AAFL Shows Signs of Vitality

The All American Football League took its first step on Saturday towards becoming a reality when the league held its inaugural draft. In Gainesville where Team Florida set up its draft headquarters, the team and the league had a turnout that they hope is a sign of the future.

Simply put, the turnout at Saturday's draft that was open to the public and part of a regional live broadcast on Comcast Sports was much higher than anticipated. There was standing room only at the University of Florida Hilton Hotel as fans crammed their way in to get a chance at having conversations with some of the players they've had a chance to watch play in The Swamp over the last 15 years.

Jacksonville's 1010XL radio host Frank Frangie hosted the broadcast from the league's headquarters in Atlanta alongside Brady Ackerman and former Tennessee Volunteer Bubba Miller. Each team had a host site with Terry Norvelle assigned to Florida, and overall, it was a great debut for the league trying to get off the ground.

"We all realize how passionate Florida fans are about Gator football and college football in general," former Gator and Team Florida wide receiver Chris Doering said. "This is just a natural carryover and how excited they are about this concept and having football tied into the University of Florida and having football during a time when there is no football. It's a great validation of what the ownership and the coaches are trying to put together here."

"I went to the University of Florida so I'm very used to big turnouts to see quality players," former Gator and Team Florida quarterback Chris Leak said. "First off, there are already some great players protected for this team. You also have a lot of passionate football fans, not just Gator fans, but fans that love the game of football. You see guys that want to entertain and want to play good football. It's going to be a lot of fun."

The league combines the old with the new. There are several protected players on Florida roster that come off of last year's national championship team – Leak, Brian Crum and Steve Rissler. But there are also players that come off of Florida's 1996 national championship team like Doering. And for their first round draft pick, Team Florida head coach Shane Matthews selected a former back-up quarterback at the University of Florida, Eric Kresser.

"This is great for me personally because I played at the University of Florida for four years, but I also lived here in the offseason for every year afterward except for the last couple of years," Kresser said. "This is like coming home for me. It's like a dream come true especially to play professional football in Gainesville and with guys that I played with and against. I don't know how I lucked into this situation, but it's a great situation."

Each team is allowed to protect players that graduated from schools within its borders. Team Florida can protect players from Florida, Florida State, Miami, Central Florida, South Florida and more. Other teams also have the luxury of going outside their state borders since their base may not be as big as Florida's. For instance, Team Tennessee can also protect players from South Carolina and Team Alabama can protect players from Mississippi and Georgia.

Players that went unprotected because they graduated from a school outside of the team's designated region fall into the at-large draft pool. Kresser fell into that category since his degree is from Marshall University.

"I may have been protected if I graduated from Florida, but we had to go with the process," Kresser said, "I think I would have been disappointed if I had to go to Detroit or Texas to play and then come into Gainesville to play against all my old buddies."

The drafting of Kresser presents an early quarterback controversy for Matthews. Leak is younger and coming of a national championship, but Kresser won a title himself at Marshall, knows the offensive system that Matthews is installing and played in the NFL.

"I'm in very good shape, so I don't think the physical thing is going to hurt me," Kresser said. "As far as mentally, I've been in just about every league you can think of and seen every kind of playbook and defense they can come up with. Both of us are going to have to be ready. Whoever gets in there first, it's probably only a matter of time before the other guy gets his chance."

"Anytime you have competition at any position, it makes those guys better and it makes the team better," Doering said. "We all know how it tough it is for a quarterback to make it through a full season anyway. The worst thing is that we have two great players in case the other guy goes down and the best-case scenario is that these guys will compete each and every day and will make each other better in the end."

Both Doering and Kresser have had their time in the NFL, so they look at the AAFL as another opportunity to play in a competitive atmosphere. But for Leak and many others, they're hoping to use the league as a spring board to the NFL.

"That's what a lot of these guys are hoping to do," Leak said. "They're showcasing their talents and hoping to make the jump to the NFL. A lot of these guys didn't get that opportunity to do that through free agency and the draft, so that's what this league is allowing them to do."

"It's funny because you have some guys out there for different reasons," Doering said. "You have guys like Willie Jackson and me who are just trying to have some fun and be competitive again and you have some other guys that are trying to work their way into the NFL. I think that's what makes this such a great opportunity because there is something in it for everybody. If we all work hard and play together then hopefully we'll have some success and even win a championship."

The hardest thing for guys like Doering and Jackson may be getting themselves back into game shape. After all, some of the older guys are going against guys that are just out of college and competed for jobs in NFL camps or have been members of NFL practice squads.

"That's the hardest part especially with the age variance," Doering said. "I'm 34 going to turn 35, but I'll be playing against guys that are 22, but I think I have a lot more experience having played nine years in the NFL. It's only been about two years since I was in my last training camp. For a guy like me that was slow to begin with, I haven't lost a step and I'll just do what I can do."

Team Florida kicks off its schedule on April 19 at Team Michigan. They play their first of five home games at The Swamp on April 26 against Team Arkansas. Three home games are scheduled for The Swamp and one game each will be played at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa and Jacksonville Municipal Stadium.

For more information visit www.AAFL.com.

Watch a full replay of the draft at PlayON!.

Questions or comments? Contact FightinGators.com's Chris Chmielenski

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