The dreamers all checked in early. They dropped their highlight-reel DVDs into a cardboard box near the stadium entrance and paid the $60 registration fee before spreading across the field to stretch. They’d played football at all levels — high school, college, even the NFL — and on a pleasant day in suburban Cleveland, they filled a random assortment of cleats, gym shorts and T-shirts that featured a variety of logos: Delaware, Hampton, Baylor, Toledo, Old Navy.
Finally, each took a knee in front of the man who could change their lives.
“First, I would like to begin by saying that all of us who are here — coaches — are here with the idea that we’re going to find a number of players who can fulfill the dream I know you all have,” said Marty Schottenheimer. “And that’s to play professional football.”
The labor standoff between NFL owners and players has ground one pro football league to a halt, but it may provide some momentum for another. Schottenheimer was a head coach for 21 years in the NFL, including one with the Washington Redskins, but he’s in his first year in the United Football League, an operation that boasts only five teams and is set to begin its third season in August.
Schottenheimer was a relatively late hire for the Virginia Destroyers — he accepted the head coaching and general manager jobs in March — and as the team embarks on its first season in the Hampton Roads area, he’s working with a long to-do list. That’s what brought him earlier this month to Baldwin-Wallace College for an open tryout, looking to fill out a roster that he’ll take into training camp next month.
“This is not about one moment,” Schottenheimer told the attentive hopefuls in front of him. “It’s about a combination of what we see in the way you do it — what we see in how you work within the framework of the information that’s being given to you. You got to pay attention.”
While the NFL lockout hasn’t resulted in any giant increase in revenue for the UFL, it might ultimately provide a window of opportunity — for players looking for a place to play, for fans who want to watch pro football and for corporations and businesses looking for a sports partner. While Schottenheimer focuses on building his roster, at the league’s headquarters in Jacksonville, Fla., they’re monitoring the NFL lockout closely.
Are they cheering for a prolonged work outage? “Not openly,” Michael Huyghue, the league’s commissioner said with a slight grin.
“I’m sure there’s some that want to see it benefit our league,” he said. “I don’t think there’s cheerleading, but I don’t think everyone’s standing around rooting for a quick resolution either.”
Schottenheimer has little to say on the NFL’s labor problems. He hasn’t coached in the league since 2006. He was lured out of retirement by the UFL to lead a competitive franchise, and this tryout in Cleveland was an important step in the process.
“What I’m asking you to do very simply is this: Be yourself, bring energy, do the right thing, do it to the best of your ability and don’t get caught up in trying to evaluate yourself,” he told the group. “Leave that to us, the coaches. Is that understood? Very good. Now let’s turn this thing loose.”
Schottenheimer grabbed a stopwatch and began timing defensive backs and linebackers in the 40-yard dash. His own 40 time, he joked, could be measured with a sun dial.
At 67 years old, Schottenheimer was enjoying retirement. He spent his summers in Charlotte and winters in Palm Springs, Calif. He watched football on television and golfed four or five times a week. “I had no interest in getting back in coaching,” he said.
Life in football can be transient and after moving 26 times in 44 years of marriage, Schottenheimer and his wife, Pat, were enjoying a peaceful retirement. Until Huyghue called.
The UFL announced last June that Virginia Beach would be awarded an expansion franchise. In the months that followed, the owner pulled out, the general manager, former Redskins quarterback Doug Williams, decided to return to Grambling, his alma mater, and the Destroyers went through a pair of coaches.
Before even playing a game, the league assumed control of the team and had a long list of vacancies.
Huyghue knew he needed a big hire to restore some faith, so he called Schottenheimer and was promptly told that the coach was enjoying retirement.
But Huyghue flew to California and played 18 holes with Schottenheimer, telling him the league is focused on development and needs veteran coaches who consider themselves teachers first.
“With a coach like Marty, it’s already in their DNA,” Huyghue sad. “All I have to do is tweak the right buttons. There’s a force in them that wants to do it, so I just have to take away the things that shield it — like golf. Once you do that, it sells itself. It’s who they are.”
Sure enough, Schottenheimer thought about it for a few days and was encouraged by his family and his grandchildren, who have no vivid memories of him roaming a sideline. The UFL plays only an eight-game season, which is spread over the course of 10 weeks and ends in October. So the job isn’t as time-intensive as the NFL. Besides, while Schottenheimer enjoyed the golf course, it didn’t exactly fill the void left by football.
“Once you coach, it’s always there,” he said. “It’s always in you.”
Schottenheimer called Huyghue and took the job. It didn’t take long to realize how big a task he faced. The Destroyers technically relocated from Orlando, where they had played the previous two seasons as the Florida Tuskers. But Schottenheimer was charged with building the team from scratch.
“There are moments I say to myself, ‘Are you nuts?’ ” Schottenheimer said. “But I have fewer and fewer of those the further along we go.”
He inherited some players who played in Orlando last season but needs to sign 70 for the start of training camp. He’ll have 52 players available to him for the Week 1 roster in September.
In Cleveland, more than 120 hopefuls showed up, each looking to catch the coach’s eye and each knowing that only one or two players would be invited to Virginia Beach.
Terry Shea, the Destroyers’ offensive coordinator, has been coaching in the professional and collegiate ranks for more than 40 years. And he knows an athlete when he sees one. At the tryout, he made a beeline to Schottenheimer when he thought he spotted one in the tight end group.
“Coach, this young man right here, when he comes out of the break, boy — just watch him,” Shea said.
“Oh, I know,” Schottenheimer replied. “I’ve been watching him the past 10 minutes.”
The tight end’s name was Louis Irizarry and Schottenheimer pulled him aside. Where’d you go to school? How big are you? How old?
Schottenheimer believes talent can be found anywhere. At the tight end spot, he found perhaps his biggest hidden gem not long ago — Antonio Gates, an undrafted rookie who played college basketball and has appeared in seven NFL Pro Bowls.
Irizarry is 26 years old and has a similar build as Gates.
“What would you say your strengths are?” Schottenheimer asked.
“What do you attribute it to?”
“I don’t know,” Irizarry told him, “but I know I just want to throw the guy down, just kill the opponent when I’m out there.”
Irizarry learned about the tryout on the Internet. He woke up at 6 that morning and made the drive from his home in Youngstown, Ohio. He’d attended Ohio State on a scholarship for a year before transferring to Youngstown State. Even though he never got much of a sniff from the NFL, he can’t let go of his dream. He works part-time in a Sears warehouse in Youngstown to make ends meet and spends his free time in a gym.
“You always hear about guys who were bagging groceries one day, just waiting for their shot, right? he said. “Well, I’m hoping this is my shot.”
Schottenheimer complimented him, and Irizarry’s smile stretched nearly from shoulder to shoulder. “It’s an honor to hear that, sir,” he said.
“Well, there’s a reason you’re here.”
In the UFL’s first two seasons, more than 100 players have made the jump to the NFL, as well as 18 UFL coaches and seven front-office people.
Players have taken notice. Some free agents who normally would’ve signed with NFL teams and banked on earning a roster spot in offseason workouts or in training camp have gravitated toward the UFL, which is expected to pay most players around $40,000 for the complete eight-game season.
It wasn’t the money that attracted Dexter Jackson, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ second-round draft pick in 2008. He struggled as a young player and was released by the Carolina Panthers last August. He spent the 2010 season unemployed, going to NFL tryouts and waiting for the phone to ring.
With no certain start to the 2011 NFL season, Jackson figured the UFL was the better opportunity for the immediate future and signed a free agent contract with the Destroyers last month rather than wait for an invite to an NFL training camp, which may not even occur.
“This is a steppingstone to get back to my dream,” he said. “Without this outlet, it’d be a lot harder for me to wait for the lockout [to end] and then hope a team is interested. This way, I can play eight games, put some stuff on film, show people what I can do and then we’ll see how things look when the season is finished in November.”
Pro sports teams have flirted with Virginia Beach many times. Sports fans in the area are passionate and were eager to land the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets, baseball’s Montreal Expos and the NHL expansion team that would become the Nashville Predators. So when the UFL announced plans for a team a year ago, the Destroyers realized they were courting a reluctant community that had been left at the altar before.
“Overcoming the skeptics has probably been one of the hardest things we’ve had to deal with,” said John Castleberry, a longtime sportscaster in the area who serves as the Destroyers’ vice president in charge of sales and marketing.
Complicating matters was the team’s personnel shuffle and the Destroyers’ inability to lock down a head coach until March. Plus, the UFL’s schedule wasn’t announced until earlier this week, which meant the team had to wait to sell season tickets. Still, it has a fan club that already numbers more than 2,000, and a couple of local corporate sponsors have signed on.
Huyghue, the league commissioner, said the sales numbers are “never what you’d like, but people do a little bit of wait-and-see. They want to see what we’re about.”
The longer the NFL’s labor crisis drags on, the more of an opportunity the Destroyers and the entire UFL will have to introduce themselves to fans who are starved for football. But the lockout has also hampered some progress. The league has been unable to nail down a television deal, and many sponsors are hesitant to hand over money until they know what their NFL commitment might look like.
“If we play for a while while the NFL is dark, more people looking for football are going to discover us,” Huyghue said. “I don’t think it’ll be a huge impact, but I do think it has the potential to grow our brand and increase our audience.”
For some fans, the UFL is an alternative to the NFL. For others, it’s simply a complementary league. The five teams were planted in the cracks on the football map between existing NFL franchises — in Omaha, Neb.; Las Vegas; Hartford, Conn.; and Sacramento. Football fans in Virginia Beach have to drive nearly four hours to attend an NFL game.
Joe Ziegengeist, 22, is a Redskins’ season ticket holder who plans to also pick up Destroyers tickets. “I eat, sleep and breathe the Redskins,” he said. “But for me, as long as when I go to the Destroyers games, as long as the quality of football played is up to my expectations — especially with the lockout — it could a big thing.”
When the tryout concluded, the dreamers reconvened at midfield, again taking a knee and again swallowing whole every word from the coach in front of them.
“I tell you what, nothing in the world short of having children, to me, matches what goes on when guys get together, push one another, and all of a sudden, you come to this environment and you’re all at ground zero,” Schottenheimer told them. “You’re all in the same place.”
The dreamers soaked up every word and when it was finished, many approached Schottenheimer, simply to shake his hand and say thanks.
“The thing you have to do is this, if you happen to be one of the chosen, you better pin your ears back and be ready to go to work,” the coach told the group. “It won’t be long before we’re playing games in the United Football League. If you don’t get the phone call, then you have to tell yourself, today wasn’t my day.
“But I still have the opportunity tomorrow to be everything I want to be.”