April 28, 2008

Old-Time Football in the Modern Age

FORT WAYNE, Ind., Apr. 26 -- When I told people I was going to Fort Wayne, Ind., to watch a minor-league indoor football game, most people I know reacted with surprise and disbelief. Some folks expressed amazement that I was driving hours out of my way to go watch a minor-league football game. Others, perhaps believing Fort Wayne to be a bit rougher than it actually is -- it's certainly not in the same level as Flint, Mich., or Youngstown, Ohio, or even Kalamazoo, Mich. -- reacted as if I had casually mentioned going to watch a football game in Gaza.

Well, I am proud to say I can deliver a positive report about The City That Saved Itself -- and about the Continental Indoor Football League, the small indoor-football minor league that put on the game between the Fort Wayne Freedom and the Marion (Ohio) Mayhem. The game was held in the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum: a very nice venue indeed, and one of which Fort Wayne can be proud. Getting to the stadium was remarkably easy and parking was a breeze and very affordable ($4). Inside, the stadium was well-appointed and staff were friendly -- all nice things. Now, about the Continental Indoor Football League.

Here at The Rant, we classify football leagues into a ladder-like structure. At the top, of course, is the NFL. Then comes the Canadian Football League, and after that, the Arena Football League. After that comes the af2, which serves as a developmental league for the AFL. But as amazing as it might seem, below this -- "below," at least in my mind -- are several minor leagues that aren't part of the arena-league system.

For instance, residents in the Great Plains can watch teams in the American Professional Football League, which has teams in Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri and Texas. Great Plains residents can also watch teams in the United Indoor Football league, which also has teams in Kansas, Nebraska, but also South Dakota, Montana and nearby states. (The UIF is also home to the silliest-named football team ever, that being the Omaha Beef. No, really. The Omaha Beef). There's also the American Indoor Football Association, which has 16 teams, most of which are around Ohio, Pennsylvania and the South, but are located around the nation. Then, there's the Intense Football League, with teams around Texas, Louisiana and -- oddly -- two in Alaska. Don't ask me how that works, but it apparently does.

Now, the cool thing about these leagues, if you ask me, is that they allow minor-league football to reach places that don't have AFL teams -- located in the big cities -- or af2 teams, located in smaller but still big markets like Manchester and Peoria and Lexington and Tulsa and Boise. These other teams compete in the smallest markets, many of which arguably couldn't support an af2 franchise, although I think a few could. There's certainly a market for many of these teams, and attendance in the several thousands for a game isn't uncommon. The Omaha Beef, for instance, got 7,634 at one of their home games earlier this year.

As for the CIFL, I think it has some real potential. The biggest difference between the minor minor leagues and the arena-league system is the absence of rebound nets, which the AFL cleverly patented. Instead, there's a "floating" goalpost hung from the rafters. Also, kickoffs -- at least in the CIFL -- have to land in the field of play, or else you get dinged with a big penalty. One big difference between the CIFL and the other leagues is that play in the CIFL is 7-on-7, as opposed to 8-on-8.

Before I went to the game, I dismissed this as a gimmick. But it works. Really. The seven-on-seven works. For one thing, it opens the game up to a lot more running -- particularly by the quarterback, if he can escape pressure from the linemen. Since the linemen are eligible receivers, it heightens the importance of man-on-man coverage. There's also more open space on the field, meaning well-executed running plays have a chance to go the distance, instead of having the back run three yards and fall down.

Anyway -- as for the game itself -- it was a blast. Much to my surprise, my third-row seat at midfield was actually a first-row seat behind the visiting team's bench, which was great fun. For one thing, I was so close to the field I could hear a lineman say, "Oh, shit!" as he jumped offsides. For another, it allowed me to join in the boisterous teasing of the opposing squad. Consider this conversation between me and former Ohio State quarterback Stanley Jackson, who was remarking on the raucous crowd:

Mr JACKSON: These guys aren't used to winning around here.
Mr KEPPLE: Neither are you!
Mr JACKSON: We're 4-2, in case you haven't noticed!
Mr KEPPLE, making a surprisingly quick comeback: I haven't noticed! I'm not from around here!

Admittedly, if I had known at the time Mr Jackson had played in Canada for several years, and had formerly been a quarterback for the Toronto Argonauts, I would not have been so snarky. But I was. Besides, the man played for Ohio State, and that was enough reason to try and egg the guy on. As it turned out, Mr Jackson was part of the amazing 1996 Ohio State squad that went 10-0 until they faced Michigan in the final game of their season, and lost, so I really didn't feel bad about it. Hey, my football loyalties run pretty deep.

However, most of the taunting between the fans and Marion was directed at defensive lineman Thomas McKenzie, who played for Riverside Community College in California. I liked McKenzie, as he gave as good as he got, and he was very much a leader on the squad. When Fort Wayne got out to a 14-0 lead, McKenzie was furious at his team's lackadaisal attitude towards the matter and rallied them accordingly: "14-0 to these dudes? 14-0 to these dudes? Nobody mad?!" McKenzie said. Well, they apparently got mad, because at halftime it was 24-20, and in the third quarter it was tied up at 27-27. McKenzie played quite well, too -- on one play he just flattened his opposing lineman. Someone should consider the man for a promotion, if you ask me.

Still, although Marion was able to tie the game up, they were not able to gain a lead, as Fort Wayne powered back to take an insurmountable lead, and they eventually won the game, 55-40. Although only 2,300 people or so attended the game, I was impressed with Fort Wayne's fans -- they had one section that was very much a cheering section, lauding every first down and every big play. Near the end of the game, some joker in the crowd started chanting, "Warm up the bus!" and soon everyone was taking part. Heh. "Warm up the bus!" I like that. I may use it here in Manchester. If I can, that is -- while I was away, the Wolves were on the road, and lost, putting them at 1-3. Supposedly big changes are in the works in terms of the Wolves' line up, but we'll see.

Anyway, I have to give Fort Wayne a lot of credit for putting on some really good football, and people around Fort Wayne should definitely give the Fort Wayne Freedom a try. The tickets are cheap and the games are a lot of fun, and the game I went to definitely made the trip to northeastern Indiana worthwhile.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at April 28, 2008 11:19 PM | TrackBack
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