Linebackers Like Us

Written by M.V. Moorhead Category: Features Issue: March 2014

Absent seven-figure salaries and rich endorsement deals, members of the champion Arizona Rattlers hold offseason jobs as they seek a third straight ArenaBowl championship.

0 Days without Mayhem.

So says the sign beside the door.

When you walk into the quiet, tidy office in northeast Phoenix, you don't see any immediate sign of mayhem. It's an Allstate insurance agency, you see, and the ominous phrase is a reference to the company's well-known ad campaign featuring "Mayhem" allegorically personified. But if any literal mayhem were to go down, the agents in the front two cubicles look more than prepared to deal with it. Even, perhaps, to wreak a little of their own.

"First time in my life I've ever had my own space," says the mountainous fellow in one of the cubicles, his desk dense with totems and curios ranging from a teddy bear to a "money tiki" to a zombie figurine with a screwdriver jutting from one eye socket. "Other than a locker," he adds.

Anttaj Hawthorne started with Allstate in October of last year, but in another compartment of his life, he's a professional football player, the starting nose tackle for the Arizona Rattlers, the defending champions of the Arena Football League. But even during the AFL's March-to-August, 18-game regular season and two-game playoffs, Hawthorne spends his days, after practice, selling insurance. It's work the six-year AFL veteran enjoys. "Interacting with people, being able to help people, comfort them in their time of need. We get people who call us at a difficult time in their lives, and it gives me a sense of satisfaction when I think I could make them crack a smile for a second."

The man in the neighboring cubicle agrees. "I like it a lot. It's a real challenge, and I like challenges."

This is Tyre Glasper, a middle linebacker for the Rattlers who started at Allstate two weeks after his friend Hawthorne. "Before that," recalls Glasper, "I was in a Verizon store."

Now the two spend their days selling property and casualty policies, furthering their training, and trading occasional easygoing quips and mild white-collar trash talk. As he chats, a woman approaches Hawthorne and hands him a slip of paper, saying "You two are very close together." Then she walks over and hands Glasper a similar slip.

Glasper studies the paper, then grudgingly calls over, "You got me by ten points. For now."

PHM0314RA02"Just our average scores," explains Hawthorne. "We're taking blackboard classes at Allstate University, and we're always competitive."

Hawthorne previously worked as an armed guard at concerts and stores, and had cut custom stovetops and other surfaces for Stainless Steel Concepts in the East Valley. But, as he notes, "It's hard to find a career that allows you to keep your job during the season." He got his break in the insurance business on the recommendation of an acquaintance of the agency's owner, a Rattlers fan who became a friend.

"My fans and friends," he observes, "Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference between the two."

It's also hard to imagine an NFL or Major League Baseball player saying that – or saying it sincerely, anyway. But the Rattlers – pound for pound, the winningest pro sports team in the Valley, with back-to-back ArenaBowl titles in 2012 and 2013 (plus national championships in 1994 and 1997) – are different. As Shakespeare's Henry V might put it, the team is composed of "warriors for the working day," professional-grade football players who wear other hats away from the AFL's walled and truncated indoor gridiron. People who love to bellyache about athletes being overpaid have nothing to say about the AFL – after all, most players hold day jobs to make ends meet. They play not for riches, but for pleasure. Camaraderie. The thrill of bone-crushing hits. And, sometimes, their shared childhood dream of making it to the NFL.

Working Warriors
While experiments with indoor football go back at least as far as the 1930s, the AFL, according to its website, proudly dates its genesis to February 11, 1981. That evening, an NFL executive named James Foster passed the time at an indoor soccer game at Madison Square Garden by sketching, on an envelope, a gridiron that would conform exactly to the dimensions of a hockey rink, and jotting down a list of rules.

Thus was Arena Football conceived. But with the exception of a few test games, it wouldn't be delivered until 1987, with a four-team league and a six-game season. The Denver Dynamite won the first ArenaBowl that year. Though there are other indoor leagues, the AFL, now encompassing 14 teams, is a wholly-owned game. Foster obtained a patent for his variations – including the league's stubby 50-yard field, Kate Moss-slim goal posts and eight-man units – in 1990.

Foster's trademarked alterations to the game were designed to enhance scoring (see sidebar) and remove the ball-control strategies of classic football. There's no punting, for instance, because of the shorter field, and no sidelines, either – there's just a wall, with the fans immediately on the other side, as in hockey.

Who are the men who play this game? Well, here's who they aren't: They aren't – as is sometimes supposed by those unfamiliar with the sport – hacks, or wannabes, or gifted amateurs. They're elite college players who, for one circumstance or another, were either passed over by the NFL, or, in some cases, made it to the NFL but didn't stay there long. A few AFL players have gone on to successful stints in the NFL, including former Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner. Others land in the Canadian Football League, most recently Calgary Stampeders quarterback Adrian McPherson, who played his 2013 season with the AFL's Tampa Bay Storm.

Nose tackle Hawthorne is a former NFL player. After four years at the University of Wisconsin, the New Haven, Conn., native was a sixth-round draft pick of the Oakland Raiders, and spent the 2005 and 2006 seasons with them. He also spent a season with the now-defunct NFL Europe, playing for the Frankfurt Galaxy.

"Germany was great," Hawthorne, now 32, recalls. "I loved the culture, they had a great fan base, the food was great, and everywhere we went we traveled by train, so we really got to see the country. And we won a championship out there, so that was wonderful." His international career continued last November, when he represented the Rattlers in a well-received Arena Football All-Star game played in Beijing, China.

Linebacker Glasper shares a more rueful story. A native of Detroit, he attended North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University – not a football powerhouse, but a Division I school with a solid academic reputation. "I was scouted by them," he says. "It was kind of a last resort."

Glasper had shown promise at Detroit sports powerhouse Martin Luther King Jr. Senior High, but "bad decisions" and slipping grades scared off top programs, including the University of Michigan. This was hard not only on Glasper but on his father. "He's my number one fan, critic, everything," he says. "He played at King, my high school. It kind of broke his heart when I messed up, but that's what pushed me." He says that his experience has served as a cautionary tale for his younger brother ("He's very good at football") and his cousins.

PHM0314RA03Like Hawthorne and Glasper, Marcus Pittman works at a desk. Between practices and games as a run-stopping defensive lineman for the Rattlers, "I do process paperwork for American Contractor Licensing Services," says the North Carolina native and father of two. The firm, which specializes in licensing, bonding and insuring contractors, is housed in the unprepossessing building nicknamed the "Little House on the Freeway" – that is, on the east side access road to the I-17 between Bethany Home and Glendale avenues.

"I also had a job setting up corporate housing," says Pittman, who played at Troy University in Alabama and once went to camp with the New Orleans Saints. Among the out-of-town businesspeople staying in the Valley for which he would arrange long-term temporary residences, Pittman had a ready-made client pool: "I'd set up housing for my teammates."

During the Rattlers season, however, this proves a day job too many: "During the season, I just work the contracting job."

Then there's the Rattler who shared his cubicle with a scorpion.

It sounds like a fable by some postmodern Aesop, but it's a true story. On the desk a few feet from where Rattlers backup quarterback Jason Murrietta ("I was in about six games last season") conducts his day job, a brownish-yellow scorpion crawls around in a terrarium, amongst the husks of the crickets he's been given to dine on and the toy elephant and hippo he's been given for company.

Anywhere else, this mascot might suggest a taste for the macabre, but in this office, not so much. Murrietta has done sales for Burns Pest Elimination for the past few years – a plaque commending him on "1 Outstanding Year of Service, 2011" is displayed where the scorpion can see it. He also works through the Arena Football season, only adjusting his hours for the sake of practices.

A native of Glendale, Murrietta initially envisioned himself as a hockey player, but he played football for Ironwood High School and got a full ride to Northern Arizona University, where over his four years he set the school's record for touchdown passes. He too had dreams of the NFL, but went undrafted.

"Just a low-level type guy from NAU," he says with a sigh. "Didn't get seen a lot."

He did get seen by the AFL, however, and after stints with the Spokane Shock and Fresno's Central Valley Coyotes, he landed back home with the Rattlers in 2012. His family reflects his local roots as well – his wife Summer, a labor and delivery nurse, was his high school sweetheart. The two have a young son, Landon.

"You can hear them running around?" asks Murrietta over the phone, as he sets up service for a customer complaining of rodents. "Have you seen fecal matter? Have you seen anything at all?" He quotes a price, then offers a little discount.

Faster. Cheaper. Pointsier.
Not all of the Rattlers are daytime desk jockeys. Kerry Reed drives a truck.

Since training as a driver late last year, the wide receiver and jack linebacker – he plays both sides of the ball, like an NFL multitasker of yesteryear – has hauled loads for Omni Duct, a maker of HVAC ducts with a facility in Chandler. The work isn't just piloting a rig – Reed is also assigned as a warehouse "picker," locating and loading the proper parts to fill an order.

The gig doesn't take Reed – who went undrafted after his college ball days at Michigan State but later played for the Miami Dolphins – too far from his base of football operations, however. "Nothing out of state," he notes. "I like it. It's good."

The job also appeals to Reed's physical side, which is also why he likes the visceral hits and confined-space tempo of Arena Football. "The thing I do like about it is, it's a high-scoring game," the receiver-slash-linebacker says. "The fans are right there, so that's very exciting."

The Rattlers debuted as an Arena Football League expansion team in 1992, with former ASU and Dallas Cowboys star Danny White as head coach. Playing at then-America West Arena (now US Airways Center), the team quickly graduated from novelty act to a full-fledged pro sports institution, according to KTAR sports-talk host Dave Burns. Accustomed to the more spacious, leisurely pace of NFL games, the crowds were electrified by the machine-gun scoring and sight of players spilling over the boards into the seats. If an errant pass sails into the stands, fans are allowed to keep it, à la Major League Baseball.

"The closeness, physically, when you go to the games, is part of the appeal," Burns says. "You truly feel like you're almost part of it, and in a way, you are."

"It's definitely a fan-friendly sport," Hawthorne agrees. "You're right there. Sometimes you catch a ball, sometimes you catch a player."

Another part of the AFL's appeal, says Burns: "Is just the price point. The NFL is expensive. It's also important for guys like my dad, who have this year-round craving for football that no other sport can satisfy. It's a great outlet for that."

Despite the AFL's end-user affordability – and, partly, because of it – the league has a rocky financial history, shedding underperforming franchises on a near-yearly basis and replacing them with expansion teams. (To wit: Los Angeles has had three separate franchises in the league's 27-year history, including the newly-hatched Los Angeles Kiss, which begins play in 2014.) Prior to a corporate restructuring, the AFL canceled its entire 2009 season, re-launching the following year with drastically reduced player salaries. According to ESPN The Magazine, the average salary for an Arena League player was $85,000 in 2007. Today, veteran players make $830 per game, or $14,940 for an 18-game season. Not a princely figure, but a vast improvement over the $400 game checks paid out in 2010 before the league and the Arena Football League Players Union signed their current collective bargaining agreement.

Arena League careers, like those in the NFL, can be breathtakingly brief. The average, oft-quoted duration of an NFL career is 3.2 years. No such data exist for the AFL, but players and pundits alike believe the arena game is more brutal on the body than conventional football. And arena veterans are less likely to have a big nest egg to sustain them in the event of a career-ending injury.

"I'd say [the arena game] is more dangerous, way more dangerous," says Hawthorne, the former Raider. "It's a pine floor with a rug on it. They got rid of the Astroturf we play on in the NFL because they said it was too dangerous. But we still play on it. Then you got the wall that's four feet high, and that wall is unforgiving."

PHM0314RA04

From left: Quarterback Jason Murrietta; Defensive lineman Marcus Pittman

Taking a Knee
It's hard to imagine that the wants and desires of at least some Arena Football players don't include somehow finding their way (or their way back) to the NFL. Several players have made that jump – most famously, Kurt Warner, who led the Arizona Cardinals to their only Super Bowl appearance to date in 2009. Before making his NFL debut with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1998, Warner starred for the Iowa Barnstormers in the AFL.

But the Arena-to-NFL path is rare, and many of the players keep hitting the turf not in hopes of fame and fortune but for love of the game.

"The relationships you form," says quarterback Murrietta, are what he likes about the AFL. And then he adds, simply, "Winning ArenaBowls."

Although Murrietta, like the other Rattlers, says he enjoys his non-football job, and trades affectionate quips with his coworkers lunching nearby, he's nonetheless in the last few days of talking about rat dung and inspecting for termites. And he's unmistakably excited about the job he's soon to start: football scout for the National Collegiate Scouting Association, a Chicago-based online recruiting resource for college coaches and high school prospects.

"We do all high school sports, anything that has a scholarship attached to it," Murrietta says. "But I strictly talk to football players... I think the most important thing is just to maximize the opportunities for these high school athletes. To make their wants and desires come true."

Truck driver Reed also has an eye toward the next generation of players, coaching area high school and middle school hopefuls in the fine art of the pigskin. "I try to do roughly five or six kids, because I want to be hands-on with each kid. So I keep it a small group," he says of the sessions, which he holds at a park near his home. "I'm just trying to pass on my knowledge of the game."

During the AFL season, Reed will take a break from driving the truck, but he'll continue with the private coaching. That these tutorials can carry on at any time of the year in sunny Arizona is among Reed's favorite things about being a Rattler, rather than toiling elsewhere in the Arena Football universe – for, say, the
Pittsburgh Prowlers.

While Murrietta's and Reed's current activities suggest a commitment to a career in football, some of the other players seem intrigued by the possibilities of their post-football lives. Of coaching, Hawthorne says, "That's always an option. But right now, I'm focused on my insurance career."

"Long-term, I'd like to go back to school for engineering," Pittman says. By long-term, he means, "I plan to go back after this year."

Glasper, who majored in communications at North Carolina A & T, is interested in broadcasting, though not necessarily in the on-camera side of it. "I interned at the Fox Channel in Greensboro, and I fell in love with the behind-the-scenes part of it. The first time there's a story on that you edited, you say, 'That's my baby.'"

Until these career crossroads are reached, the Rattlers seem determined to keep seeking glory, and fun, on the artificial playing surface of US Airways Center. They believe the team's stock is rising among Valley sports fans, especially with its success over the last couple of years. In 2013, the Rattlers averaged close to 9,000 fans a game – about the same as the Phoenix Mercury and only 3,000 less than the major-sports franchise Phoenix Coyotes.

Though Arena League attendance numbers are down across the board since the sport's heyday in the mid-'90s, players and fans alike are encouraged by recent improvements in the league's fortunes, including a recently-signed TV contract with ESPN that will bring 12 games into American households during the 2014 season, which begins in late March.

For what it's worth, Rattlers players have also noticed an increase in expressions of recognition when they're out in public here in the Valley.

"When I first got here, it was like, 'Who are the Rattlers?'" Pittman says. "Then after the first championship, more people recognized us, and after the second championship, that turned the tide. Happens all the time. Especially if I wear a Rattlers shirt."

Hawthorne agrees. "Back in 2010, we'd be in the airport, and people would wonder who we were. Now they say, 'That's the Rattlers.'"

AFL vs. NFL

 

Size of field
NFL: 53.33 yards x 100 yards
AFL: 85 feet x 50 yards

Width of goal posts
NFL: 18.5 feet
AFL: 9 feet

Average points scored per game (2013)
NFL: 46.8
AFL: 105.03

Number of touchdowns thrown in 2013 by...
Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer: 24
Arizona Rattlers quarterback Nick Davila: 110

Average annual player salary (2013)
NFL: $1.9 million
AFL: >$20K

Sidelines?
NFL: Yes
AFL: No

In Arena Football, quarterbacks may legally complete passes to receivers by ricocheting the ball off inanimate objects.
In the NFL, quarterbacks may not do this.

Rattlers to Watch
The Arizona Rattlers netted their second consecutive ArenaBowl championship – and fourth overall in the 22-year history of the franchise – by defeating the Philadelphia Soul by a score of 48-39 in ArenaBowl XXVI. Their chances for a three-peat hinge on these players.

QB Nick Davila: The sixth-year signal-caller racked up a league second-best 4,847 passing yards in 2013 and became the first quarterback in AFL history to win consecutive ArenaBowls.

RB Odie Armstrong: In the pass-dominated AFL, running backs are typically relegated to short-yardage, battering-ram duties. That was the case for this Northwest Oklahoma State product, and boy was he good at it: 25 TDs on only 72 carries (171 yards).

DB Virgil Gray: The Rhode Island-educated defensive back led the Rattlers with 93 tackles and tied for the league lead with 15 interceptions, part of a suffocating secondary that also includes cornerback Marquis Floyd.