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Could arena football provide the answer to America’s football problem?

I am a college professor who very occasionally moonlights as an arena football player. These two worlds couldn’t be more different, but here is one interesting point of overlap: as one of my sorority-girl students told me, “It’s all about the pictures.” 

What she meant was that her sorority formal was an exercise in masterminding lighting, camera angles, and wardrobe to emerge from the evening with the perfect picture to prove the evening (and, at some level, she herself) existed. This became real to me in a bathroom about an hour before game time at an indoor sports arena in Maryland, where I took a furtive selfie in the uniform of my team-for-a-night — the New England Bobcats. I am more than a little ashamed of this (the bathroom selfie). It feels good to talk about it. 

The Bobcats are a first-year team in the Elite Indoor Football League, and are owned by Cynthia Hudson who couldn’t be more warm, friendly and accommodating, and who sounds just like “Irish” Micky Ward’s mom in “The Fighter” (2010, Mark Wahlberg). Hudson is professional indoor football’s only female owner and, judging by the quality of her coaching staff, players and uniforms, has put together a first-rate organization.  

Arena football is an addiction that started in 2006 when I was a member of the Battle Creek (MI) Crunch and really sucked. Since then, I’ve been on a mission to perfect my craft and suck a little less each time. In this pursuit I am not only battling Father Time (who never loses), but also the realities of a career, several side-hustles, injuries, family life (I’m trying to be a good husband and father, often failing) and the very real and niggling concern that doing this is really unwise for a guy my age. 

Last weekend, the Bobcats opened their season against the Western Maryland Warriors in Frederick, Maryland. Here are a few things about this experience that I loved, and that could in some way (stay with me) provide answers to America’s football crisis, which can be summed up by the phrases “head injuries” and “divisive social issues.”  

  • My doctorate-holding best friend from college using his “outside voice” to explain the abolitionist movement (we drove through Harpers Ferry) to my wife, in an arena full of black guys. One of the best parts of these football experiences is always being in the distinct racial minority but always having it work out in great and interesting ways. While the media insisted last season on highlighting the NFL’s cultural/racial differences, I am always charmed by how the game brings people together. 
  • The usual fascinating mix of ritualized, shouted swearing juxtaposed against the fact that we recite The Lord’s Prayer a bunch of times. This never gets old for me. 
  • Hearing the following, pre-game, about the referees: “The refs are running late and have someplace to be afterward … so expect a quick game.” 
  • A variety of truly great, talented players with college pedigrees who have slipped through conventional scouting’s cracks: linebacker Ruben Encarnacion, defensive back Alex Hulme, and quarterback Najee Hillman stood out, but I could have listed several more. Actually, I will: running back Darryl Cyprien and 6’9” tackle and former two-sport college athlete Terrell Correia played exceptional games as well. 
  • Regarding head injuries: in the arena game (8 on 8, 50-yard field), there is no downhill running game, no pulling or trapping on the offensive line, and very few “in-breaking” pass patterns, meaning that while the game is still violent and exciting there seem to be far fewer catastrophic head injuries. I’m not a doctor, but this is just something I’ve observed. It’s hard to get up a full head of steam on a field that short and narrow, which mitigates against head-rattling “kill shots.” 
  • I may have broken my right thumb — the all-important “space bar” thumb for a writer — but the experience was still absolutely worth it. 
  • I may or may not have thought one of my coaches was having a stroke, slumped up against an arena wall in a corner during the game, and went to check on him only to discover he may or may not have been sneakily peeing into an empty Gatorade bottle. The football world, while violent and intense, is always very predictably funny in ways that keep me coming back.

I was supposed to be there to long-snap, only to find the arena we were in didn’t have goalposts, so I got in several reps as a nose tackle thanks to some gracious rotation work by defensive coordinator Mark Stevens, who along with head coach Bill Savary, is a truly great guy. 

These guys probably have no idea what a blessing it was for me to be able to do this — to enjoy a sore but beautiful drive home with my wife the following day, reflecting on the joys of being a competitive football player, just one more time. As the shameful bathroom selfie attests … this league exists, the New England Bobcats exist, and I existed as an athlete again, if only for a night. For that I am grateful. 

Ted Kluck is a journalism professor at Union University, screenwriter and co-producer on the forthcoming feature film “Silverdome,” and the author of 25 books. 

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