AAFL Holds Tryout in Detroit
by Randy Snow
Originally posted on OurSportsCentral.com, Sunday, September 16, 2007
The venue was Ford Field, a domed stadium in the heart of downtown Detroit that is usually associated with the NFL, the Detroit Lions and, most recently, Super Bowl XL. However, the atmosphere inside the stadium on September 13 was decidedly that of college football as the All American Football League invaded the Motor City to conduct a national player tryout. As players worked out on the field, the stadium's public address system played music from the Michigan and Michigan State marching bands to set the mood. The AAFL will play by college football rules and hopes to tap into the ravenous college football obsession of fans across the country.
Ford Field is no stranger when it comes to college football. It has hosted the Motor City Bowl since 2002 as well as an annual home game for Eastern Michigan University of the Mid-America Conference. It also is host to the annual Detroit Football Classic, which features historically black college football teams and their marching bands. Ford Field is also the site of the Michigan high school football state championship games for all eight divisions, which are played during Thanksgiving weekend.
The new league has a verbal agreement to host five regular season home games at Ford Field by Team Michigan beginning in April 2008. University of Michigan graduate Chris Horn is the team president. Horn graduated from the U of M in 1990 and played football at the school as well. Even though he has been living down south, his heart has always been loyal to the place and the people who wear the Maize and Blue.
Before joining the AAFL, he was the chairman of an organization called The Victors Group, a venture equity firm that was spearheaded by University of Michigan alums including former President of the United States Gerald Ford and former Michigan head football coach Bo Schembechler.
"About 14 or 15 months ago I brought my Dad up to Michigan," said Horn. "We sat down at Michigan Stadium, looked over the University of Michigan and had a great chat, just dad and son, talking about football and how, at his age, he still loved the game. Three or four days later we came back down south and he was tragically killed in an accident. After that, I did a lot of soul searching. I was 38 years old and trying to see what the next phase of life would be.
"Two months after that, I came up to Detroit for the Super Bowl. I ran into my "father" here, Bo Schembechler. We talked and hugged and had a great time. He inspired me. He told me all the things I needed to hear as a man who was hurting at the time. Bo was like a father to me. A few months after that, I got a call that he had passed away. Shortly after that, Gerald Ford passed away.
"I asked God to give me an opportunity to get back to what I loved doing the most. That would be a source of healing, and it was. So when the All American Football League sought me out, I couldn't say no. I could see my dad and Bo just sitting there and being glad about it, so I jumped at it and here we are today."
Horn was extremely pleased with the turnout at Ford Field as over 300 players participated in the invitation only event. The next step for Team Michigan is to open an office in Michigan, possibly right at Ford Field, and to begin their campaign for ticket sales in October.
"My responsibility is to try and create an entertainment experience at an attractive price that will get all of southeastern Michigan, Ohio and all around to come out and enjoy," Horn said.
It is not surprising that a man who played football at the University of Michigan would be enthusiastic about a new team and league coming to the state, but there were several other football legends in attendance at Ford Field who were equally as enthusiastic about the AAFL.
One of them is Pro Football Hall of Fame member Joe Delamielleure. He, like others who are supporting the startup league, believes that the league requirement that all players have a college degree is the cornerstone of what makes the league so appealing.
"I've been saying this for years, kids should get their degrees," Delamielleure said. "I coached at Duke for five years and I always thought education was important. I'd always say, 'use football, don't let football use you.' They're not going to college to get in the NFL, they're going to college to graduate.
"The NFL is great. It's a great league, it always will be. But there are a lot of other players out there who can play. I never believed that only 32 (NFL) teams with 50 players each are the only good football players in this big old country of ours. Then, when you add your degree to it, it makes (the AAFL) even more special."
Several Board member of the AAFL were also in attendance at the Detroit tryout including Jack Lengyel, the former head football coach at Marshall University who rebuilt the football program after the 1970 plane crash that killed most of the team and the coaching staff. Lengyel was portrayed by actor Matthew McConaughey in the 2006 movie, "We Are Marshall." He, too, believes that the college degree requirement of the AAFL is what makes the league so appealing.
"The fact that we're making it a league where you have to be a college graduate I think says a lot about the integrity of what we're trying to accomplish. It's to take quality student athletes and help facilitate the graduation rates in college.
Lengyel went on to say that making the league affordable to fans was also important. "There are generations of kids growing up in Auburn and Alabama that have never had the opportunity to see a college football game because (A) their tickets are always sold out and (B) even if they could buy a ticket they couldn't afford the $2,000-$3,000 price on top of the ticket for the seating options. So what we're doing is we're a niche market. We're playing in the spring so we're not competing with the NFL and it's an opportunity for people who love football in all these areas (Michigan, Florida, Arkansas, Alabama, Tennessee and Texas) to go see a game with their kids and see (firsthand) the stars they only saw on television."
The league is also pursuing a TV contract, but Lengyel said that it is hard to sell a product that no one has seen yet. "I would hope that at some point we would meet with (NFL Commissioner) Roger Goodell and talk about (broadcasting our games) on the NFL Network, giving them content in the spring months where they have no football at all. We could also be training some of their players off of each of their teams and we could be training their officials by letting them officiate in our league. We're also looking at innovative concepts with regards to the game of football. We'd like to cut the time off the clock and make the games a little more compact. We'd also like to see if we could get a TV contract where you by the sponsorship and there's no commercials (during the game). So we're willing to do a lot of innovative things with regards to the game, providing an opportunity for kids to continue playing the game that they love and make it a fan affordable opportunity for young kids and families."
Many have questioned the league's requirement that all of its players possess a college degree, but the people who are involved with the league say that that is what attracted them to support the league in the first place.
An affordable ticket price for fans and a requirement that all of its players have a college degree are just two of the things that make the AAFL a unique league. Tapping into the college football hysteria that is so prevalent around the country is another. It is obvious that the people behind the league and those supporting it truly believe that this is the right way to run a football league.