Part Two 

Fourth and Long

Second Down: Wednesday

DeArmas is taking some good-natured ribbing in the parking lot before practice. Typical stuff about how he'd better make those extra points and field goals, or the linemen just might let one or two defensive players past them to knock his block off.

They'll get plenty of chances to do that. Arena football is a game of constant passing and frequent field-goal kicking. It's what fans like to see, and the small field itself sees to it that they get it.

Take a hockey rink and cover it with Astro-Turf. Now take the plexiglass off the walls and lay padded mats along them instead. Now hoist really big nets with funny yellow frames at each end of the rink. Mark off the turf in 5-yard increments, with 8 yards for the end zones, and you've got an arena football field.

This idea came to a rich guy named James F. Foster while he was watching an indoor soccer game at Madison Square Garden in 1981. He sketched it out on a manila envelope, and five years later, it was built. The first test game of arena football was played in 1986; in February 1987 Foster attracted more than 8,000 curious football fans in Chicago to see the first public game; by June 1987 he had founded the AFL, with four teams, and the Denver Dynamite claimed the opening season championship at ArenaBowl I, broadcast live on ESPN.

With 14 teams in the AFL for the April-to-August 1999 season, attendance averaged about 5,000 fans a game, for a league total of 1 million fans for the third consecutive year. It's profitable because of sponsorships and the fact that the typical AFL player makes less than $30,000. AF2 players, like the Speed's, will get a total of $3,200 — if they play all 16 games.

Money isn't the motivator here, however. "If you want to play ball, you're going to do whatever you have to do," says Stan Clanton.

A graphic designer for Circuit City, Clanton, 28, was signed this morning to play fullback/linebacker for the Speed. Most of the players in arena football play both sides of the field, eight-man teams on offense and defense. It's Clanton's first day, and he's not sure what to expect from AF2.

He rode the bench at Virginia Tech for two years, then entered the Army for a three-year tour of duty. The last three years he's been playing for one of the many semipro teams you never hear about.

And working at the Circuit City corporate offices. He says co-workers are excited about him joining the Speed, and his supervisors seem like they will be flexible and cooperative about his schedule, "just as long as I make my deadlines."

"You do whatever you have to do," he adds.

That goes for Matt Livingston, one of the handful of white guys on the team and its smallest player, especially. The 32-year-old district supervisor for a Charlotte, N.C.-based auto-glass firm got his company to transfer him here so he could join the Speed. Now his company is one of the team's sponsors.

Livingston attended West Virginia University, but didn't dream of playing football after college. "I didn't have any aspirations, to be honest with you. I got my degree." That was it. But when he heard of tryouts for the arena football minor league — Charlotte is home to the AFL's new Carolina Cobras franchise — he jumped. He had been keeping himself in shape and having second thoughts about not pursuing football after college.

"This is probably the greatest feeling I've had, even including college," the defensive back says. "It's changed my whole life. It's brought up my self-esteem. Everything." Now he's setting his sights on the Canadian Football League, another inroad to the NFL for players not drafted straight from college.

Coach Rock, 40, a former star AFL player, is standing outside. "You do well here, you can get to the next level," he says. That's the AFL, he means. Not the CFL, not NFL Europe, and definitely not the NFL itself.

Just before the players are set to take the field for the second evening of practice, the long-awaited uniforms arrive. In large black gym bags the players find gleaming black helmets and assorted pads, pants and netted jerseys without numbers. For many they are too small, and there aren't enough for everybody, but at least today most of the guys can start hitting each other.

"I never thought I'd have these back on," Livingston says, adjusting his shoulder pads. "It feels good, man. Real good."

[image-1]photo by Chad Hunt / Style WeeklyHead Coach Durwood Roquemore, known to all simply as "Coach Rock". At 6 p.m. the first Richmond Speed players collide. At one end of the makeshift field are the quarterbacks and receivers running one-on-one against defensive backs. At the other end of the field the linemen are lunging into each other like armored sumo wrestlers.

Half an hour later, the two groups mingle at midfield for some practice plays. But it's so dark now, and because the offensive and defensive jerseys are identical — black — it's impossible to tell who's who. Ten minutes of futility and scads of incomplete passes later, the players are running their end-of-practice wind sprints.

But not Livingston. Instead, he is stalking the sidelines with a bag of ice against his lower abdomen. "When I turned and twisted out there, it was like, 'Pop!'" he explains. "Now it's all tight."

Another injured player asks if he can feel anything protruding through his abdominal muscles.

"I don't know," Livingston says. "It's all tight."

"Could be a hernia," the other player offers.

Livingston looks aghast. "No, no," he keeps repeating, treading gingerly along the sidelines with the ice against his belly and his uniform belt hanging uselessly at his side.

Third Down: Thursday

"Turns out I was dehydrated. Creatine," Livingston says, explaining that the bodybuilding formula made famous, or infamous, by baseball slugger Mark McGwire, has a tendency to dry him out. "Drank a "Turns out I was dehydrated. Creatine," Livingston says, explaining that the bodybuilding formula made famous, or infamous, by baseball slugger Mark McGwire, has a tendency to dry him out. "Drank a gallon and a half of water last night and a gallon and a half this morning. Feel great," he says, beaming happily that his injury wasn't more serious. "Creatine. I'm off it."

Sunlight warms the field for the first time this week, and a small crowd of onlookers has gathered as the players stretch their legs in neat rows and columns on the field, looking like an actual team in their black-and-white uniforms. Coach Rock is at the end of the field being interviewed by a local TV station. "You have to teach the guys to play both offense and defense," he explains.

[image-2]photo by Chad Hunt / Style WeeklyDefensive back Matt Livingston, the Speed's oldest player at 32, overcame injury scares to make it to the scrimmage against the Norfolk Nighthawks."Practice begins as usual with everybody, even the linemen, catching passes from quarterbacks Cody Whipple, a Virginia Tech backup who is now an agri-feed consultant, and Jimmie Miles, a University of Richmond standout now selling cars. Then the team breaks into two squads to practice kickoff returns.

It's DeArmas' chance to shine, to finally do something.

His first kick sails high and straight and long, end over end, giving his kickoff team plenty of time to get down field to the return man. But his second kick wobbles sideways and low, like a wounded duck. It's a bad high school kick.

Coach Rock shoots DeArmas a look that seems to say, "That was a fluke, right?"

It was. DeArmas gets back on track. Afterward he assesses the performance as "good. I'm not used to having the kickoff team so close. We're going to have to work on our timing." He's antsy to start practicing field goals, too: "Now all we need to do is find a snapper and a holder."

DeArmas is one of the lucky players, in a sense. As the only kicker, there's virtually zero chance he'll get cut. "That's the hardest part. You get to be friends with these guys, and you could come back tomorrow and they'd be gone," he says. "Everybody's walking around on pins and needles. The guys on the bubble, most of all." On any given day this week, there are between 25 and 30 players. Before the first game, April 8, Coach Rock and his assistants will have to pare the team down to 21. But not this week.

After the kickoff practice, the team breaks into its traditional, three-on-three groups of linemen versus linemen, and defensive backs versus receivers. The coaches know this is their last chance to mold the players before tomorrow's scrimmage, and they are giving it their all.

"Extend the arm! Extend the arm!" Bob Tyson, a veteran local high school coach and senior assistant principal at Freeman High School, yells to the sumo-wrestling linemen.

"That's a bulls—t route! You're just running for the hell of it!" Reggie Smith, like Coach Rock a former AFL star cut from the NFL, berates a receiver.

"Don't get beat deep!" Tony Missick, another AFL star, reminds his defensive backs. "Don't get beat deep!"

After practice, Livingston is pumped. "I'm tired and sore and my leg's bleeding, but I'm cool," he says. "Gotta make the team, you know?"

Back in the locker room, removing their sweat- and drizzle-soaked uniforms, the players are talking and sounding like members of a team that is finally gelling. They toss their equipment bags in the back of a coach's pickup in the parking lot, then return inside for class.

At 7 p.m. they gather in one classroom for last-minute instruction and pep talks from each of the coaches in turn. "It's just a scrimmage," Coach Rock tells the hushed players. "We're just looking to see who can play and who can make plays."

Coach Smith cuts to the chase. "Kick their ass," he says. "That's the bottom line. Kick their ass professionally."

Jump to Part 1, 2, 3Continue to Fourth Down

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