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Tuesday July 5 2022
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Trying Not to Belong

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It's a business. You hear it all the time in the NFL. And it’s true. It’s a billion dollar league with millionaire employees. You don’t have to search far for inspiration when the minimum salary for a rookie is $325,000. Make it through 10 years, and you’re guaranteed at least $860,000 a year.

If that can’t motivate a player, nothing can.

But what would the motivation be if the inflated salaries were taken out of the equation? What if the players, stars and reserves included, made only $400 a game, regardless of seniority?

What if you cut the field in half, added a wall that’s in play, and forbade punts?

Welcome to the Arena Football League, the new home for the Pittsburgh Power expansion team.

Before the AFL folded following the 2008 season, rookies made a minimum salary of about $40,000. A veteran with NFL experience made close to six-figures. Incentives and clauses were part of the gig, too. Not quite NFL money, but more than enough to survive and keep players motivated.

As the league re-establishes itself, the economic plan has changed. Now, standardized deals of $400 a game are handed out, no matter if you are a rookie lineman or a veteran quarterback. Incentives are no longer a part of contracts, either. The team can house and feed the players during the season, but not much else.

At this level, the inspiration isn’t as palpable from the outside. But from within, there is one main goal that drives every player.

“The motivation of the players is simple,” said Power head coach Chris Siegfried. “It’s another opportunity to be seen in a quality football atmosphere and get to a higher level. We are a great avenue for the players to get to those higher levels.”

In the hierarchy of professional football, the AFL would rank fourth behind the NFL, CFL and UFL. But they embrace that role.

“We recognize our place,” said Siegfried. “But playing Arena is far better than sitting on your butt at home just training. Players need to make sure the NFL knows that they are still playing.”

AFL rosters usually consist of, for lack of a better word, outcasts. Players who, for one reason or another, haven’t made it in the NFL. They lack size, attended a small school, have injury issues – the list goes on.

“There are just so many talented guys out there,” said Siegfried. “To make it in the NFL, you have to have a lot of things go your way.”

Power nose tackle Callahan Bright is a prime example of taking a different route to pro ball.

As a high school senior in Bryn Mawr, PA in 2005, Bright was a consensus national top 10 recruit. He committed to Florida State and was already considered NFL-caliber. Video exists of an 18-year-old Bright going head-to-head with offensive lineman Eugene Monroe, another star high school senior at the time. Bright dominated Monroe, tossing him aside like a rag doll.

Four years later, Monroe was drafted eighth overall by the Jaguars in the 2009 NFL draft. Bright never made it to Tallahassee. He never even played a down in Division 1. Maturity and academic issues kept him away.

For players like Callahan Bright, who are plentiful around this league, the AFL offers perhaps their best chance to get back in the spotlight and reach a bigger payday.

“I wouldn’t say it’s my last chance, but it’s a stepping stone,” Bright said of the AFL. “It’s getting me ready for that next level. This is a way to climb my way up the ladder.”

But there are also players who are working their way down that ladder, like 30-year-old Power wide receiver Jason Willis.

After playing college ball at Oregon, Willis bounced around the NFL and NFL Europe for five years before finding a home in the AFL.

“Of course the NFL is where you want to be,” said Willis, who had stints with the Seahawks, Dolphins and Redskins. “I see players [in the NFL] I know I can compete with. You have to suck up your pride.  But I know I can still play at that level… all I’m looking for is that one shot. That’s definitely my motivation.”

While there is no official NFL affiliation, the AFL has connections. That’s why teams that share a city with an NFL franchise, like the Power, Philadelphia Soul, Georgia Force, and New Orleans Voodoo, are more attractive to players.

“Their driving force is they still have that opportunity to make the NFL,” said Power owner and GM Matt Shaner. “There’s a good chance guys from the Steelers are going to come to a few practices. That puts out that dream that maybe you can get there.”

But in reality, $400 a week can only be stretched so far – especially when you are putting in full-time hours. That’s why approximately half the Power roster will try to secure part-time work outside of football during the season, which the team will help them find. But after winning games, the main goal of the coaching staff is to help the players secure work in a related field.

“A lot of these guys are in limbo,” said Shaner. “If you don’t make the NFL after college, you are out. They enjoy playing the game, but they are looking for the opportunity to move up.”

The coaching staff provides film and information on players to their professional contacts, but they can only do so much. The rest is up to circumstance – and of course, production.

“You are on a job interview every day,” said Willis, now on his third AFL team. “I try to play every game like I’m auditioning for the NFL, because you never know who is in the stands. I tell players don’t look at it like this is what you’re going to be doing the rest of your life. Other leagues are always looking for players who stand out.

“You want to make it seem like you don’t belong in this league.”

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