The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This linebacker broke his arm playing in the AAF. Three days later, the league folded.

The Alliance of American Football came to an abrupt end this week. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Gionni Paul woke up Thursday morning on a cot in his friend’s basement, in a swirl of pain and uncertainty. His right arm throbbed — it was held together by 15 screws and two metal plates, and to Paul it felt as if needles were shooting through it. His head spun — he planned to spend the day navigating workman’s compensation paperwork and filing for unemployment. His life paused — he had two kids, belongings split between Utah and Florida and no clue what comes next.

On Saturday, Paul had been a member of the Salt Lake Stallions of the Alliance of American Football, a 26-year-old linebacker taking one more run at an NFL career. By Thursday, he had joined the scores of players left blindsided and jobless by the sudden dissolution of the AAF, an eight-team minor league launched this year. The folding, two weeks before the scheduled end of the regular season, stunned AAF employees from coaches to players to trainers. Few felt the sting as uniquely as Paul.

In Salt Lake’s final game, while defending a pass during the first quarter, Paul broke two bones in his forearm. He underwent surgery Sunday morning. He had heard the rumors of trouble with the league’s finances and seen reports that AAF financier Tom Dundon felt he needed NFL Players Association cooperation for the league to survive, which Paul’s coaches dismissed as a negotiating gambit. Paul never expected what happened Tuesday, when the league informed employees it would halt operations. He would miss paychecks he was counting on. He would have to move out of the team hotel Wednesday morning. He would have to figure out how to pay for treatment on his broken arm.

The AAF didn't make it through its first season

Paul and several teammates found temporary refuge at the home of Trevor Reilly, a linebacker who spent four seasons in the NFL and, like Paul, played at the University of Utah and had hooked on with the Stallions.

“I’ve seen better days,” Paul said Thursday morning with a sardonic chuckle.

Paul is wearing an Aircast and has a follow-up appointment on his surgery scheduled for next week. Rich Ohrnberger, a former NFL offensive lineman and radio broadcaster for the San Diego Fleet, wrote Wednesday night on Twitter that injured players would be “out in the cold” to pay medical expenses.

That was as much as Paul had heard. He wasn’t certain how his rehab would unfold or how he would pay for it. Local fans had set up a GoFundMe page for him, and he was hopeful that would help. The worst part was not knowing.

“I haven’t heard anything,” Paul said. “That’s the scary part. Who’s going to do my therapy? Who’s going to pay for this? I got to be here for seven weeks to see a doctor. I got nowhere to stay. It’s a s---show."

The turmoil spread throughout the AAF, affecting players on the fringes of professional football who viewed the minor league as a lifeline. Taiwan Jones, a former Michigan State linebacker who had spent time with the New York Jets, left a job as an account executive for a mortgage company in Detroit in February to train for a tryout with the Memphis Express.

“I had some stability,” Jones said. “I thought I was going to get some more stability.”

After impressing Memphis officials in a workout, Jones signed a contract Monday at 9 p.m., envisioning a path back to the NFL. Before his first practice, while he was getting fitted for a helmet, a teammate informed him the league had shut down.

“I’m stuck in the hotel room like, man, is it not meant for me to play football?” Jones said.

Paul had taken a winding path to the AAF. He started his college career at Miami, near his Lakeland, Fla., home. He transferred to Utah. He caught on with the Cincinnati Bengals for training camp, got cut and landed in the Canadian Football League. He joined a club team in Russia, where he served as both a defensive coordinator and a player, making between $3,500 and $4,500. He felt comfortable overseas and figured he would start his coaching career there, but the AAF represented a chance to make an NFL roster.

Paul enjoyed playing in the AAF. “Good coaches,” he said. “Good competition. Good football.” His agent told him some NFL teams had been watching him and expressed interest. Then came a play late in the first quarter Saturday.

Playing in the middle of a cover-two zone, Paul dropped back to defend a tight end running down the seam. San Diego’s quarterback floated a pass. From behind the tight end, Salt Lake’s safety broke at full speed and clobbered both Paul and the tight end with a flying shoulder. The hit pinned Paul’s arm.

“My forearm went Jello,” Paul said. “I knew it was broken then. I went into shock. I started sweating. I’m the kind of person that’s got a high pain tolerance. I knew.”

Paul said he will wear a cast for eight weeks, then rehab for another month or two. He runs a small business called Athletes Paradise that involves taking athletes on retreats to work on their “mind, body and soul.” With a broken arm, he will be unable to work.

“This injury happened three days ago from playing in the AAF,” Paul said. “So it’s like a smack in our face. ‘Here’s some money for playing for us. Thank you. Use your own money to get your arm better.’ ”

Paul is still figuring out his next moves. He received his last paycheck Thursday morning, but he said the AAF still owes him and other players bonuses. He thinks his alma mater, the University of Utah, will provide resources to help his rehab. He wants to reboot Athletes Paradise once he heals. For now, he plans to explore his workman’s comp options, how to get on new insurance and whether he qualifies for unemployment.

“I got pins and screws in me,” Paul said. “I don’t know. It just sucks. It would be more helpful if I had two hands, if I was a little more healthy. I could go out and get what I want. Right now, I don’t know what’s next.”

The AAF experience has not soured him on professional football. He harbors hopes of landing in an NFL training camp this summer. If not, he wants to go into coaching. He loves the sport and wants to spend his life in it, no matter how cruel it has been to him in the past four days.

“I’m going to be the best defensive coordinator in the world one day,” Paul said.

He tried to keep his spirits up. In a phone conversation, he punctuated statements with both nervous sighs and resigned laughter. He expressed optimism that his arm will heal and things will work out, even if he wasn’t sure how.

“I’m trying,” Paul said. “That’s all you really can do.”

Tramel Raggs contributed to this story.

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