What It’s Like to Be This Close to Going Pro—Then the League Folds Around You

This is Emotional Investment, Joel Anderson’s column about money and how we think about it. To suggest a subject or get in touch, email

The Arena Football League should have been welcomed back with lots of fanfare. The nation’s premier indoor football league (and one of its oldest professional football leagues) had new leadership and new investors when it announced its return in February 2023. Its comeback meant that fans would be treated to more pro-level football—a faster, more violent version on a much smaller field at that—during the doldrums of late spring and summer. And for the athletes, it represented another opportunity to make a living.

I followed the fledgling enterprise with the interest of someone who briefly played football in college and covered the sport as a journalist for years after. I know how seductive the promises of minor league and semiprofessional football can be to young men who aren’t ready to let go. The dream of the NFL—and its millions in salaries—isn’t easy to shake, not for guys who’ve spent more than half their lives hoping to get the call to the big leagues and the checks that come with it. This, a gig that would pay much less but still potentially approaching six figures, could change everything for them.

But by the time the revamped league was set to kick off its inaugural season in late April, it was already in disarray. Originally pitched last year as a 16-team league with franchises in NFL towns like Chicago, Denver, Nashville, and Philadelphia, the AFL has seen most of its clubs end up in relative backwaters like Rapid City, South Dakota; Billings, Montana; and three towns in Kansas. The league’s broadcast agreement with the NFL Network fell apart little more than a month before the first game. And several teams hadn’t even secured a home stadium by the start of the season.

For the football die-hards like myself who romanticized the original AFL, it seemed clear this new version wouldn’t come anywhere close to filling that void. It was hard not to compare it with its heyday in the ’90s and early 2000s, when the AFL was good enough that the NFL considered purchasing a majority interest. Those teams were in major cities, the fast-paced, hyperviolent games were regularly televised on ESPN, and the players had a plausible shot at climbing their way into bigger leagues, like the Canadian Football League or even the NFL.

But after the first week of games, stories began to emerge about the unfolding chaos within the league. For example, the Billings Outlaws, who had spent the previous two seasons playing in the Champions Indoor Football League before getting called up to the AFL, announced days before a game against Salem’s Oregon Blackbears that they wouldn’t be making the trip. Blackbears President Pat Johnson told Defector that Billings had backed out because their players claimed that the “field was unsafe,” in part because of the use of a rodeo fence to mark the area’s boundaries. Another franchise, the Rapid City Marshals, issued a statement saying that the league would need to do some “schedule shuffling” because it had failed “to meet their financial obligations.”

But the AFL’s troubles really became clear when the Iowa Rampage, which defeated the Marshals in South Dakota in its first game, announced that the team would be shutting down and ceasing operations entirely. In a press release, the Rampage’s owners claimed that the league, including Commissioner Lee Hutton, had failed to live up to its promises: “Lee Hutton and his team have destroyed not only the revival of the AFL, but they have destroyed the hopes of players all over the U.S.,” Trevor Burdett and Mike Taliaferro said in the press release. “As owners, we do not take this decision lightly and we wished this wouldn’t have come, but with the promised support of the league, we have no other option than to discontinue operations immediately.”

I couldn’t help but think of the players: their shattered dreams, but also their strained bank accounts.

Tamatoa Silva, a 6-foot-4, 330-pound lineman from Hawaii, posted on social media about the plight facing him and other AFL players as the league crumbled around them. Silva spoke of “not being paid, kicked out of the hotels, struggling to find ways home,” he said. Some players for a since-disbanded team in Georgia tried to raise money through GoFundMe. I talked about some of this last month on Slate’s weekly sports podcast Hang Up and Listen.

Years ago, I followed the career of a player from Tampa who’d been one of the country’s top high school football players in his class. At 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds, he was as physically impressive as I’d ever seen a teenager. He punished those kids. But he went on to have a middling career at Florida State University and wasn’t drafted. When I learned, a few years later, that he was playing football in Canada for less ($45,000) than I was making as a newspaper reporter ($47,000), I was shocked—but not surprised. Because I understood.

I could relate to him because I found myself still pining for the game at the age of 28, working out twice a day with a trainer in hopes of earning a tryout with an arena league team in Shreveport–Bossier City, Louisiana. Thankfully, the reality of age and injury—I’d torn an Achilles tendon while playing pickup basketball two years earlier—made me stick to the sidelines.

I’d also seen a close friend of mine, who was a three-year starter at a major college in North Carolina, try to chase his pro football dreams for a couple of years. After he didn’t get drafted by an NFL team, he worked as a waiter so he could have the flexibility to train with professionals and play for minor league teams. He caught on for a few games with a second-tier arena football team in Austin, Texas, before moving on. But giving up still nags at him. “You had to manage so many other things to make it work,” he told me recently. “Some do it well, and it’s easier for others. But it’s a slog.”

I wanted to follow up with someone who was still caught up in that slog. My proximity to this world has shown me that plenty of people are curious about how wannabe big leaguers make it work. That’s why I reached out to Silva, who is now 27 years old and found himself briefly stranded in Iowa after leaving Hawaii to play in the AFL. Silva was eager to talk about his football journey, a trajectory that was cut short in high school after his family was plunged into homelessness. Because he had to provide for them, he was forced to miss several college football opportunities.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

So, I worked two jobs out there in Hawaii. I was in labor and construction. And I also did bodyguard work for celebrities and stuff. I’ve done a lot of celebrities, man. Rappers like Kodak Black, Lil Tjay, Big Boi from OutKast. I got a whole list of celebrities that I’ve met and done security for.

So, I mean, I was getting paid. I was getting paid about $49 an hour working the labor job. And then the security gig on the side. You can get paid up to, like, $50 an hour doing that.

By the grace of God, we made things happen. I would take my kids to Disneyland at least twice a year, take my wife to go see her family. So we were living a good life, you know?

Before June of 2022, football was already behind me. I’m already a father of two, and I’m married. I wasn’t planning on playing football ever again. And then I get an invite to the XFL Showcase out there in Hawaii. I got an email saying that, you know, [I] can attend the showcase based off of what I’d done in high school and stuff. I’d been working out, just to stay in shape. So I attend that showcase, and there it takes off.

At the first one, the Rock [actor and XFL owner Dwayne Johnson] himself actually waived the fee. I got to talk with him for about 30, 45 minutes, and it was cool. I just got to share my life story with him. The Rock, he has deep roots in Hawaii. He went to McKinley High School, in Honolulu, where they held the XFL Showcase at. And he’s of Samoan descent as well, so it was kind of a connection right there. So I just got to chop it up with him for a bit. It was a blessing, man. He and the president [of the XFL] were there, and they walked me over to the table and everything was done right there.

And right there, you’re not expecting to go anywhere after that showcase but just hopefully hear back. So the fact that I got invited to another showcase after that, that was big, man.

From there, I get invited to San Diego to do another one. And then from San Diego, there’s only, like, 50 of us players that got invited to a predraft workout with the Orlando Guardians. And it was there where I met coaches and they told me, “You haven’t played since high school. We like what you can do, but we want to see game film on you. So go indoor, play arena football. Gather your film and then we’ll chop it up and see where it could take you.”

I just contacted some coaches on Instagram and social media. Of course, in indoor football they asked for film. They want to see what you can do before they sign you. I sent some workout videos, and I was like, “I don’t have any recent film, but this is my story. This is what led me up to today, and this is why I’m contacting you.”

Silva, wearing a Tropics jersey, looks defeated.
Provided photo

You know, I was working out pretty hard. I was benching about 500 [pounds]. I could do 225 [pounds] about 39 times. So I was sending coaches that and telling them, “If I could get one chance,” … and eventually one team reached out to me and signed me: the Southwest Kansas Storm in Dodge City, Kansas. They were in a league called the Champions Indoor Football.

Honestly, I didn’t really know much about it. All I knew was that it was played indoors and it was eight-man football. But once I got there, that’s when I understood the way the arena game is played. It is faster, less guys on the field, the field is smaller, so it took some getting used to. But all in all, it is a fun game.

I played with the Storm for two weeks before I got picked up by a different team in that same league, which is the Topeka Tropics. And I played in Topeka for about three games before I got picked up by the [Indoor Football League].

The IFL was, as you know, the biggest indoor football league out there. So, to me, I couldn’t pass on that opportunity. It’s more exposure. You know, guys go to the [Canadian Football League] from there. So I went and signed with the Duke City Gladiators [in Albuquerque, New Mexico] in the IFL. And that’s where my first season ended, right there. And then, during the offseason, this past September, I get a call from a coach. And he said, “We want to find you here in Iowa. We’re going to be a part of the AFL.” And instantly I knew what the AFL is, you know? The AFL was the original Arena Football League, and it’s the highest level of arena football that you’ll get. So I decided to go with the AFL. You know, players can make six figures in three months, so I couldn’t pass up on that opportunity.

The coach shoots me over a contract in September. We go over the numbers, the housing, and all of that. I don’t sign right away. I knew right away that it was a blessing, that this was the AFL, and I’m not going to pass up on it, but I still gotta run it by my wife. I still got to pray about it. So, after two months of talking it over, I finally decided to sign in November.

You’re not struggling if you’re one of those guys, if you know what I mean. The teams are going to take care of you. In the CIF, IFL, AFL, they all house you, they feed you, they pay you. And this past year in the AFL, in Iowa, the team actually paid for my housing. They got me and my family our own house. And they’re paying good.

It’s the time frame of what the XFL, the AFL, pays guys within a three-month span. The salary was about $5,000 a week. So, guys are making about $60,000, $70,000, $80,000 a year. But a year in football is really three months, so you’re making that much money in three months. I saw the opportunity, so that’s what I went with. And then, at the same time, I was able to live out my dream and possibly move up to the next level. And because I could come back to my jobs after the football season, I figured: Why not?

We get to Iowa four days before camp. As soon as I get there, the keys for the house are waiting for me. Everything is waiting for me. Nutrition shops load us up on protein shakes. And my wife was hired to be a cook for the team. She was meal prepping and stuff like that.

But then, you know, everything came crashing down.

It was the first week after the first game—like, right when we were supposed to be expecting our paychecks. My team was like, “Bro, what’s going on? We’re supposed to get paid today.” And then we’re told we’re getting paid tomorrow. And then tomorrow comes: We’re supposed to get paid in two days. Two days come, and we don’t get paid. And right before our second game, the owner said,  “We have no choice but to fold the team.”

The league commissioner was supposed to be paying them 75 percent of our salary and the team owners pay the other 25 percent. So, every player has a different amount that they’re paid on their contract, but all we know is that the league pays 75 percent. But after the first week, they weren’t trying to cough it up. That’s a lot of money, you know? And so the league commissioner goes MIA. Nobody can get ahold of him.

There were some teams with owners that could sustain and hold until everything gets figured out. But there were teams—unfortunately, like the team I was on—where the owners couldn’t pay all that and they could only pay what was agreed upon between them and the league.

It set me back financially because, for one, the owner had asked us to buy the supplies and the food and stuff, and they said they were going to reimburse us. We put out thousands. Well, when everything folded, there was no getting hold of the owner or the [general manager] or anything like that. They just left us out to dry.

That’s when it kind of hit us too. When we realized, Dude, these guys are just ignoring us. Probably even blocked us.

We did have a church reach out to us, and they were a blessing to us. They were able to bless us with the finances to help us. I decided it was best for me and my family to get out of there as soon as possible. Now we’re staying with my wife’s family in Orange County.

It was hard, man. It was hard. Some of the guys were stuck with nowhere to go. No finances. You know, a lot of these guys are young guys, some just out of college, don’t got much going but football. And they’re just trying to keep the dream alive. For some guys, they have dreams of “Keep going.” And some guys, it’s their last ride.

It was very unfortunate to the fans, to the players, the coaches. And I can honestly say we had a championship contending team, for sure. I know what it feels like to play on a team that’s going to win. And that was, for sure, one of the teams that I feel like was going to do it.

I’m just thinking about my family. I can’t afford to lose any more for my family. For me, I want to keep the dream alive. I’m in a season where I’m praying and believing that God will show me what to do. But right now, for this season at least, I’m going to take it off and focus on the family. I don’t want to go somewhere else.

There were other teams reaching out to me, trying to get me to sign, but I just felt like maybe sitting out this season and seeing how it all plays out. At the end of the day, I have responsibilities.

We’re probably going to stay here [in Orange County] for a minute. We’re actually looking to get a home somewhere in the [continental] states and just kind of settle down here for a season and see how things go. There’s a lot of opportunities out here. Hawaii is so limited—you know, you’re on an island. And there’s endless opportunities where I’m at, and I have goals and things that I want to achieve while I’m out here. Not just in football.