"Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win." — Sun Tzu, "The Art of War"
From the fluorescent-light-baked locker room to the darkened hallway, past the security guards, the forklift and the wooden pallets stacked in the basement tunnel, the men in shoulder pads and shiny silver helmets make their way to the mouth of the arena.
All 21 players are walking, but the walk itself is solitary. They stare straight forward, speaking in mechanical bursts of braggadocio. In this distended state you realize how little time has actually passed. It's just before 7 p.m., but it seems like they've been here for hours: meeting with trainers and coaches, moving back and forth between warming up on the field and taping and wrapping in the locker room. A masseur in the hallway, with a padded table and a signup sheet taped to the doorway, still works on a player even while the team is introduced. The Coliseum has a way of distorting time and space. The dark, mushroom-like arena always feels like a gigantic basement, its brown concrete columns swallowing any natural light that dares to creep in.
Outside, thunderous rainstorms have darkened the sky, drenching ticket holders as they enter. The city's streets are barren. The recent basketball madness, which stretched into the first week of April with Virginia Commonwealth University's Final Four appearance, still hangs over the city, murmuring in the distance. The baseball season, and all that's become the Richmond Flying Squirrels, is barely a week old.
In such a marginal existence, it's easy to lose focus on the task at hand. Richmond Raiders Coach James Fuller seems to grasp this during his pre-game speech. Fuller, about 6 feet tall with a shaved head and intense, penetrating eyes, gestures to close the locker-room door and launches into passages from "The Art of War." The Raiders are good, scary good at times, but this night they face a team that's no slouch. Both the Raiders and the Fayetteville Force are 3-1, tied for first in their division.
"We going to make this a war. We punch them in the mouth early and we make 'em quit. If they do not quit then we know it's a dogfight, and that's the kind of fight we need to be in every once in awhile, all right?" Fuller tells them. "This is all that matters today, being No. 1 in our division. Put it in your head right now. Give me 20 seconds, drop your head, close your eyes, think good thoughts. Prepare your mind to win."
The players bow their heads.
"Everybody touch hands," Fuller says, just above a whisper. "This is all we got, fellas. The people you touching right now, this is all we got. We are going into battle with this right here. And I expect to win."
They kneel and begin to recite the Lord's Prayer. It's spiritual sanitizer; a few minutes earlier they were joking, cursing, preparing to be sublimely violent. Afterward the chatter starts up again, and the team filters into the hallway. "We're walking, let's go," the coach says over the din.
Dwayne Delaney is 6-foot-3 and 320 pounds, but somehow he doesn't seem at all imposing on the dusty sideline of a parking-lot-turned-football field on Overbrook Road. The day starts out overcast, in the low 50s, but by midafternoon a hazy sun breaks through while the Raiders lead a youth football camp at the Sports Center of Richmond on the city's North Side. An old warehouse turned soccer and workout complex, the building is adjacent to two small turf fields. During spring break on a Thursday afternoon, the inner-city youth football players, sans helmets and pads, dart around the field playing the most important touch-football games of their lives.
Delaney, 25, appears slightly pained. He has a warm presence, albeit reserved, and when the conversation turns to his personal exploits, he smiles, wide and round, like a child. He played college football at Morgan State University, becoming an all-conference player in 2007 and 2008 as an offensive lineman. As the sun beats through the pollen and dust, he squints slightly.
The weather's probably not unlike that mid-March afternoon in 2003, when a bomb scare at his high school in Amelia County forced students and faculty outside. Delaney recalls the police car racing down the street — but the blue lights flashed past the school. He had no idea the sirens were for his father.
"I come from a two-parent home," Delaney says, "but my dad, he was off and on. I was thankful for him to be there."
Delaney's father, Herbert Trueheart, was a good football player in high school and was offered a college scholarship, but he turned it down. His son had just been born. "He chose not to go because he had me," Delaney says.
In the seventh grade, Delaney started playing football to get his father's attention. The game came naturally. Always big and strong, Delaney earned the nickname "Rhino" because his teammates joked he could run through anybody — or just about anything. Football became an emotional outlet, a place to expend pent-up emotions. He recalls the argument with his father like it was yesterday. "He got into soliciting drugs," Delaney says, so he struggled with the idea of his on-and-off father telling him how to live his life. At one point, at 17, he fired back: "I'm more man than you are."
Delaney left his father's house in Jetersville and moved back in with his mother. A week or two later, he called his father and apologized. They talked, worked out some issues. The coaches at Amelia wanted to move him from offensive tackle to center. Delaney didn't want to change positions. His father agreed and told him he could transfer to Nottoway County.
"I ended up staying at Amelia," Delaney says. A couple of days later, on March 17, he saw the police car flying down the road while standing outside the school during the bomb threat. He got a phone call later that day: "Your dad is dead." He'd been shot to death, lost in the crosshairs of drugs and crime.
Delaney, 25, still plays the game his father loved. While unsure of what the future holds, he hopes to eventually get a chance to move into the upper echelon of indoor football — the Arena Football League, which is affiliated with the National Football League — or the United States Football League, or perhaps the widely respected Canadian Football League. He has a 2-year-old son, Ayden.
"I just want the opportunity," Delaney says, acknowledging that he still struggles with the loss of his father, whose image is tattooed on his right arm. "I'm 25 years old," he says. "Who can I talk to when I have a problem? My son knows my dad only by what I got on my arm."
Delaney's life has been defined by football, but there's something daunting about a future without it. During the football camp for the inner-city kids who play in the Police Athletic League youth football program, he sees it in their eyes. It's a way out, a safe haven from drugs and street life. But it isn't a cure-all. Delaney knows.
"Everything looks good on the outside," he says, in a moment of reflection. "But on the inside, I still need some work."
The crowd that's assembled in the Richmond Coliseum on April 16 for the Raiders' game against Fayetteville is miniscule. Before the night's done, the official attendance count will reach 2,866 — but there's a vast emptiness. More than three-fourths of the Coliseum's 11,000 seats are unfilled. The game is dedicated to the University of Richmond and VCU, for their recent success in the NCAA tournament, and the VCU pep band is blowing and swinging from a raised platform in the back of the end zone. Gov. Bob McDonnell is here, along with his wife, Maureen, dressed as an honorary Lady Raider — she's a former Washington Redskins cheerleader — in a black dress with a shimmering rope necklace that matches her silver boots.
The scene gives the Raiders' first meaningful game of the season — for first place in the Southern Indoor Football League's mid-Atlantic division — the feel of a pageant dress rehearsal: all the performers and glitz in front of empty seats.
This has always been the chief obstacle for arena football, especially in a midmarket town such as Richmond. The games usually are played in the spring and summer when most people are vacationing, or when their sporting attention has turned to baseball. Arena teams here have been short-lived — the Richmond Speed, the first arena team to play in Richmond in 2000, folded after three years. Another team, the Richmond Bandits, fizzled out after just two seasons in 2006.
The game itself is intense and fast-paced. The playing field is 50 yards, half the size of a normal football field. There are only eight offensive players and eight defensive players. One receiver is allowed to get a running start in the backfield, sprinting across the line of scrimmage as the ball is snapped. The short field means every possession can produce a potential touchdown. And a field goal is possible from just about anywhere. A padded wall, about waist high, surrounds the field, and the inner row wall-side seats give some fans intimate contact with players during the game. There's no out-of-bounds line, just the wall, which means plays often end with players smashing into it. It's loud, fast and at times painfully violent. Artificial turf covers the concrete floor, and the walls are padded, but there's almost nothing to absorb the shock of colliding 300-pound men.
A year after a tumultuous 2009 — the Arena Football League, the oldest and most prominent arena league, canceled its season and was forced into bankruptcy — Richmond saw something of a happenstance rebirth in arena football. Two teams, the Raiders and one based in Chesterfield County, the Richmond Revolution, launched in the spring of 2010. Having two teams in the market has made it difficult for either team to build a consistent fan base. The Revolution played its first season in the Arthur Ashe Center, on the Boulevard near The Diamond. This year, the team is playing outdoors, in the SportsQuest athletic complex in western Chesterfield, off Genito Road.
At the end of the 2010 season — the Revolution went 13-2, losing in the first round of the Indoor Football League playoffs — much of the team and its coaches defected to the Raiders. The Revolution is owned by SportsQuest, a sprawling company with several sports leagues and much broader mission, which has been dogged by questions regarding financial instability. The Raiders are owned by Michael Fraizer and his wife, Elizabeth, who have deeper pockets. Fraizer is chief executive of Genworth Financial, which reported $10 billion in revenue in 2010.
The Fraizers wanted to help bring football back to Richmond, bring some stability to Richmond sports. The city had just gone through a transition with baseball, losing the Richmond Braves and gaining a new franchise in the Flying Squirrels. And baseball is played outside the city center, off the Boulevard. The arena teams, as well as hockey, had been the chief anchors of the downtown Coliseum during the last 15 years.
Marketing football in the spring is the toughest part. While there wasn't much advertising in 2010, this year the Raiders have multiple sponsors and are promoting games as events, such as the April 16 game commemorating VCU and UR basketball. While overall attendance is down slightly — through four games, the Raiders are averaging 2,400 fans; in 2009, the Raiders averaged 2,600 fans at their seven home games — paid attendance (excluding comp tickets) is actually up. But the team likely needs to average between 5,000 and 7,000 fans to become profitable.
In the meantime, the Fraizers are doing all the little things. The team hired the Criswells — Steve, a longtime coach and now consultant for the team; and Gary, the business manager. The Criswells were with the Speed, the Bandits and last year's Revolution team that went 13-2. The Fraizers also hired former St. Louis Rams cheerleader Laura Eilers to coordinate the Lady Raiders Dance Team, and lured respected arena coach James Fuller, a 13-year veteran, as head coach.
Many of the team's staff members, including the personal trainers and the equipment manager, have worked together for years and interact like a long-lost family. There's defensive end Lawrence "The Law" Lewis, 38, who's played for the Speed, Bandits, Revolution and now the Raiders, still barking in the locker room, the team's emotional leader. On game days the team massage therapist, Herman Heard, limbers up tendons and sore muscles, and Dr. Geoff Higgs, former head trainer for the New England Patriots and the Boston Bruins, shows up as an extra hand. The traveling husband-and-wife team of Dave and Dana Sparrow — Dave is logistics manager and Dana manages equipment — makes the hallways on game days feel like a family dinner. Except everyone seems genuinely happy to be here.
"I just love having all of these sons," Dana says, standing in the mostly empty locker room two hours before the Raiders kick off their home opener on March 19. When defensive back Larry Williams walks in, she instantly starts doting.
"Hey sweetheart," she coos, inquiring about his pre-game meal. "Did you get something to eat?" Elizabeth Fraizer even bakes brownies (actually more like a mound of caramel-infused fudge) for the players, which she brings in a Martin's grocery bag after the team's first victory, against the Trenton Steel. She distributes the brownies only after the team wins, leaving them in the car just in case.
"I told my kids: 'You're the ninth man,'" Fraizer says. "To me it's all about supporting the players."
So much so that Elizabeth Fraizer refuses to even talk about financials. The team most likely is losing money, and she acknowledges she should be more concerned about the "number" — that magic number of tickets that can get the Raiders into the black. With a winning streak at the right time, Fraizer is convinced Richmond will become addicted. If they can just get people to that first game, she says, they'll be hooked: "We know they'll come back."
Such optimism is critical to find redemption — especially for the players. Made up of former collegiate stars and spurned NFL prospects, most are in their mid- to late 20s, and hang onto the possibility of getting another chance to play in the pros. Keeping the faith is tough, especially with the NFL lockout and the very real threat of a lost season looming. It's a humbling experience for some, especially players such as Junior Rosegreen, who was an All-American safety at Auburn University and considered one of the best at his position in college.
A Miami native, Rosegreen was a key cog in Auburn's undefeated season in 2004, finishing his senior year with 57 tackles and six interceptions, including a miraculous performance against Tennessee, when he snagged four interceptions in a single game. But he went undrafted by the NFL in 2005. He ultimately broke the roster of the Seattle Seahawks as a free agent, but was released in 2006.
"It's not about what you know, it's who you know," Rosegreen says, explaining that he got stuck behind players with recently signed, multimillion-dollar contracts, and found Seattle was too invested in those players to give him a realistic chance. It's a message he imparts on the campers during spring break.
"I knew I was going to get drafted. I played in the Senior Bowl, started in the Senior Bowl," he tells the kids. "Never been in trouble, did everything right. Sometimes, the best don't make it."
Rosegreen, a lean 5-foot-10 and 200 pounds, has a strict, jaw-clenching edginess about him, and during the camp he carries a police bullhorn and snaps at the young players when they interrupt or goof off. "There is people in the NFL — just being honest with you — that's terrible, that's garbage, don't got no business being in the NFL," he tells them. "But they are there because they know somebody."
The 40 or so kids who attend the camp are all black and from the inner city, some of the toughest neighborhoods in Richmond. Some are from broken homes, public housing, drug-filled streets. All manner of educators and social workers will struggle to break through and reach them. But the Raiders, massive men who play professionally the very game they idolize — have no such trouble breaking through.
Despite his own ups and downs, Rosegreen enjoys working with the kids, and they seem to feed off each other. After a few snits and giggles, Rosegreen breaks the barrier for good when he mentions the hit. It was against the University of Georgia in 2004. Rosegreen launched himself at Georgia receiver Reggie Brown for a vicious collision, which knocked Brown unconscious.
The hit was so violent it was featured on a Monday Night Football segment known as "Jacked Up," and can still be found on YouTube seven years later.
"If God give me the opportunity, I'm going to get back," he says to the young players, who now seem interested in only one thing.
"Can we see the video?" somebody asks, and one of Rosegreen's teammates hands him an iPhone while the kids rush to the center of the room, surrounding him.
Climbing over the wall of vulnerability, and instilling hope in young men who've had little to hope for, isn't something Elizabeth Fraizer really considered when she and her husband took over the Raiders. They always wanted the players to do community outreach, but they had no idea how far-reaching it would be. Or that the players not only would commit to visiting schools, mentoring, and taking hours out of their week for no additional pay to spend time with at-risk students — but also would yearn for it.
"We knew we'd have an impact," Fraizer says, "but not like this."
Stephen Cason, a star defensive back for the College of William and Mary and a near lock to break an NFL roster when he graduated in 2006, has been chasing the dream ever since. A car accident in 2003 had sidelined his career — he broke his neck and was told by doctors he would never play football again — but he managed to not just come back, but to become a star whose interception against the University of Delaware on Dec. 4, 2004, sparked a 21-point comeback that sent the game into double overtime, which the Tribe eventually won 44-38. It was the quarterfinals of NCAA Division I-AA playoffs.
"They had me rated on ESPN, Mel Kiper and all that stuff," Cason recalls. "I didn't even get invited to camp. It was a shock."
Red-flagged as an injury risk, not getting drafted or invited to a single NFL training camp devastated Cason, who spent the first three months of his post-college career depressed, barely able to get out of bed in the morning. "I lost it," he says.
Cason eventually started working out again, making his way into arena football for the next couple of years. He was making strides, edging toward the upper arena leagues. Then in 2009 the Arena Football League folded. He signed a contract to play in the Canadian Football League, with the B.C. Lions in Vancouver. He nearly left for Canada and quit his Richmond job as a financial adviser at Union First Market Bank. But just before he was set to leave, the Lions released him.
Now he teaches ninth- and 10th-grade algebra at Community High School in Chesterfield County, and runs a small real estate business when he's not playing for the Raiders. After being released from the Lions, he slowly came to realize he could have a greater impact outside of football.
"I didn't want to be one of these guys that continues to hold on and live trying to get that shot," Cason says. "I just decided it's not just football, there's more to it."
Cason, who also coaches basketball at Community, is teaching one of his players how to drive after school (the player lives with his mother, who works multiple jobs). At a church in Mechanicsville, he also mentors children whose parents are incarcerated. At the April 16 game, Genesis Toliver Jr., age 8, is in the stands just behind the Raiders' bench. Toward the end of the game, Cason motions for Genesis to come down the steps, past security, to join him on the sidelines.
Sitting on a toolbox behind the trainers, Genesis seems star-struck while Cason tells him he needs to leave for a bit to play defense as the clock winds down, and the Raiders secure their fourth victory of the season against Fayetteville, 61-43.
Genesis is polite and wide-eyed when the players, such as wide receiver Redd Thompson, stop by to chat. Cason takes off his helmet and gives it to Genesis, who tries it on. It seems to swallow him whole. "He plays for a football team and he's rich!" Genesis says excitedly.
The players are anything but rich. League rules allow the team to pay each player $200 a game, $250 if they win. Factoring in practice and travel, and all of the community work, arena football is a volunteer job. Practices are at night, usually between 7 and 10, allowing the athletes time to get off from work. The season, which runs from late March to mid-June, is an all-out grind.
Larry Williams, who played wide receiver and defensive back for Highland Springs High School and then West Virginia University, works at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts during the week. He also recently started a new business putting on jazz events (he calls it Artist Avenue) and in his spare time writes poetry. When he's not working or playing football, he returns to West Virginia to visit his girlfriend and 4-year-old son, Lamanii. After the game against Fayetteville, Williams showered and drove straight from the Coliseum to West Virginia — a six-hour drive — in order to catch his son's appearance in the play "Aladdin" the next day. "His whole class was the little monkeys," Williams says.
His shot at the pros came in 2008, when the Kansas City Chiefs invited him to training camp.
"I'm old school. Me against you, I win you lose. I'm going to do drills better than you, I'm going to run faster. I was the biggest corner there, damn near bigger than the safeties. I made all the plays," Williams says. "In film session, coach had his own highlight segment about how good I was doing and how everybody else should do that."
But Williams still didn't make the team. His agent stopped taking his phone calls, so Williams fired him and started looking at arena football. He played for the Milwaukee Iron (now the Mustangs) in the Arena Football League before being released. He signed with the Raiders this spring.
He had a chance to play for the Utah Blaze, also of the Arena Football League, but turned it down to stay closer to his new family in West Virginia. In the last year, his perspective has changed. "I don't want to be in a situation where I know that I'm better than you but your agent is real cool and they play golf together so they are going to choose you over me," he says. "When I found out that I lost a lot of passion for the NFL."
Bryan Randall, the Raiders' starting quarterback entering the season, is also nearing the end of his rope. The biggest name on the roster, Randall was a star at Virginia Tech, where he set the career passing record and took the Hokies to the Sugar Bowl in 2005 (against Rosegreen's Auburn Tigers). He went undrafted — he's undersized at 6 feet tall, and some questioned whether he could become a true pocket passer in the NFL — and landed with the Atlanta Falcons but was eventually cut. He was picked up briefly by Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh in 2006 and 2007, but was released and never saw any action.
After a stint in the Canadian Football League as a backup for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, he was released in 2009 and found himself working as a substitute teacher at Warhill High School in Williamsburg. Billy Jarvis, the head coach at Warhill and then a defensive coordinator for the Revolution, approached Randall and asked him if he'd be interested in playing for the upstart arena football team. In 2010, Randall starred as the Revolution's quarterback, getting his first significant playing time since college. He led the team to a 13-2 season and was named MVP of the league.
He thought he'd finally proven he could play again, but the phone calls didn't come. "After last year, I felt like being the MVP of the league would get me somewhere, whether it was a tryout or a workout or something. I felt like I did what I needed to," Randall says. This year, like a lot of teammates, Randall moved over to the Raiders, and was prepared to continue his mission. He'd decided he couldn't be a backup anymore, turning down offers to play elsewhere for a chance to start in Richmond.
Seven players who signed on to play for the Raiders already have moved into leagues further up the food chain, a testament to the coaching staff and the connections of Coach Fuller and Steve Criswell, also a veteran arena coach. But Randall was injured in the first game, tearing a knee ligament in a collision late in the team's opener. He was lost for the season.
The team has played well since, but struggled to live up to its potential without Randall, standing at 4-3 after losing to the Albany Panthers on Saturday. The team has five regular season games left, three home games, and resumes play at the Coliseum against the Erie Explosion May 7.
Randall is just beginning his rehabilitation. He's optimistic, but doesn't hold out any false hopes. He knows he needs to keep playing to get another chance, but doesn't buy into any of the promises.
"Until somebody can show me and put me out on the field, I don't really believe anything that anybody says no more when it comes to the business side of professional sports," he says, still dumbfounded that he didn't get a shot at starting for an upper level Arena Football League or Canadian Football League team a year ago.
"Stuff just kind of disappeared," he says. "It's just one of them things." S