“And then Jamie shows up and starts making me feel like I could be a special player again. I knew this was my chance for closure to a career that didn’t end the way I wanted. I knew it might be my only chance. I know most us felt the same way.”
Everyone who paid his $175 team fee and showed up was trying to reconcile an unfulfilled athletic past with a 9-to-5, monotonous present. But what no one on the ragtag Generals would have believed was that an NFL legend would join them — a player who had the most to lose, and the most to gain.
Millions around the world will watch the Super Bowl this Sunday in Indianapolis. Millions more will bet on it. An annual rite of America’s self-indulgent sporting excess, it’s a big story. But this is a better one.
“It was one hell of a run,” owner Hal James says.
Many of the Generals began with calisthenics and jumping jacks in cutoff jeans that first day of practice at St. Clair Brooks Park on the banks of the Rappahannock River. There were fights those first days. There was aggression and anger. A lot of the players had chips on their shoulders after years of feeling passed over.
They worked out in spartan conditions befitting most burgeoning minor league football teams. They had no genuine football pants. No stadium. No bleachers. King loved to say the Generals’ first games were played before “standing-room-only crowds,” because “there was nowhere to sit.”
The away games were no grander. The low-rent bus trips to Arbutus; Dover, Del.; and through the backwoods of Virginia sometimes took seven hours round trip and were populated with perspiring men of up to 350 pounds. But within weeks, the team bonded over one more chance to play the game.
The goals that first season were modest: to establish a core group of players to build on, develop the right individuals to win with and, most important, not fold the franchise before the last game of the first season.
The Generals finished a respectable 7-6 in 1994. King had to play quarterback in one loss, and it was clear they needed depth at several positions to contend for the league title the following season. But business wasn’t as bad as everyone had feared. Hal James, his wife and Jamie began getting sponsors more interested around town.
When the Generals struck a deal with the city to use old Maury Stadium, the home field of James Monroe High School, a buzz began. They got a team dentist and a team chiropractor. On Wednesday nights, King had talked Damon’s the Place for Ribs into hosting a coach’s show on a community-access cable channel.