Head Coach Durwood Roquemore has four days to build a football team.
Four days to practice. Four days to prepare. Four days to turn a ragtag cast of characters into something resembling a synchronized scoring and defending machine.
Four days until his Richmond Speed, one of 15 newly christened minor league arena football teams, meets the Norfolk squad for a scrimmage. And then just two weeks until the inaugural season itself kicks off.
Coach Roquemore "call me Rock" strokes his graying stubble, adjusts his Arena Football 2 cap over his bald black head and looks around. He doesn't look daunted. He doesn't look dismayed.
He looks stunned.
It's Tuesday. The scrimmage is Friday, and here's what Coach Rock has to deal with: A sport no one on his team has ever played. A practice field that doesn't exist. Equipment that has not yet arrived. A reporter and photographer who have.
Here's what he has going for him: His 12 years of playing and coaching in the Arena Football League. Three experienced assistant coaches to crack the whip. And 27 young men in better-than-decent shape who are desperate to prolong or recapture or even finally fulfill their boyhood dreams.
They're arriving now for the first day of training-camp workouts and practice, finding their way after work to the side parking lot of a North Side high school. It's dark, gray and threatening to rain. There's a stray dog standing in the middle of the lot, watching as the players pull up in their modest vehicles.
Coach Rock smiles his fixed, uncertain, unsmiling smile. "We'll be ready," he says quietly.
"We'll be ready."
Are you ready for some football, Richmond? Minor league arena football?
Harry Feuerstein, owner of the Speed, is betting a million dollars you are. That's what he says he's spending this year to give the sport a chance here. A former investment banker whose minor league hockey team has won title after title but lost money all but one of its six seasons, Feuerstein is selling most of his stake in the Richmond Renegades and starting over with a new team in a new sport he insists will thrive here.
Feuerstein sees visions of a packed Richmond Coliseum at eight home games this spring and summer after Friday Cheers parties at the adjacent 6th Street Marketplace. He sees light shows and cheerleaders and half-time musical acts. He sees a team that not only wins, but fills the Coliseum's 11,088 seats. He sees families enjoying an air-conditioned "total entertainment experience," featuring mostly hometown heroes who come early and stay late to sign autographs and chat with fans.
[image-1]photo by Chad Hunt / Style WeeklyDefensive specialist Chris Banks suits up for practice.
He sees something that even his 9-year-old old son, Jared, will get excited about: big guys in pads knocking each other down same as hockey, really, but with a ball you can see rather than a puck you can barely follow.
Feuerstein says he'll spare no expense and give the sport at least three years here to prove itself. "We're going to be pretty over-the-top," he says. "We'll have a fan-fest in the next couple of weeks, too, to sort of introduce people to this game."
This game. Unless you live in one of the 16 cities with an Arena Football League team, you probably didn't hear about it until January and the Super Bowl. That's when most of the world woke up to arena football, thanks to a St. Louis Rams quarterback named Kurt Warner.
Five years after being cut from the NFL, Warner went from stacking cans in an Iowa grocery store to playing in the AFL to hoisting the Super Bowl trophy. It was a genuine outta-nowhere Cinderella story. And with Warner's success came awareness and validation of the indoor league.
The timing couldn't have been better. The NFL had just agreed to buy a minority stake in the AFL. Cable and broadcast networks had agreed to televise more games. And the Arena Football League itself had decided to make the bold move of starting a minor league with an ambitious 15 teams in the Southeast, including Richmond, Roanoke and Norfolk.
Because if the Arena Football League was going to become a better feeder system for the NFL, it needed a better feeder system and fan base of its own.First Down: Tuesday
Something was missing.
Maybe it was size. Or speed. Or strength.
Maybe it was skills. Maybe it was smarts. Maybe it was more than one of the above.
But whatever kept each of these players out of professional football, it probably wasn't heart. Because even now, with most of them pushing 30, they still believe.
Enough to risk getting their hearts broken all over again, for $200 a game and a shot at the pros.
Some have quit their jobs to move to Richmond. Others have transferred, but most simply make whatever commute they have to make to get here.
Here is John Marshall High School. It's not a pretty place. But it's got a level-enough, grassy-enough plot out back for Coach Rock to mark off, with orange highway cones, a 50-yard field like the one they'll be playing on at the Coliseum when the Renegades' season ends later this month. And John Marshall's got a locker room and some classrooms the team can use for going over plays with the assistant coaches.
The players are arriving for what promises to be their first day of contact practice. Most of them are hanging around inside on the basketball court just off the parking lot. Some are holding their gym bags outside.
"You hope that you put up good numbers, and you hope that somebody will be out there looking at you," says Dave DeArmas.
Short, stocky and goateed, DeArmas, 27, will be a kicker for the Speed. He played at the University of Maryland and the University of Connecticut, where he graduated in 1995. His first two years out of college he was invited to pro training camps, but got cut. Then he got a three-year gig coaching kickers at Virginia Tech, culminating in the Hokies' Sugar Bowl appearance.Jump to Part 1, 2 , 3Continue to Second Down