- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 22, 2014

PHILADELPHIA — Not long after coaching the Philadelphia Soul to a much-needed victory on Sunday afternoon, Clint Dolezel stepped aside in a lower-level hallway at the Wells Fargo Center, trying his best to hold a conversation as a steady torrent of fans streamed by.

Those who noticed him voiced their gratitude, offering encouragement one more time following the Soul’s final home game. Dolezel, with a smile on his face, responded by thanking them, aware of the importance of their support to his team.

A highly accomplished former Arena Football League quarterback, Dolezel retired after the 2008 season in part because of the league’s bankruptcy and year-long shutdown. He returned in 2011 like many former players — ready to begin the next phase of his life as a coach, teaching the nuanced game to a new generation.

Dolezel’s track isn’t all that different from that of Jay Gruden, who will lead his first NFL training camp beginning this week as the coach of the Washington Redskins. Gruden, the most decorated quarterback in Arena League history, began his coaching career there before making the transition back to the outdoor game.

Gruden’s hiring isn’t likely to send a flood of indoor coaches to the NFL, but several of them, understandably, hope it does.

“It’s a different breed of players and coaches that are in this league,” Dolezel said. “They’re hungry. It’s just a different mentality. There are so many of these guys that are doing whatever they can to make it to the next level. Jay’s had success at every level — playing, coaching in our league and in the NFL, too, as a coordinator — and I think he’ll do well there as a head coach.”

There’s no easy living in the Arena League, which is why 12 of the 14 current coaches are former players. They’re familiar with the rules, yes, but they’re also used to the grind. When the Soul’s season ends, Dolezel will return home to Dallas to serve as the offensive coordinator at Parish Episcopal High School; even as a player, Dolezel coached high school football during his offseason.

Before the league was reset in 2010, salaries were competitive. The league minimum for players was $31,000, though six-figure contracts weren’t uncommon, pushing the average salary near $80,000.

Now, under a single-entity model where players sign contracts with the league, they make $830 a game — $775 for rookies, with quarterbacks earning an extra $250 per start. To offset the meager salaries, players are given three meals a day and have the option of renting an apartment provided by the team, and often arranged by the coach, for $600 per month.

About half of the players on the Soul supplement their income with a second job, while all but two or three have assistance with housing. Around the league, players have been known to work as bouncers at nightclubs or personal trainers at local gyms.

“I really think it kind of weeds out who’s serious and who’s not,” said Siaha Burley, the offensive coordinator of the Orlando Predators and a former player from 2001 through 2010. “I think if you look at the people who have been around Arena Football for a while, they’ve made some major, major sacrifices to align their lifestyle to be able to handle its ups and downs.

“When you have a family or a wife or what have you, usually, you’re calling for some sort of stability. That’s kind of the American dream. Those who stick around here … they’ve really bought into the game and their job of coaching, and they’re willing to take that chance and whatever opportunities come from it.”

Gruden’s thumbprint still lingers in Orlando, where he coached from 1998 through 2008. His No. 7, which he wore as both a player and coach in 2002 and 2003, has been retired by the Predators.

Rob Keefe is well aware of Gruden’s accomplishments and tries to pattern himself after his predecessor. In his first season as a head coach in 2010, the Springfield, Virginia, native helped the Spokane Shock win the ArenaBowl, becoming, at 29, the youngest coach to win the league championship.

“I’m very proud to say that people can do that,” Keefe said. “They can get through the AFL to get to the NFL right now. I think the door has been opened. I think right now, more people believe that it’s now possible.”

Among the most frequent criticisms of Arena Football is, primarily, that it’s not actually football, and the differences between the two games are stark.

Gruden’s transition was hastened because he served as an offensive assistant with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, on his brother Jon’s coaching staff, from 2002 through 2008, and then spent two years coaching in the now-defunct, outdoor United Football League before being hired as the Cincinnati Bengals’ offensive coordinator.

“It’s a real blue-collar lifestyle,” said New Orleans VooDoo coach Pat O’Hara, who was Gruden’s quarterback in Orlando from 1995 through 2000. “It’s a different game. You see it all the time. We’ve got guys in our league who are outstanding, but they just wouldn’t translate outside.”

Hundreds of Arena League players have, at one point, had a taste of life in the NFL — including Dolezel, who was invited to the Chicago Bears’ training camp in 2000. The most notable player to successfully make the jump is Kurt Warner, who played two years for the Iowa Barnstormers before being signed by the St. Louis Rams.

Derrick Ross, the Soul’s 6-foot, 240-pound, 30-year-old fullback, played in seven games for the Kansas City Chiefs in 2006 before playing in NFL Europe, the Canadian Football League and other indoor minor leagues.

On Sunday, Ross rushed for three touchdowns, matching the franchise-record 35 rushing touchdowns he scored last season.

“When you get to a certain point, just be thankful for what you’re doing and where you’re at right now,” Ross said. “You can’t make nobody sign you. You can’t make a [general manager] sign you to an NFL squad. You can’t even make them look at you, so you have to be happy where you’re at.”

Ross certainly is, and he reveled in the praise he received from the fans after Sunday’s game, signing autographs for everyone who wanted one.

Concurrently, Dolezel was approached by an older gentleman who asked for a signature on his ticket stub and then took a moment to show his gratitude for an enjoyable season.

“We’re fortunate, and I’m sure that’s true where Jay was as well,” Dolezel said. “We appreciate our coaches, our players. We appreciate the game that we play, because if we don’t have the fans, we don’t have the sponsors, we don’t have a job, and I think that a lot of guys take that for granted in the upper leagues. These guys are down-to-earth, and I love it.”

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