The Quality Inn hotel room in College Park that Jeff Blankenship calls home for the eight-week Arena Football League season is strewn with clothes and trash. The cleaning person took the trash can earlier in the week and hasn't brought it back.
Luckily, the Washington Commandos, Blankenship's team, pays for the room, because his $400 a week salary doesn't go very far. Especially when the check is late, as it usually is.
There is little glory involved in being an Arena football player. As the Commandos struggle to find their niche in the Washington sports scene -- the team is last in the six-team league in average attendance -- players such as Blankenship, a rookie from Furman University, are struggling to make a name for themselves.
Most of the players hope to use the season as a springboard to bigger and better things. Blankenship, the Commandos' leading rusher and tackler (Arenaball players must play both offense and defense), plans to try out for the new World Football League, which kicks off in the spring. The pay will be better -- and, hopefully, on time -- and it will give him a chance to visit Europe. That thought, and a love for the game, keeps him a Commando.
The week between the Commandos' 50-19 win over Albany and their 49-38 loss to Dallas earlier this month is a typical one, from the partying to the practicing, and the shuffling from the hotel to the team's practice field at St. Anselm's School to Patriot Center, where the team practices on Thursday and Friday and plays its home games.
Blankenship sleeps late the morning after the Albany game, nursing a huge bruise on his left calf. "I got that bruise on the last play of the game. What luck," he says.
The day after the game is light and laid-back, but it is not an off day. The team van leaves the hotel for a 4 p.m. practice at St. Anselm's. For the first hour or so, the receivers and quarterbacks watch films while the linemen and running backs-linebackers go through a light workout. Then they switch.
The films of the Albany game are flattering for the Commandos, who played by far their best game of the year. "But you can still learn a lot from them," says Blankenship. "There are always areas you can work on. For the receivers, they can watch which of their routes didn't work. For me, I can watch the angles I used to cut when I was running."
At night, Blankenship and several teammates head to one of their favorite nightspots, Winston's in Georgetown, where five of the players are celebrity pourers for a wet T-shirt contest. The Commandos' nightlife status is rising.
This is the team's off's day, but Blankenship gets up early for treatment at St. Anselm's at 8 a.m. The rest of the day is spent relaxing.
"You get so worn out," says Blankenship, "not only physically but mentally as well."
Most of the players hang out by the hotel pool or visit each other's rooms and watch television. There is always a gin rummy game going. Others spend the afternoon shopping around the College Park area or taking a road trip. A few players take off for Baltimore to the Inner Harbor.
Blankenship gets up at 8:30 for a workout in the University of Maryland weight room at 9. The players work out on their own schedule, but they are encouraged to lift twice a week. He works out for a couple of hours, catches a bite to eat and relaxes. Practice is at 1:45 today.
The van leaves for St. Anselm's at about 1. Today's practice is full contact. But first there is a team meeting and the coaches go through the tapes of the Albany game. After practice, the players are put through a series of conditioning drills.
"I believe you don't win games on just Saturday. You win it by what you do all week, how hard you work in practice. After our loss to Pittsburgh, we just got mad. We decided to increase our intensity a step, and it started in practice."
Now that he knows what it feels like to spend a week after a win, Blankenship says it's much better. "It's more exciting. People aren't moping around the place. We still hang out and have a good time and all that, but we're talking about what's coming up rather than what happened."
The players are supposed to be paid today -- their contracts stipulate they will be paid 72 hours after a game -- but the checks aren't there.
Coach Mike Hohensee moved practice up to 7 this morning because of the heat, so Blankenship gets up at 5:45 on the Fourth of July. The van leaves for St. Anselm's at 6. "Most of the guys just roll out of bed, put on a hat and get on the bus."
After practice, "everyone just disappeared." Those whose families lived nearby went home for the holiday. Blankenship stays by the hotel pool with teammates Chuck Harris, Jeff Garneca, Dan Plocki, Tony Burris and Pat Cain. Hohensee, who also lives at the hotel, is there as well.
At night, Blankenship and several others go to Winston's. Tonight they are celebrity judges for a bikini contest.
The checks didn't come again.
After a strenuous night of bikini-judging, Blankenship sleeps late. The team leaves for St. Anselm's at 12:30 to watch films of the Dallas Texans, Saturday night's opponent.
At 2:30, the team moves to Patriot Center for the last full-contact practice before the game. Some of the players have to use their own cars to shuttle back and forth because the team has only one van and there are 23 players, not to mention coaches, trainers and equipment. Blankenship catches a ride with Plocki.
The practice is good, but 2 1/2 hours long. "It's a more intense practice this close to the game. And it's more mental -- we want to make sure we've got everything down."
Nobody goes out tonight for very long. Blankenship, in fact, stays in his room and watched movies. "Ideally, you don't want to do too much this close to the game."
Still no sign of the paychecks.
Blankenship is up at 10, and he and some teammates head for Big Boy to wreck the breakfast bar. It costs $3.99. "We get our money's worth."
The afternoon turns out to be a disaster. At 11, equipment manager John Laske recruits Blankenship and James Lott, a newcomer to the team, to ride with him to a rental car office to pick up a couple of vans for the Texans to use over the weekend. Laske drops off the two players and tells them a Commandos' front-office representative will come by with a check any minute to pay for the vans.
An hour later, Blankenship and Lott are still waiting, stranded. Practice was supposed to start at 12:30 at St. Anselm's, but their chances of making it on time are getting slim. Finally, at around 1, Dee Johnston, the assistant general manager shows up with a check for the vans. Blankenship and Lott each drive a van to the hotel, change clothes and drive the vans to St. Anselm's.
Everyone but the coaches have left for Patriot Center for a run-through practice, so Blankenship and Lott get back in the rented vans and make the 45-minute drive to Fairfax.
At Patriot Center, the players run through some plays. There is no contact, but it is another long practice.
Back at the hotel, it's a quiet evening as everyone gets mentally prepared for the game. The checks still have not come.
The checks arrive in the morning, and as soon as the players get them in their hands, the van goes straight to the bank.
The pre-game meal is at 4 at Big Boy. It's paid for by the team -- the only freebie of the week. By 5:45 the team is at Patriot Center, preparing for the Texans.
The game begins at 8, and the Commandos start with a bang, taking a 27-3 lead in the second quarter. But Dallas scores 32 straight points in the second half and wins, 49-38. That's the toughest way to lose. Blankenship fares well, scoring two touchdowns and playing solid defense. But it was not a good game for the Commandos (2-4), whose playoff hopes take a nose dive.
Fittingly, a crazy game ends this crazy week. After the game, the team slumps back to the hotel to start all over again.