Last fall, Erik Meyer wondered if he would ever play professional football again. He had once been an Arena Football League journeyman, but as the league sputtered last year, so did Meyer’s career prospects. The 34-year-old quarterback returned to California and coached football at a high school, keeping himself in shape just in case he ever got another call to play.
That chance arrived this winter, when the expansion Washington Valor acquired Meyer to not only help lead its offense, but also to serve as one of the faces of a new franchise that hopes to become a sustainable future model for a downsized league.
When the Valor meets the expansion Baltimore Brigade at Verizon Center on Friday night, the game will feature two new franchises owned by Ted Leonsis, the CEO of Monumental Sports and Entertainment. Aside from owning the Washington Wizards of the NBA, the Washington Capitals of the NHL and the Washington Mystics of the WNBA, Leonsis is trying to bolster the dwindling Arena Football League. The AFL has just five teams after enduring a tumultuous period last fall, in which three teams ceased operations and another two left to join other indoor football leagues.
Friday night’s game will feature a cast of characters who have witnessed the AFL’s rise in the early 2000s and its subsequent decline, including Valor Coach Dean Cokinos, who has spent more than a decade coaching in the league. It also will include Meyer, who has spent six previous seasons playing in the AFL and was the league’s MVP with the Spokane Shock in 2013. Just two years after that pinnacle achievement, he watched the Shock rebrand itself the Spokane Empire and leave the AFL for the Indoor Football League.
“That’s what we’re trying to get back, as far as players, coaches and owners, we want this thing back the way it used to be,” said Meyer, who played college football at Eastern Washington and last played in the AFL in 2015 with the San Jose SaberCats, which also ceased operations later that year. “I know there’s a vision for these owners and where they’re trying to go, and there’s a vision for these players where this league is trying to go.”
That vision, according to Cokinos, begins with strong ownership. Three of the AFL teams he previously served as a head coach for — the Alabama Vipers, Georgia Force and New Orleans VooDoo — no longer exist. Like Meyer, there was a point in Cokinos’s career where he thought he might not become a head coach again in the league he loves. But even as he was hired to take over the Valor last spring, a few months before the AFL continued to encounter upheaval, he saw an opportunity to be a part of a revival effort because of the ownership groups of the five teams.
Aside from Monumental Sports and Entertainment’s backing of the Valor and Brigade, the latter of which will make its home at Royal Farms Arena in Baltimore, the core of the league has owners with successful franchises in the NBA and NHL. That includes the Cleveland Gladiators’ owner, Dan Gilbert, who also owns the Cleveland Cavaliers of the NBA, and Tampa Bay Storm owner Jeffrey Vinik, who owns the Tampa Bay Lightning of the NHL.
“It is about the fans, the community. It’s a fan-friendly sport . . . we have ownership with Monumental, and you have the Verizon Center, and you have the backing, you have the group in Cleveland that own the Cavaliers, and in Tampa, who own the Lightning. If you keep expanding with those type of ownerships, you can create a pretty special league,” Cokinos said.
Cokinos has had to wear many hats since being hired last spring. Aside from working his Rolodex to bring in more than 30 players to training camp, he has also had to help market the new franchise in the Washington area and help organize his staff as well as housing and travel for his players.
“We get to change the direction of this model. We have an opportunity now, in the image of Monumental Sports . . . the vision of what the Arena League was before and where we can take it is totally different,” Cokinos said. “That’s the exciting part of it. The goal is to grow this league into the long term.”
The Valor will play a 13-game schedule, from early April to early August, rotating games against Baltimore, Philadelphia, Cleveland and Tampa Bay. That should give area fans ample opportunity to become familiar with a new brand of football in the area, according to former Washington Redskins wide receiver Santana Moss, who will serve as the color commentator for Monumental Sports Network’s broadcasts of Valor games.
This will be a fresh challenge for Moss, too. He has spent the past few weeks immersing himself in the different rules and styles of play of indoor football in preparation to provide insight for fans who might not know what to expect from the District’s new sports franchise.
“I want to see this league around for more years to come. I’ve known this league to be a big league,” Moss said. “I’m hoping this year can bring that buzz back and they can get some more teams added again.”