LONG BEACH, Calif. — There were 40-yard dashes. There were three-cone shuttle drills, tip-toeing sideline grabs, plenty of diving catches. And there were athletes looking for one more chance to play football.
Nearly 100 athletes were at Veterans Memorial Stadium on Friday for the XFL’s Los Angeles Summer Showcase, an opportunity for former players from the NFL, college, and other professional leagues to participate try for a spot on one of the league’s eight teams.
Ex-NFL players invited to the showcase — the fifth of eight held by the XFL across the country — included former Chicago Bears defensive tackle Will Sutton, former Denver Broncos safety Rahim Moore and former Washington Redskins tight end Fred Davis.
“I see there’s a yearning for football after the NFL season,” Davis said. “so [the XFL is] a chance to put film on there, improve yourself and show you can still play if you want to.”
Will the XFL be different this time around?
When Vince McMahon, the chairman and CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment, announced in January 2018 his intention to revive the XFL, he said his goal was to “re-imagine” football.
McMahon’s first attempt at starting a professional football league was 20 years ago when he founded the XFL to be a “fun alternative to the NFL.”
The XFL was more disorganization and gimmicks than football. One season of inconsistent rules, mediocre play and opening scrambles instead of a coin toss were all fans could take.
It collapsed shortly after its championship game in 2001.
With the skepticism surrounding the XFL’s resurgence, coupled with the mid-season failure of the Alliance of American Football — the most recent pro-football experiment gone wrong — McMahon and XFL Commissioner Oliver Luck have assured fans that this new league will be different.
“We’ve learned a lot,” Luck said. “There are two things that, in my mind, set us apart from some of those other leagues. … One of them is time. There is no substitute for time. To plan things out. To hire coaches.
“The second one is money, quite honestly, resources … Vince is committed to this league, and that’s allowed me to be able to take that time and really build the league methodically.”
Luck said fans can expect quality from the new XFL, which begins its season in February 2020. It’ll be an up-tempo, fast-paced game with plenty of plays, plenty of offense, and a shorter play clock.
“There’s no guarantee that this league will survive,” Luck said, “but I think we really do have the best opportunity of maybe all of the spring leagues to establish something that can be sustainable. … This is a legitimate league. We’re excited about the opportunity to provide jobs, careers for 500-plus football players, 100-plus coaches.”
‘You gotta have faith in something’
That optimism seems to have already trickled down to the coaches and potential XFL players, as Friday’s showcase depicted much of the competition and energy you’d expect at an NFL combine.
Los Angeles head coach and general manager Winston Moss bounced from sideline to sideline between drills greeting players, scouts and members of the media.
“I was so excited to see some of the players compete so hard,” Moss said. “We challenged them early. They responded.”
Other coaches oversaw position drills with their hands on their knees, shouting “finish hard!” or “work, work work!” at the players who shuffled back and forth between the bright orange cones.
And athletes celebrated after plays during one-on-one drills with high fives, backflips and dance moves as if it were a game.
Bryon Cook said he was just happy to receive an invitation.
Cook played wide receiver and cornerback for Baldwin Wallace University, a liberal arts and sciences school in Berea, Ohio.
After stints with the Indoor Football League’s Cedar Rapids Titans (now the Cedar Rapids River Kings) and the Arena Football League’s Orlando Predators, Cook wasn’t ready to stop playing football. So he turned to the XFL.
“You gotta love football to be out here,” Cook said. “A lot of these guys are doing it because they got nothing else. This is it for them. Just blessed for the opportunity.”
Cook worked at both positions on Saturday, and through each drill, his family was on his mind.
He said he’s fueled by his sister, Acacia, who was born with cerebral palsy. Watching her graduate college, attend graduate school and start a career has prepared him for adversity.
“It’s just one of those things that you see, and it’s ingrained in you,” Cook said. “She’s never made excuses. She’s never felt bad for herself. She pushed through all of that. I have all the ability in the world to be great, whether it’s in football or something else in life.
“That’s what it’s about. Can you push through that just like she did, and can you be strong for the person next to you.”
De’Quan Hampton wasn’t prepared for the setbacks that led him to the XFL.
He’d never faced injuries as a wide receiver at the University of Southern California. He’d gone undrafted in 2017 and was later signed by the Detroit Lions. But a pulled right quad and a left hip flexor strain ended his brief NFL career.
“We all know this sport is cutthroat,” Hampton said. “If you’re not ready, next guy … I know I’m able to play this game at a high level, so all I wanted to be able to do is just showcase that.”
Hampton described his journey as a grind.
And that might be said about any of the players in attendance who keep coming back to football.
“You never really know,” former USC tight end Austin Applebee said about a possible career in the XFL, “but you gotta have faith in something.”
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