TWOF Travelogue: AAF Memphis Express
by Randy Snow
Original to www.theworldoffootball.com, Tuesday, March 5, 2019
I havenít been this excited about a springtime outdoor pro football league since the United States Football League kicked off in 1983. Back then, the Michigan Panthers were the team to root for if you lived in Michigan, and I did. I was rewarded for my fandom when they won the USFL Championship that first season.
Now, in 2019, the Alliance of American Football has begun play in eight cities, mostly in the South and West. (I canít say that they kicked off their season because the league does not have kickoffs) The closest teams to Michigan are the Memphis Express and the Birmingham Iron. My two oldest sons, Adam and Aaron, decided to go with me and attend a game in Memphis. We had never been to Memphis before so we were excited about making the trip.
I was particularly interested to see the Liberty Bowl stadium. Opened in 1965, and home to the Memphis Tigers college football team, it has also been home to several pro football teams over the years. First there was Memphis Southmen of the World Football League from 1974-1975. That was the team that signed Jim Kiick, Paul Warfield and Larry Csonka away from the Super Bowl champion Miami Dolphins.
Next came the Memphis Showboats of the USFL from 1984-1985. Pro football Hall of Fame defensive end Reggie White played for the Showboats.
The Memphis Mad Dogs, of the Canadian Football League, played in the Liberty Bowl in 1995. Their quarterback was Damon Allen, brother of Oakland Raiders great Marcus Allen. Damon Allen was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 2012 after a 23-year CFL career and over 73,000 passing yards.
In 1997, the NFL Tennessee Oilers played in the Liberty Bowl for one season after they left the city of Houston and before they became the Tennessee Titans.
Finally, there was the Memphis Maniax of the 2001 XFL. 1994 Heisman Trophy winning running back Rashaan Salaam and quarterback Jim Drunkenmiller led the team.
So now, the Memphis Express are calling the Liberty Bowl home. They are coached by former Chicago Bears linebacker and San Francisco 49ers head coach Mike Singletary. The team had an 0-3 record going into their game against the 2-1 San Diego Fleet. The Fleet were coached by Mike Martz, the former St. Louis Rams head coach and assistant coach with the Detroit Lions.
We set out on Friday, March 1, the day before the game, from Kalamazoo. Originally, the game was supposed to start at 8 PM EST Saturday night, but the week before the game it was announced that the game time had been changed to 4 PM EST that day. That turned out to be 3 PM CST as Memphis is located in the Central Time Zone.
The day of the game, we got up early and headed out for a tour of Graceland, the former home of Elvis Presley. A local T.V. weatherman predicted a high of 55 degrees that day so we all dressed accordingly. That weatherman turned out to be a bold-faced liar! It never got above the low 40s that day.
Graceland was much smaller than I expected, but it was still quite fascinating. After the tour, we returned to out hotel room to put on warmer clothes and then we headed to the game.
I was disappointed that our tickets, which I purchased online through Ticketmaster a few weeks before, were strictly digital. My oldest son, Adam, had them on his smart phone. They were scanned directly from his phone at the gate. To this day, I still have the paper ticket stubs from the first NFL game I ever attended back in 1975. Sadly, this tradition is all but gone today.
Once we got into the Liberty Bowl stadium, we immediately saw a souvenir stand and I had to check it out. I was shocked and excited to see that they actually had Riddell mini helmets of the Memphis Express. I had to have one for my ever-growing mini helmet collection. Iím glad they did not have all the AAF team helmets on hand because I would have bought them all! I also bought some AAF pins for my football pin peg board.
Our seats turned out to be really good. They were in row six on the 30-yard line behind the San Diego bench. But, as it turned out, we were actually in the fourth row since there was no rows numbered one or two. As we sat in the stands, we could see our breath in the cold air, but thanks to wearing the proper attire, we were fine.
We got to witness the first punt return for a touchdown in AAF history when San Diego returner Ron Brooks scored for the first points of the game on a 57-yard return.
The Fleet jumped out to a 20-6 lead in the first quarter but the Express closed the gap to 20-15 at halftime.
After a scoreless third quarter, Memphis scored with 6:08 remaining in the game when quarterback Zach Mettenberger connected with running back Terrence McGee on a six-yard touchdown pass. Mettenberger ran the two-point conversion in himself, tying the game at 23-23.
The Express finished the scoring when Austin MacGinnis kicked a 45-yard field goal with 2:46 remaining, giving Memphis a 26-23 lead. MacGinnis was working as a financial advisor in Lexington, KY two week ago before he signed with the team just five days before the game.
Memphis recovered a San Diego fumble with 1:46 to go in the game and ran out the clock to secure the win.
Even though Adam was rooting for the Fleet, I was glad to see Memphis get their first ever win in team history. They are now 1-3 while the Fleet dropped to 2-2 on the season.
The sideline crew used digital down markers which I thought was really cool. They were easy to see across the field and I predict that the NFL will be using them sooner than later. There was also a female referee working the game, Amanda Sauer. She has worked Big Ten college football games before.
There were a about 13,000 fans at the game, not great for a stadium that holds just over 61,000 people, but the ones who were there were very loud and supportive when the team needed them to be. If the Express can continue their winning ways, then more fans will turn out for the games. Better weather will also help lead to better attended games.
We left Memphis early Sunday morning to return home to Michigan. It was raining when we hit the road and by the time we got through Arkansas, Missouri and into southern Illinois, we were in the midst of an ice and snow storm that made for some slick driving conditions. Aaron had driven the whole time on our trip but after 1,000 miles, and a few close calls switching lanes on the icy road, he relinquished the driving duties to me. (Thanks, son!) I drove the last 250 miles home. The roads got better once we finally crossed the state line into Michigan.
In all, it was a great trip. We had very few issues driving and navigating in and around Memphis. And now that we are home, the Memphis Express mini helmet I bought at the game looks great on my shelf along with the other NFL, CFL, XFL, CFL-USA, WFL, USFL. Arena, Indoor and college football mini helmets on display at home.