In the Spring of 2006, the Great Lakes Indoor Football League took to the field. It was comprised of six brand new teams located in Michigan, Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania, as well as one traveling team based out of New Jersey. The league played seven-on-seven football on a 50-yard indoor field and had a roster of just 18 active players. The league was not affiliated with the more established Arena Football League, which plays eight-on-eight football.
Lansing, Michigan author Ted Kluck played on one of the GLIFL teams that season, the Battle Creek Crunch. In his new book, Paper Tiger: One Athlete’s Journey to the Underbelly of Pro Football, Kluck offers a unique, behind the scenes look into the sometimes chaotic world of minor league sports.
Kluck played semi-pro football for several years but gave it up after he broke his collar bone during a game in 2003. Like many men who can’t get football out of their systems, he longed to be part of a team one more time before it was too late.
He contacted the new league and was granted a special roster spot on the Battle Creek team so that he could write about his experience playing in the professional indoor football league. During the season, Kluck also wrote some articles about playing for the Crunch that appeared on ESPN.com.
The book is reminiscent of the classic 1965 George Plimpton book, Paper Lion, which told of Plimpton’s tryout with the NFL Detroit Lions. But the GLIFL was a far cry from the NFL.
Players on the Battle Creek team were promised $200 per game and they were supposed to be covered by an insurance policy if they got injured during the season. But the Crunch ran into financial troubles almost from the beginning and things went rapidly down hill as the season progressed. There were no paychecks and there was no insurance policy soon after the season started.
The book is brutally honest at times, pulling no punches when it comes to the troubles encountered by the team and its owner. From a shortage of uniforms on game day, bounced paychecks or no paychecks at all, to wondering who would actually show up for each game. Prior to one game, when pressed for a final team roster by a League official, Crunch head coach Bob Kubiak simply began making up names on the spot because half the team had not arrived yet and he was not sure if they were even going to show up at all!
Towards the end of the season, transportation costs to one road game in Pennsylvania were paid for by the opposing team, just so the game would not be cancelled. For their two road games at Port Huron, the players carpooled to the games at their own expense.
But Kluck does more than just chronicle the demise of the team in his book. It is also an introspective look into his own football life, his relationship with his father and how the game of football was such a big part of both of their lives. Kluck continuously questions his own abilities while playing for the Crunch. At the age of 30, he has a hard time competing with much larger, faster and younger players.
There were many different reasons why the players stuck with the team in spite of all the problems. Some of the older Crunch players were there simply to relive their past glories and to prove to themselves that they “still had it.” A number of younger players were trying to get noticed by player scouts in order to hopefully move up to next level of football, such as the Arena Football League, the Canadian Football League or even the NFL. A few players on the team had experience playing in other indoor football leagues and one player, Herb Haygood from Michigan State, had even played in the NFL.
Through all of the adversity of the season, the players and coaches somehow managed to keep their sense of humor in regards to the things that were out of their control. The absurdity of many situations and the tension between the players was usually defused by a well placed joke or a witty insult of some kind that kept everyone going through a difficult season.
The best one-liners in the book come courtesy of the team’s fiery defensive coordinator, Scott Ashe, who, when not coaching, is a principal at a Jackson, Michigan high school. His quick wit and sharp tongue kept the team going throughout the season.
In the end, the players decided that they would finish out the season in spite of an absentee owner and no money.
Even with a losing record, the Crunch managed to qualify for the last of the League’s four playoff spots, which added one more game to their already painful season.
Postscript to the book :
After the 2006 season, the Crunch team folded. The League renamed itself the Continental Indoor Football League and expanded from six teams to 14 for the 2007 season.
The Battle Creek Crunch coaching staff and several players who were prominently featured in Paper Tiger resurfaced earlier this year with a new expansion team in the league, the Kalamazoo Xplosion. The Xplosion went 10-2 in the regular season and was narrowly defeated in the Great Lakes Division championship game by the Michigan Pirates, the defending League champions. Xplosion players and coaches were paid for every game they participated in during this past season.
Paper Tiger was released on September 1, 2007. Kluck’s third book titled, Game Time: Inside College Football, will be released in the coming weeks. His first book, Facing Tyson: 15 Fighters, 15 Stories, was published last year.