the AFL cultivates the association, only that they haven’t plastered his picture on the game ball.
Warner’s decision to retire after 12 seasons and two NFL MVP awards was no real surprise – he’s 39 now – except in the context of a certain other quarterback who never seems to know if he’s staying or going. So might he have any counsel for Brett Favre, the undecided’s undecided?
“It’s different for everybody no matter what it looks like from the outside,” he said. “A lot of times right after the season, you think, ‘I can’t do it anymore,’ but then you wait a few months and you get healthy and you believe you can.
“Although Brett goes back and forth, every time he’s come back he’s been able to give a lot to his football team and he’s a difference maker. How do you second guess that? He’s just trying to get it right. I’m not sure even he knows for sure.”
Warner did an AFL telecast earlier this season at Iowa, where they used the occasion to retire his jersey. Thirteen years removed from the indoor game, he noticed that “the game has changed so much” – mostly in that rules which once mandated mostly two-way players on the roster now allow a full platoon system.
“It’s hard to be a big, mauling offensive lineman and then have to play defensive end,” he said. “A lot of (the two-way) guys wouldn’t have translated well to the NFL. Now guys can specialize and excel, and because of that the game has taken off and gone to a new level.”
But there’s a new level at the pay window, too. Gone are the days when the best AFL players could bank six figures; now they take in $400 a game, with three “franchise” players making up to $1,000. And Warner admitted the chances of unearthing an NFL star like himself – he didn’t get his break until age 27 – may be made more difficult.
“There used to be an opportunity not only to further your career and hope for the chance to play in the NFL, but to make a good living for your family,” he said. “You’ll still get the young talent, guys who can try two or three years at limited pay. But guys who are getting up to the point like I was, you have to start looking at life after football. Are you going to be able to attract them?”
Probably a few. Somebody’s going to be thinking he’s the next Kurt Warner.