- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 12, 2009

At almost 5 a.m., it was 15 degrees and dark except for a few headlights from the vehicles idling in the parking lot, heaters running. Daniel James, the coach and keeper of the keys, was nowhere to be found, meaning practice would start a little late for the new D.C. Armor indoor football team.

Some of the players dozed. Quarterback Mike Scipione, sitting with assistant coach Willie Wood and owner Corey Barnette, studied video on a laptop.

“You get the work in when you can,” Scipione said later.

Finally, James wheeled in, delayed by the icy conditions from last week’s storm, and opened the place up.

A 5-foot-9, 300-pound spark plug with a booming voice and outsize personality, James offered greetings and held the door as the players straggled into the sprawling, warehouse-like Soccerdome, located in Jessup, Md. They brought their helmets and shoulder pads and suited up in the picnic area next to the concession stand. It was nearly as cold inside.

This is how the world looks from the lowest rung of the professional football ladder.

“It’s the life we chose,” said Roland Minor, a cornerback who played at H.D. Woodson High School and Virginia Tech.

A member of the 3-year-old American Indoor Football Association, the D.C. Armor are an expansion team comprising mostly refugees from the two Arena leagues, other indoor leagues and semipro teams. A select few have sampled the NFL. The club will play its seven home games at the D.C. Armory (get it?) against the likes of the Reading Express, Erie RiverRats and Carolina Speed. The first game is Friday in Reading, Pa. The home opener is April 4.

Local talent like Scipione, who grew up in Chantilly, and Minor stocks most of the roster, set at 30 players. Wood, the offensive coordinator and son of the Green Bay Packers Hall of Famer, attended Wilson High School and also coached there. Nearly all the players have jobs outside of football because the pay is $200 a week, an extra $50 if they win. Some have commitments that will keep them from making the opener. Minor works in a sports apparel store, Scipione for a government contractor. The out of town players live in a house provided by Barnette.

“If you love the game, you don’t think about the money,” said Sean Chisley, a 40-year-old defensive lineman who went to Coolidge High, toured a variety of indoor and semipro leagues and said he once impressed Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome during a tryout. He hasn’t played in three years.

To get up at 3:30 or earlier on a freezing morning and run around on unyielding artificial turf with soccer nets instead of goal posts, players can’t think about the money. Chisley, part of a family of notable D.C. athletes, is happy just to be here.

The main incentive for most, however, is to get noticed and get out. The Arena Football League (which suspended operations for the 2009 season) and the Arena Football 2 league are considered promotions. The ultimate goal, of course, is the NFL. It’s also the ultimate long shot. But, hey, if Kurt Warner did it…

“You try and fail, try and fail,” Minor said. “It’s all about fighting for your chance.”

Some had their chance and are seeking another. Receiver Randy Hymes started 12 games for the Ravens from 2002 through 2005. Darnell McDonald, another receiver, was a seventh-round draft pick of the Buccaneers. The Fairfax native caught seven passes and scored a touchdown in 1999. Others tasted NFL life before getting cut, which only made them want it even more.

“I think that would be an understatement,” said defensive lineman Bobby Payne, who made it through the San Francisco 49ers’ training camp in 2006 before his release.

Scipione also came close, although now, he said, he’s in it mainly for the competition. He last played 3 1/2 years ago for the Tennessee Valley Raptors of the Arena 2 league. The 29-year-old is a cancer survivor (Hodgkin’s lymphoma). He attracted NFL scouts while playing at Western Connecticut State and had a shot with the Patriots that ended, he said, when team officials discovered his cancer was more recent than they thought.

“I’ve been around all levels of football,” Scipione said. “I thought I put it away a few years ago. It surprises me I’m still playing. I just want to win.”

James lets some of the players leave practice early so they can get to work on time. Offensive lineman Andrew Jenkins, an auto mechanic, drives 1 1/2 hours or more to Fredericksurg, Va., each morning. Because he stays at his girlfriend’s house in Burke, he has to double back along Interstate 95. He gets up at 3:15 a.m., drives to practice and to work and gets home by 6:30 p.m. if he’s lucky.

“I have dreams of being a professional football player,” he said. “That’s the whole point of being here - to play somewhere else. The coaches will tell you the same thing. They don’t want to be here. Everyone on the field, that’s the goal.”

Lineman Damon Tolson preceded Jenkins out the door to take his three kids to school before starting his daily job with the Prince George’s County school system. His wife, Ivy, drives a school bus. Tolson is another Woodson product, a former teammate of NFL quarterback Byron Leftwich. He attended junior college in California before transferring to San Jose State; he said he had a tryout with the Buffalo Bills.

“It’s hard, but I love this game,” he said. “You’re just trying to make it somewhere. Hopefully, I’ll get a workout with the Washington Redskins. That’s my No. 1 goal. I’ve been watching the Redskins all my life. I’d love to get a chance to compete with those guys.”

Some are taking a different off-field path. Receiver Moses Washington, a track star at Oklahoma who briefly played football for the Sooners, is on leave to appear on a new reality-based show hosted by Hall of Fame receiver Michael Irvin. The winner gets a shot with the Cowboys this summer.

Several players attended multiple colleges. Something always seemed to happen - injury, eligibility issues, the numbers game. The 6-foot-6, 235-pound Scipione started out at Kentucky as Tim Couch’s potential successor, transferred to Villanova and ended up at Division III Western Connecticut, where he set a bunch of school passing records. Receiver Almonzo Banks, from Dunbar High School, enrolled at I-AA power Youngstown State after two years of junior college. They wanted him to change positions, he said, so he transferred to West Liberty State in West Virginia and was named the Division II offensive player of the year as a senior.

Banks said he ran a 4.41-second 40-yard dash on his pro day and heard from the Redskins and other teams.

“I had size, strength, speed, blocking and when draft day came, not a word,” he said.

He said he got no tryouts. Banks also played minor league baseball in the Los Angeles Angels’ and Baltimore Orioles’ organizations and said that might have hurt.

“The knock was my age,” he said. “I was a little older. But I should have gotten a tryout.”

Asked whether he is playing with a chip on his shoulder, Banks laughed and said: “A big chip, man. Like Mount Everest. I’m out to prove all the haters and the naysayers wrong.”

With the Arena Football League out of business for at least a year, the AIFA is trying to help fill the void. Several former Arena players have gravitated here, which is a boost. But this is still a risky proposition. A bunch of AIFA teams have disappeared since the league began.

Barnette, the owner, does not consider such things. Armed with unbridled confidence, the entrepreneur once tried to buy D.C. United. This, he believes, is a far more cost-effective venture despite poor economic conditions and a history of failure of indoor football in the D.C. market. Redskins owner Dan Snyder holds the local rights to an Arena team but has yet to act.

“People love football,” said Barnette, who said he has sunk “close to middle six figures” into the operation. It’s eight players to a side, a 50-yard field, plenty of presnap motion and movement and, of course, lots of offense.

“People like the Arena product,” he said. “We researched the hell out of this.”

As with baseball, the game will be augmented by different attractions. But the key, said Barnette, is affordability.

“We’re existing in a fairly unique time in people’s lives,” he said. “A lot of people can’t afford to spend a couple of hundred bucks to see one game.”

Barnette, James and everyone else connected with the Armor believe this is a talented team, though Scipione said the offense is lagging behind the defense right now. A few players made the team from open tryouts, but James and Wood have extensive contacts, and they knew whom to call.

“What I do best is personnel,” said James, who has coached several indoor teams at different levels, including Arena, and a successful stint last year with the AIFA’s Baltimore Mariners. “I’m a very good scout of talent.”

James also coached the defensive line at Division II St. Paul’s College in southern Virginia last fall. He said he “makes all the football decisions” and personally scouted every player he signed.

“Whatever we need, I go get it,” he said.

One of his gems is Payne, a ferocious pass rusher.

“He is there to collapse the center,” Barnette said.

Payne started for three years at Middle Tennessee State and signed with the 49ers as a free agent in 2006, earning a $360,000 signing bonus. He made it all the way through training camp before getting released in the team’s final cut.

“Things just didn’t work out,” he said.

Payne ended up playing in the Arena League. He said he was sold on James’ enthusiasm, the chance to win a championship and, most of all, prove the 49ers wrong.

“I practice as if I’m in the NFL, as if I’ve never left,” he said. “Every time I step on the field, I’m auditioning.”

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