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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