In less than two weeks, pads will pop in the new Nashville Arena. The artificially generated fog will billow in, the dancers will gyrate, music will resound, thousands will shout and stomp, the Nashville Kats will storm onto the fieldand you’ll scarcely be able to hear yourself think.
But for a while last Friday afternoonthe Arena’s first afternoon of footballit was the silence that was deafening. Even with more than 130 backs and receivers limbering up on the green-carpeted floor, the arena was so eerily quiet that a single, solid sneeze could have reverberated throughout the whole place.
The nervous laughter here and there was more telling. Behind all the attempts to maintain a stoic façade, many of those on the field seemed as restless as cows before a thunderstorm.
The uneasiness was perfectly understandable. It’s not every day, after all, that just anybody can walk in and try out for a pro football team.
All winter long, the owners of the Kats, who open their exhibition season on April 18, have promised that their brand of football will stand apart from any ever seen before in Nashville. If the open-tryout camp provided any indication, the club will fulfill that pledge.
Early Friday morning, scores of linemen and fullback/linebacker candidates lined up outside the arena, awaiting their chance. The afternoon session brought a wave of backs and receivers and, finally, kickers.
Few of the hopefuls were quite sure what to expect. But they understood they were competing, nearly 300 of them in all, for just two or three slots. They didn’t seem to mind the long odds.
“It’s been a dream of mine all my life to play organized football,” said Keith Booker, undaunted by the fact that he hadn’t donned helmet and pads since he was a wide receiver in high school 12 years ago. Nor did his relative unfamiliarity with the arena game hold him back. “It’s still football,” he shrugged.
In the Kats’ wide-open recruiting effort, anyone who could plop down a $25 registration fee was welcome to showcase his skills. The open invitation drew one of the most unusual assemblages of big-time players, would-be players, has-beens, and neverwuzzes since the prisoners and guards suited up in The Longest Yard.
They ran the gamut: From strapping 23-year-olds to bald men old enough to be the 23-year-olds’ fathers. From lean, taut runners to paunchy receivers. From guys sporting sprinters’ unitards to guys with headbands and sleeveless sweatshirts more typical of sandlot samurai than pro footballers. From bona fide prospects to incorrigible optimists to fun-seekers who showed up just for the right to brag that they’d been here.
One candidate, perhaps attempting to convey an image of multi-sport prowess, turned out in a Michigan basketball uniform. Anotherless for good luck, he said, than out of habitcarried his Bible onto the field.
One participant, claiming he’d heard about the camp on the radio in Chicago, drove down from Illinois in hopes of making the team. Some, like former Vol tailback Keith Davis, had played at the major college level.
Typical were hopefuls like Marlo Butler, a muscular, compact fullback who last teed it up at Milliken, a Division II college. There were also plenty, like Booker, who dreamed not only of capturing a roster spot but of recapturing their youth in the process.
“I’ve been doing this all my life,” said Donnie Watson, tying on a headband before the 1 p.m. workout. At first, he declined to reveal his age, but he betrayed the secret when he mentioned his playing days at long-closed Cameron High School. During the ’80s, he said, he had been part of a local semipro team, the Nashville Bulldogs. “We played some pretty good football,” he stated, with a no-brag-just-fact forthrightness.
Now, he explained, he was ready to resume his playing career. “I had to wait till my children were grown.”
Less confident of his chances, or even of his whereabouts, was Tim Minor, who introduced himself to a bystander he mistook for a Kats official. “Which way do I go?” Minor asked, surveying the field. He was trying out for quarterback, a position he last played 10 years ago for Gallatin High School.
If many participants lacked a clear picture of what the afternoon would bring, few seemed to appreciate the rigorous demands of arena ball, in which most positions are required to play both offense and defense without a break.
“Honestly, this is a lot more physical than 11-man football,” said Mose Phillips, who should know. He’s a member of the Arena Football League’s Portland Forest Dragons.
Phillips showed up Friday, not to work out but to watch Davis, a former UT teammate, as well as friends Newman Hawkins and Vince Carter, attempt to earn a place with the Kats. “I told them,” he said, “you’ve got to be in better shape to play this game [than to play traditional football].”
The standards for speed and agility for arena football are so high, in fact, that only a tiny handful of the contenders even merited a second look from the coaches. “These guys are not slouches by any means,” said Kats VP Denny Petro (though he perhaps was unaware that several failed to run a 40-yard dash in less than a glacial seven seconds). “But my experience with tryout camps is that out of every 120 guys, there are maybe three with potential.”
After the backs and receivers were timed twice in the 40, completed standing long jumps, finished short shuttle sprints between yard lines, ran a few routes, and caught some passes, about 15 were asked to stay longer. Keith Booker, a decade removed from football, was not among those who made this initial cut. Neither was Tim Minor. Nor Donnie Watson, who let out a loud roar as he finished his 40-yard-dash.
Only one of the 327 hopefuls earned a job Friday: Bill Rutledge, who played collegiately at Memphis and impressed the coaches with his 4.3 speed and his catching ability. Four or five others will be invited in for another look after the team opens training camp this week.
With almost all of their roster already full, why would the Kats even bother holding open tryouts? “A lot of people say it’s a PR thing or a big money-maker,” says offensive coordinator Jay Gruden, one of the league’s top QBs until his retirement last year. “But if we just wanted to make money, we’d charge a lot more. (Most teams impose $75-$100 tryout fees.)
“There are some darn good ballplayers in this area, and most of them don’t have any videotape of themselves. We wanted a look at guys we hadn’t seen.”
The prospects of unearthing a diamond, Gruden admits, are slim. But he says the search is fun.
“After all,” says Gruden, “you can’t just go up to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and work out. I know. I tried for three years. There aren’t many chances like this. When you can get a workout by a pro team, you might as well take advantage of it.”
In spite of the odds against them, most of the would-be players echoed that sentiment. When Minor heard about the tryout, he knew he had to come. “I figured that I never went any farther than high school,” he explained. “Now I could at least say I tried.”