Arena ball serves many purposes for old Cougs

FOR MKRISTO BRUCE it's a chance to kick start a career. For Ron Childs and Chad DeGrenier, both pushing 40, it's purely the enjoyment of playing a young man's game. For superstar Chris Jackson, it's a lucrative living that finds him rubbing shoulders with the likes of Jon Bon Jovi. And for Jason Gesser, it's a classroom experience helping prep him for a life in coaching.

Spring is in full bloom, but for a host of former Cougar football players -– and the estimated 500,000 fans who fill basketball and hockey arenas each week to watch their favorite indoor football teams -– this time of year means high-flyin', head crackin'action.

There are more than 60 cites around the nation that are home to indoor football teams, where short fields, no sidelines and lots of passing make for a hard-hitting, high-octane score-fest.

It's basically a head-on collision between a hockey game and the run-and-shoot offense.

The flagship –- the 22-year-old Arena Football League -- features 17 franchises that average nearly 13,000 fans per game. The AFL is so successful that ESPN now owns a 10 percent stake. The AFL even has its own, robust development league -- the 29-team AF2 -- that includes franchises in Spokane, Kennewick and Boise.

From a crimson-hued perspective, the result of it all is that former Cougar ballplayers have a chance to keep playing the game. For some, it'll be the final chapter.

For others, it's a hoped-for stepping stone into, or back to, the NFL.

That's where Bruce is.

MKRISTO BRUCE

He spent last season on the Oakland Raiders' practice squad but wasn't re-signed. The two-time All-Pac-10 performer had tryouts over the winter with the Jaquars and Bills that didn't produce offers. So when he got a call from the AFL's Arizona Rattlers last month he jumped at the chance. He's played in games the last two weeks, first at his regular spot, defensive end, and then at linebacker.

"It's crazy because the game is a lot faster," Bruce told CF.C this week. "It's a lot of fun. Bodies are flying everywhere. And those walls can really close in – nine times out of 10 you're going to lose that battle."

The season, a little past the halfway point, concludes in June. Bruce hopes he'll be able to then slide into a training camp audition with an NFL team.

He has two Cougar teammates on the Rattlers -– receiver Trandon Harvey and offensive lineman Patrick Afif (injured reserve). Marcus Trufant's brother Isaiah, from Eastern Washington, also is on the team. Another Cougar, lineman Calvin Armstrong, was released by the club just before Bruce arrived.

Harvey, the hero of WSU's 2005 Apple Cup victory, is "taking the league by storm –- he's the face of the franchise right now," Bruce said. Indeed, Harvey made the AFL's all-rookie team last season with a 101 receptions and 34 TDs and so far this year has 53 catches and 15 TDs.

CHRIS MARTIN

Another Cougar is in line for the all-rookie team this season. Defensive back Chris Martin is in his first year with the Grand Rapids Rampage after stints in the CFL and AF2. He leads the Rampage in tackles and set a pair of franchise records when he returned three kickoffs for touchdowns in one game. ESPN picked him as the return specialist on its mid-season All-AFL team.

JACKSON MADE ONE OF the legendary TD catches in Cougar history –- from Ryan Leaf in the 1997 Apple Cup win that clinched WSU's first Rose Bowl berth in 67 years. This past November, he made another memorable grab –- to the tune of $260,000 over two years –- when Bon Jovi, owner of the Philadelphia Soul, lured him away from the Georgia Force.

JACKSON'S FABLED CATCH, 1997.

Jackson, who in his ninth AFL season already ranks among the five most prolific receivers in league history, hasn't disappointed his rock star owner. Last week, AFL beat writers voted Jackson the league's mid-season MVP. He followed that up over the weekend by catching his 300th career TD pass -- and needs just 11 more to own the all-time record.

Jackson's big salary is unusual for the AFL. The average is around $63,000 -– a number distorted by six-figure quarterbacks and other skills players. The league minimum is around $28,000.

One of the league's highest-paid players -- in the $200,000-a-year-range, is former WSU quarterback Aaron Garcia of the New York Avengers. He is in his 14th AFL season and ranks in the all-time top of five in virtually every passing category. During the league's 20th anniversary season two years ago he was voted the 11th greatest player in AFL history. The legend continues -- he was just named AFL offensive player of the month for April.

In WSU's Great Quarterbacking Controversy of 1990, Garcia and Brad Gossen were beat out by a true freshman named Drew Bledsoe. Garcia then transferred to Sacramento State. Given Bledsoe's place in football lore, Garcia states proudly on his official Avengers' bio that it was Drew who triggered his transfer.

BESIDES THE AFL, THERE also is the Continental Indoor Football League, with 15 teams based mostly in the Midwest, and the American Indoor Football Association (formerly the Arena Indoor Football League), a 16-team loop with a big presence in the south. The National Indoor Football League folded a year ago after seven rocky seasons.

CHAD DEGRENIER

The CIFL and AIFA stack up with AF2 in terms of quality.

DeGrenier, the old Cougar quarterback who stepped into the starting lineup in 1993 when Mike Pattinson broke his collarbone, is the heart-warming comeback kid of the AIFA's Arizona Adrenaline this season.

He left football four years ago after seven seasons in the AFL. But with his athletic clock ticking, he recently told the newspaper in Prescott, Ariz., he couldn't get the playing bug out of his system despite tremendous success as a high school coach.

And today, he leads the AIFA in passing efficiency, yards per game and completion percentage. He has fired 20 TDs passes and hasn't thrown an interception.

NOTABLE INDOOR NOTES:
• For a complete list of Cougars who are now playing in the AFL, click here.

Jerome Riley, a key member of WSU's 10-win teams of 2001 and '02, was picked to the AFL All-Ironman team last season for his work at both receiver and defensive back. He's been on the injured list with the Columbus Destroyers all this season. Riley became the third Cougar in recent years to earn All-Ironman recognition. Previous selectees were Chris Jackson and fellow Fab 5 member Kevin McKenzie.

Calvin Schexnayder, one of Drew Bledsoe's favorite Cougar targets in 1992, ranks among the most prolific receivers in AFL history. In his 11-year career, primarily with Arizona, he racked up 625 catches for 8,796 yards and 184 TDs. In 2001, the 15th anniversary of the AFL, the 1998 offensive player of the year was voted one of the 24 best AFLers of all time.

ESPN The Magazine has dubbed the AFL the nation's "Fifth Major" league behind the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL. In the last 10 years AFL franchise values have climbed from $400,000 per team to about $20 million.

Ron Childs, the former New Orleans Saint and MVP of WSU's 1994 Alamo Bowl team, came out of retirement three years ago to join his hometown team, the Tri-Cities Fever -- then of the National Indoor Football League (and now of the AF2). Cougfan.com did an interesting feature on Childs when he put the pads back on. Here's the link: Cougar legend still playing tenacious D

• Indoor football is played exclusively indoors, in arenas usually designed for either basketball or hockey. The field is 85-feet wide and 50 yards long.

JASON GESSER: Backup with the AFL's Utah Blaze.



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