SAN DIEGO – It could be called the Last-Chance League.
Hundreds of players come out of college every year and chase the NFL dream, but they often only have a few months to prove themselves before final roster cuts.
The hope is to fill that gap with the Alliance of American Football, the upstart pro football league now three weeks into its inaugural season.
Its eight teams are littered with former NFL training camp cuts and one-time college stars trying to keep the dream alive.
“I think everybody that comes into this league has a chip on their shoulder because, yeah they’re getting another chance to play the game that they love but at the next level it’s like ‘I got this chip because I’m trying to play at the very top,’ said Damontre Moore, a defensive end for the San Diego Fleet, who were fresh off a 31-11 win over the San Antonio Commanders on Sunday.
Moore is one of the few players in the AAF with significant NFL experience, having played in six seasons with five different teams before the Raiders cut him in December. He’s like most players on the team who live in long-term hotels, Airbnb’s or small apartments with the league’s housing stipend.
For him, this is the Second-Chance League.
The same goes for A.J. Tarpley, a Fleet linebacker who played for the Buffalo Bills in 2015 before abruptly retiring due to concerns with the effects of multiple concussions.
Tarpley has spent the last few years working as a sales rep on Wall Street, but football called him back.
“My favorite thing about it are the players in this locker room,” said Tarpley, who returned an interception for a touchdown on Sunday. “That’s why I chose to play football again. These are the guys that make it special. It’s not the plays on the field, it’s not the result of the game, it’s coming in here with these guys and bonding and all coming together for that common goal.”
While Tarpley’s story is unusual, the more typical AAF story is running back Ja’Quan Gardner, who spent a short time in camp with the San Francisco 49ers this past offseason after going undrafted out of Humboldt State.
“I didn’t get the opportunity to showcase myself at the highest level so this league right here is just the next tier,” said Gardner, who helped his cause by rushing for 122 yards and a touchdown in Sunday’s win.
The AAF knows that’s a big selling point for players, which is why it’s already established a friendly relationship with the NFL. Sunday’s game, for example, was broadcast on the NFL Network.
Most AAF coaching staffs are stocked with ex-NFL players and coaches, giving the league an even bigger appearance of legitimacy.
Fleet head coach Mike Martz knows firsthand about players who have had to fight their way back into the big leagues. In 2001, he coached the Rams to a Super Bowl appearance led by Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner, who famously made his way to the NFL via the Arena Football League.
“I think that’s what this league is about, those kinds of guys. Coming out of nowhere and just trying to stay in it and doing anything they can. They believe in themselves,” Martz said.
The question is can this league produce a Kurt Warner-caliber player?
There were reports last week of players who didn’t receive payment until a last-second investor saved the day with a $250 million bailout.
“The checks cleared and I’m good,” Moore said.
TV ratings have also taken a significant dip since opening weekend when the league’s debut game drew 2.9 million viewers on CBS.
The AAF, however, reported relatively steady attendance with the league-wide crowd averaging around 20,000 in the first two weeks of the season.
Sunday’s crowd at SDCCU Stadium (former home of the Chargers) appeared to be well under that average, but the fans who were there made plenty of noise – at least until they stopped serving beer in the fourth quarter.
Will this really catch on as the NFL’s developmental league? Who knows.
For these players, it’s just another shot.