The inside story of the AAF's final day, through the eyes of its players

Chris Martin was content, his mind occupied fully on football as he walked off the practice field Tuesday morning.

Martin, an offensive lineman for the Orlando Apollos of the Alliance of American Football, had just been told that he was finally starting at right tackle for the Apollos’ upcoming game against San Diego, and he couldn’t have been happier. To him, the chance to play the position where he’s most comfortable offered him his best chance to have good tape, the kind that might make him attractive to an NFL team down the road.

But it didn’t take long for Martin’s excitement to dwindle. When he walked in the locker room, he sensed something was wrong as he eyed a group of his teammates, all huddled up, heads buried in their phones. Something major had happened, and the vibe wasn’t good.

“They just had a look on their faces, and it was something I hadn’t really seen before,” Martin told Yahoo Sports.

ORLANDO, FLORIDA - FEBRUARY 23: A general view of signage reading 'Alliance of American Football' is seen as the Orlando Apollos take on the Memphis Express during an Alliance of American Football game on February 23, 2019 in Orlando, Florida.  The Orlando Apollos won 21-17. (Photo by Harry Aaron/AAF/Getty Images)
The Alliance of American Football suspended operations Tuesday with two games left on its inaugural season's schedule. (Getty Images)

Players started urging others to check their phones, while some started saying “it’s real, real.” Eventually, receiver Jalin Marshall told Martin the news he’d been dreading since word of the AAF’s impending doom started circulating late last week, the outcome he prayed would never come.

“Yeah man, I think the league might be folding,” Marshall told him.

From there, Apollos coach Steve Spurrier walked in and canceled practice, and players were then sent to the hotel where they were being housed for a team meeting. That’s when they heard confirmation: the struggling AAF was suspending all league operations, effective immediately.

And though they haven’t been told the league is folding for good, players also said their goodbyes — just in case.

“That’s when it got real,” Apollos center Jordan McCray said. “There were some emotions in the room as well.”

ORLANDO, FLORIDA - MARCH 16:  Jordan McCray #64 of the Orlando Apollos prepares to hike the ball during the second quarter of the Alliance of American Football game against the Arizona Hotshots at Spectrum Stadium on March 16, 2019 in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Julio Aguilar/AAF/Getty Images)
Orlando center Jordan McCray on the AAF's quick end: "Just for it to be over so abruptly, it kinda — not kinda — it does suck." (Getty Images)

State of shock as AAF suspends operations

And why wouldn’t there be emotions?

For starters, the league that was in its first year of operation offered several players (both young and old) who toiled on the fringes of the NFL the opportunity to show their wares and keep their dreams alive. There’s a brotherhood in that shared struggle, one that only a player — someone who has spent months working out at home, waiting for a phone call from an NFL team that may never come — understands.

What’s more, the pay — $7,000 a game over a 10-game schedule — was pretty darned good work for half a year. And by the way, the Apollos were winning. At 7-1, they had the best record in the eight-team league, and many were having the time of their lives, including Martin, 29, and McCray, 26.

Then Tuesday comes, and boom, it’s over. Leaving players like McCray and Martin, who were first teammates at UCF several years ago and were reunited with the Apollos, to pick up the pieces.

“We’re all doing what we came here to do, which is win, get good film and create some memories for a lifetime,” McCray said. “Just for it to be over so abruptly, it kinda — not kinda — it does suck.”

“Like, it really does hurt — it’s hard to believe,” Martin said. “You form relationships and a brotherhood with people. We’ve seen each other every day for three months. And now, just like that, we may never see each other again. So, it’s a hard emotion to explain. I can’t really even put it into words.”

AAF’s demise a chance for players to reflect

Sitting in his place in Alabama, Birmingham Iron linebacker Beniquez Brown — the league’s second-leading tackler — found the words. But they were mainly of gratitude.

As he awaited to hear of the league’s fate, the 25-year-old started thinking about how happy he was that a two-year stint in the football wilderness — between the time he was cut from the Green Bay Packers’ practice squad and signed by the Iron — taught him the importance of making the most of every AAF snap.

“When you get the game taken away from you, you don’t take anything for granted,” Brown said. “Maybe before when you were big time in college, you kind of took the game for granted. But you realize how important the game is, how much you love it, when you don’t have it. Everyday [away from the game] was hard because you didn’t know if you’d play again.”

Orlando Apollos head coach Steve Spurrier waves to the crowd as he enters the field before kick-off against the Memphis Express during an AAF football game, Saturday, Feb. 23, 2019, at Spectrum Stadium in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Rick Wilson)
Orlando head coach Steve Spurrier had sharp criticism for the owners of the league. "Everyone was led to believe that the Alliance was well funded and we could play three years without making and money and this, that and the other. Obviously, everything that was said was not very truthful." (AP)

More than anything, that gratitude for playing again links the four AAF players who spoke to Yahoo Sports on Tuesday, so much so that the cold-hearted abruptness of the league’s decision to suspend operations — and the conflicts the decision caused — didn’t make them angry; it made them reflective, and a little sad.

“We were all having fun, and to be able to play this game still and be paid enough to support your family, it’s a blessing,” Martin said. “And all of a sudden, [for it to end] just like that, I don’t think they realize how much this affects people and their families and how many are actually affected. It just caught everybody off guard, really. Everybody.”

In Martin’s case, he was relieved Tuesday that a house he and his wife had put an offer on Monday in Orlando was rejected, for example.

“If they hadn’t denied it, we would have been in a very bad situation,” Martin said. “That’s the kind of stuff I don’t think people realize.”

Players remain hopeful despite AAF’s shutdown

In Memphis, after the team-wide meeting with team officials, cornerback Terrell Bonds booked a flight to Miami so he could be home by the end of the night.

But he says some of his older teammates with wives and kids were busy not only trying to figure out their future lodging, but also fretting the income they’d be missing out on due to the cancellation of the final two games.

“A lot of guys were concerned about whether we’d be paid for the last game, what was gonna happen with the next two weeks,” Bonds said. “They had questions for Coach [Mike] Singletary, but I’m not sure if he had the answers. So hopefully they get back to us in the next couple of days and we hear back from that.”

Players won’t receive a severance check, the Action Network reported Tuesday evening.

MEMPHIS, TN - FEBRUARY 16: Terrell Bonds #21 of the Memphis Express runs onto the field before a game against the Arizona Hotshots at the Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium on February 16, 2019 in Memphis, Tennessee. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/AAF/Getty Images)
MEMPHIS, TN - FEBRUARY 16: Terrell Bonds #21 of the Memphis Express runs onto the field before a game against the Arizona Hotshots at the Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium on February 16, 2019 in Memphis, Tennessee. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/AAF/Getty Images)

Bonds holds no grudges. As an undrafted free agent out of Tennessee State in 2018, he went to only one NFL minicamp before signing with Memphis, where he recorded 17 tackles in eight games (two starts) as the Express’ nickel corner. The opportunity to play – and potentially catch the eye of some team, somewhere — was priceless.

“I had a lot of fun, got a bunch of new friends … guys that will be my brothers for life now, even though I only knew them for three or four months,” Bonds said. “Coach Singletary is a great coach, the coaching staff was great. I just hate that it had to end like this.”

It was a sentiment that McCray and Martin both shared, though both — in addition to Bonds — expressed hope that the league can resume operations in some form.

“I’m an optimistic person — I’m still hoping that something happens to where this can be reversed,” McCray said. “But I understand how life goes; some things have to come to an end sooner than you want them to. Regardless of what happens, I’m just happy we got a chance to showcase at least a little of our abilities, and have this fun for the time that we did.”

“It was a great time,” Martin concluded. “It’s kind of hard that it got snatched away.”

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