- 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.

The Soul's Derrick Ross runs to mid-field celebrating his second quarter rushing touchdown against the San Jose SaberCats in AFL action at the Wells Fargo Center on Sunday, July 20, 2014. (AP Photo/Philadelphia Daily News, Yong Kim)
The Soul’s Derrick Ross runs to mid-field celebrating his second quarter rushing ... more >

“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.”

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