- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 16, 2020

Those who signed up for the XFL knew they were taking a chance.

After all, the track record for upstart football leagues is ugly. Last year, the Alliance of American Football (AAF) folded just two months into its inaugural season. The original XFL — known for its over-the-top nicknames for players like “He Hate Me” — lasted only one season after losing $35 million in 2001.

So when billionaire wrestling mogul Vince McMahon, who bankrolled both the original XFL and the new version, suspended all operations and laid off almost all of the employees, people understood. It had always been a possibility.

But for the league to end because of a virus? Well, that’s been harder to digest.

The XFL filed for bankruptcy this week, citing the “harsh economic impacts and uncertainties” due to the coronavirus pandemic, foreclosing on the dreams of hundreds of players, coaches, executives and others looking to get in on the ground floor of McMahon’s grand vision.  

The player

Rashad Ross understands the odds are not in his favor. A year ago, the former Washington Redskins receiver starred in the AAF for the Arizona Hot Shots. His play there helped him land a stint with the Carolina Panthers, though he was waived prior to the start of the regular season.

When the XFL came calling, Ross was on board. The 30-year-old was first drafted by the Los Angeles Wildcats and then traded to the D.C. Defenders.

“Just moving around, it felt like the NFL — how they do the trades, nobody was safe no matter where you got drafted,” Ross said. “It felt like everybody was going to have the same opportunity, you know? There wasn’t no favorites. It was fun.”

Ross wasn’t as productive for the Defenders as he was in the AAF, but he still enjoyed it. He said he loved the pressure of training camp, how when he was traded to the Defenders, coach Pep Hamilton put him and his teammates through a grueling three weeks that stretched from morning to the night. “It was grind time,” he said.

He fondly recalled the enthusiasm of the team’s local followers. Ross said he believes his time with the Redskins helped connect him to fans in and around the District — but he also saw the Defenders attracting new people. 

“I loved playing out there,” Ross said. “Overall, the fans were probably the best thing.”

Ross isn’t sure what comes next for his football career. He said he hopes to get back to the NFL, but was told by interested teams that they need to see him work out first. And with facilities closed amid the coronavirus, Ross’ career remains in limbo.

The coach

“The whole league was headed in the right direction,” Seattle Dragons coach Jim Zorn said.

Zorn remembered the first time he called a play for the Dragons’ offense in the XFL’s debut — and he could hear the echo that reminded himself that the sound was being featured on the broadcast. It caught him off guard.

“For coaches, that was something unheard of,” Zorn said, “that you were going to be out there raw and nothing was sacred secrets.”

The XFL tried to present product around “unfiltered” access, allowing fans to hear play-calls, watch interviews with players shortly after pivotal moments and watch the game from the view of their parade of cameras.

Zorn didn’t mind the XFL’s embrace of spectacle. He was glad to be back coaching, given the former Redskins coach had been out of the NFL since 2012. Now 66, Zorn said he got the sense that his Seattle team was in the process of building something “tremendous.”

Zorn saw that players completely bought in to the league. When it came to special teams, even starters were asking to see the field. Players understood, the coach said, that any shot at the NFL would likely mean playing on special teams.

“They wanted to be seen running down the field and either blocking or making tackles,” Zorn said. “That was pretty special to watch.”

These days, Zorn is in the process of reviewing what worked — and didn’t work — for the failed league. There will always be a part of him that will wonder what might have been, he said.

“Who knows how much it could have grown and continued on?” Zorn said.

The executive

Greg Gabriel was 68 when he made the temporary move from the Illinois suburbs to a five-bedroom townhouse in College Park, Maryland. The personnel director for the Defenders, Gabriel rented the space — and lived — with other Defender employees, such as the team’s head trainer.

The house was barely furnished — there wasn’t even a television. After all, Gabriel was there to work. He used the house primarily as a play to sleep.

Still, it was worth it, he said. A longtime NFL executive, Gabriel spent 31 years in the NFL as a scout and later as a director of college scouting. After leaving the Chicago Bears in 2010, Gabriel served as a consultant for a few years before transitioning to the media.

Gabriel, though, was more than willing to join the Defenders, reuniting with Hamilton, the former Bears quarterbacks coach.

It wasn’t easy. Unlike an NFL team, which features scouting and pro personnel staffs, the Defenders had just three personnel people left to scout players in the league and keep an eye on college players who would be good fits for the future.

Gabriel didn’t mind.

“Every day was fun,” he said. “Every single day I was there.”

The marketer

The month of October was a memorable one for Troy Machir. The 35-year-old accepted the job to become the Defenders’ content director and then got married three weeks later.

Machir knew he was taking a risk, leaving a stable job at NBC Sports Washington, but even now, the Maryland resident said he’d “do it all over again” in a heartbeat.

The XFL shutdown didn’t just impact players, coaches and executives. There were people like Machir, working behind the scenes to help the league grow. In the District, he had just a team of three.

He reminisced about the intimacy of Audi Field, the 20,000-seat stadium. “It was just perfect,” he said. “We’re not going to get more than 20,000 people so why put it an hour away (at FedEx Field) where people can’t take the Metro and put it in a 70,000, 80,000-seat stadium.”

Now, Machir is searching for a new job and looking at how to file for unemployment. The XFL paid its employees through last Sunday, plus their accrued vacation time. Eventually, he’ll need another source of income.

But the overall experience?

“People expected it to crumble and fold like the AAF and XFL 1.0, but I still can’t wrap my head around it,” Machir said. “Was it the world’s greatest football? No. But it doesn’t need to be. … It was just different.”


• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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