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De’Veon Smith, Orlando Apollos running back

Photo courtesy of The Alliance of American Football

De’Veon Smith, Orlando Apollos running back

The Orlando Apollos deserved better than the Alliance of American Football 

A Greek tragedy

The Alliance of American Football was supposed to be different.

Announced in March 2018, the eight-team developmental spring league was pitched as faster, rougher and more action-packed than the NFL. What it lacked in marquee talent, it would make up for in excitement: no kickoffs, no one-point conversions, a shorter play clock, no bullshit rules to protect the quarterback. It would be more like traditional football than the arena variety, and not as schlocky as the short-lived XFL, but somewhere in the middle.

To be sure, the XFL was an inspiration. One of the AAF's founders, Charlie Ebersol – the son of former NBC Sports head Dick Ebersol – had directed a documentary on WWE executive Vince McMahon's 2001 gridiron stunt, and was fascinated by its spectacle. But the other founder, Bill Polian, was a former general manager for the NFL's Buffalo Bills and Indianapolis Colts, and the league had also picked up some former NFL greats as advisers, including soon-to-be Hall of Fame safety Troy Polamalu, defensive end Justin Tuck, wide receiver Hines Ward and vaunted rules analyst Mike Pereira.

The AAF was designed to be the best of both worlds – and eventually, it might serve as a pipeline to the NFL. Unlike in college football, the players would be paid: They'd all receive the same $250,000, three-year deal, which would come with an exit clause in case the NFL called. Players would be signed to teams based on the geographic regions in which they played college ball, too, so there was also a "hometown" aesthetic.

The idea was enticing enough to attract some big names. The brand Starter inked a deal to be the official apparel provider. Heisman winner (and NFL wash-out) Johnny Manziel signed on to quarterback the Memphis Express, a team coached by Pro Football Hall of Famer (and former San Francisco 49ers head coach) Mike Singletary. But maybe the biggest get, at least around here, was legendary former University of Florida coach Steve Spurrier, who agreed to helm Orlando's franchise, dubbed the Apollos.

The idea took off in Orlando. More than 20,000 people crowded into the University of Central Florida's Spectrum Stadium on Saturday, Feb. 9, for the team's debut against the Atlanta Legends. CBS broadcast that first game, a 40–6 shellacking in which Apollos QB Garrett Gilbert threw for 227 yards. Similar crowds showed up for the next two home contests – attendance figures not far off what Orlando City Soccer Club usually pulls, and nearly double the Orlando Predators' home average in 2016, the last year it played in the Arena Football League before disbanding. (The Preds re-launched in the National Arena League earlier this month.)

"That was the main thing: We had a professional football team," says Darrell Williams, who, along with his wife, Linda, was the first Apollos season ticket holder. "We live in Sanford and, yeah, we go to Tampa Bay [Buccaneers] games. But holy cannoli, when we found out about this, I said, 'Baby, this is right up our alley. We can go watch professional football players play and we have front row seats right on about the 20-yard line.'"

"And they had Steve Spurrier," Linda Williams adds. "How many people can say that?"

Through the first eight weeks of the 10-week regular season, the Apollos dominated, going a league-best 7–1 and clinching a playoff berth. Gilbert led the AAF in passing. Following a stunning fourth-quarter comeback victory in Memphis on March 30, the Apollos were headed back to Orlando to face the 3–5 San Diego Fleet.

That game never happened.

click to enlarge PHOTO COURTESY OF THE ALLIANCE OF AMERICAN FOOTBALL
  • Photo courtesy of The Alliance of American Football

Fifty-three days after the league's first snap, and 25 days before its champion was supposed to be crowned, the AAF suddenly collapsed. By April 17, facing mounting lawsuits, the league filed for bankruptcy. In hindsight, it's easy to see the AAF for what it was: a financial game of Jenga that was teetering on the brink of disaster from the outset.

But at the time, its sudden demise to everyone – players, coaches, even the league's growing fan base – came completely by surprise. Weeks later, one question remains: Who's to blame?

"You know, you go back and forth and say, 'Should I have known this, and should I have known that?'" says Michael Waddell, the Apollos' former president. "At some point, you ..." Waddell stops and sighs. "It's just a great disappointment. We had players and coaches and staff that moved here because they believed in what we were doing, and came together in a very short amount of time, came together as a family."

He adds: "I'm just disappointed that we were unable to finish out what we started."

click to enlarge Terence Garvin, offensive lineman, Orlando Apollos. - PHOTO COURTESY OF THE ALLIANCE OF AMERICAN FOOTBALL
  • Photo courtesy of The Alliance of American Football
  • Terence Garvin, offensive lineman, Orlando Apollos.

As seems to be appropriate in 2019, the end – or news of it – came on Twitter. Shortly before 1 p.m. on April 2, word began to circulate that Tom Dundon, a 47-year-old billionaire who had acquired a majority stake in the AAF less than two months earlier, had decided to shut the whole thing down, over the objections of Ebersol and Polian.

By 5 p.m., it was official.

Dundon, who owns the NHL's Carolina Hurricanes, had pledged to pump $250 million into the AAF in February. He'd moved in after an initial funder bailed following the league's season opener, and his investment gave the league the appearance of a strong foundation on which to grow. Indeed, that's what Dundon said when he took over.

"There's a difference between commitment and funding," Dundon told the media in February. "They had the commitments to last a long time, but maybe not the money in the bank. My money is in my bank. I'm sure of it. ... That's enough money to run this league for a long time. We're good for many years to come with what I just did."

That's not what happened. Dundon, it turns out, had only agreed to float the AAF week to week. And by the end of March, the league had burned through $70 million of his cash.

Dundon's desperation move was a threat to dissolve his league unless the NFL Players Association let the AAF use younger NFL players, with the hope that bigger names coming out of college football would cement the AAF's status as a developmental league. Though there were rumors, the NFLPA initially declined.

After that, it seems he gave up.

Dundon made his fortune off of subprime car loans and an investment in the sports and entertainment gaming franchise TopGolf. He'd bought the struggling Carolina Hurricanes in 2018, overhauled the organization, and a year later it made the playoffs for the first time in a decade. He should have known what he was getting into.

AAF executives have remained mum since the league dissolved, and Dundon did not respond to repeated requests for an interview. But it seems clear the league was a financial garbage fire. Almost all of Dundon's $70 million went to payroll; the league's vendors were getting shafted.

The AAF, for example, owes UCF more than $325,000. The league signed a three-year agreement in which the Apollos would play five home games a year at Spectrum Stadium at $75,000 a pop, for a total of $1.1 million. The team only ended up playing three games there, bringing the tab to $225,000, plus unpaid expenses for police and other vendors.

UCF sent the AAF three invoices before the league pulled the plug. The check has yet to arrive.

The university declined to comment on whether it would pursue legal action, adding to the two lawsuits that have already been filed, and the AAF's former head of business operations did not respond to questions about how the league would pay its outstanding debts.

Though the AAF's website is mostly inactive, a statement on its homepage says, "This is not the way we wanted it to end, but we are also committed to working on solutions for all outstanding issues to the best of our ability. Due to ongoing legal processes, we are unable to comment further or share details about the decision."

The AAF never really had its shit together. Case in point: Just three weeks into the season, the Apollos had to move their practices from Camping World Stadium to a high school in southern Georgia, with the players being bused back and forth from hotels in Jacksonville. This happened because Florida does not cover athletes under its workers compensation laws, and the AAF hadn't found an insurance company to cover the entire league. Having the Apollos spend 51 percent of their practice days on Georgia soil allowed players the option, if needed, to file a claim under the state's workers' compensation laws.

Football, it goes without saying, is a violent, concussion-prone sport. Launching a football league without an insurer does not seem like a particularly well-considered decision.

That was one of many ill-considered decisions. Perhaps these decisions were ill-considered because the AAF rushed to get on the field. In January 2018, two months before Ebersol and Polian made their announcement, Vince McMahon said he was going to take another stab at the XFL in spring 2020, so maybe they wanted to beat him – and his promised half-billion-dollar investment – to the punch.

That's speculation. Regardless, the AAF's collapse has produced a volcano of legal activity.

John Swope and Jay Roberson, who worked for the AAF's Birmingham Iron franchise, filed a potentially class-action federal lawsuit arguing that the league failed to follow the federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act when it issued the nationwide layoffs in April.

Birmingham Iron punter Colton Schmidt and Apollos linebacker Reggie Northrup have brought another claim, saying they wouldn't have subjected themselves to "serious risk of physical or damage to [their] health" or "forgone other financial opportunities" had they been aware of the AAF's shaky financial standing. In addition, the lawsuit alleges that the AAF not paying its players for the last two regular season games indicates that the AAF entered the contracts in bad faith.

click to enlarge Scott Orndoff and Sean Price, Orlando Apollos tight ends, in better days - PHOTO COURTESY OF THE ALLIANCE OF AMERICAN FOOTBALL
  • Photo courtesy of The Alliance of American Football
  • Scott Orndoff and Sean Price, Orlando Apollos tight ends, in better days

In August, before AAF teams had chosen their mascots, Spurrier was excited.

"I think we can put a really good product on the field. I'm watching all these NFL games right now and half the guys are playin' in the preseason, they're gonna get cut and they're gonna be wantin' to play in our league," Spurrier told Orlando Weekly.

Asked whether fans should be patient, Spurrier sounded frustrated. "No, they shouldn't be patient. Three weeks is plenty of time to put a good football team together," Spurrier said, referring to the AAF's training camp that winter.

He did put a good football team together.

The Apollos came out hot and stayed that way, going undefeated through the first five weeks of the season. Gilbert was the best passer in the league. Wide receiver Charles Johnson accumulated 45 catches for 687 yards and five touchdowns, and defensive back Keith Reaser recorded three interceptions.

That was good enough for them to parlay their eight weeks in the AAF into NFL contracts: Gilbert signed with the Cleveland Browns. Johnson and Reaser have gone to the Philadelphia Eagles and Kansas City Chiefs, respectively. Several other AAF players made a similar jump. For many of them, the developmental league offered a second chance to show their stuff.

But not everyone will go to football's majors.

"A lot of guys were hurt by this," says Sean Price, a former tight end with the Apollos who played at the University of South Florida. "Leaving the [last team] meeting, it was very emotional for some people. They just didn't account for other people's living situations. It's just not – it's just not fair."

Price moved his girlfriend and child to Central Florida from Colorado Springs, where he was an intramural sports director for soldiers and families at a military base. Like all players in the AAF, he signed a three-year deal. The league didn't live up to its word, he says.

"I mean, I just felt betrayed," Price says. "It was a great league. I loved the way the league was set up and all the opportunities that had been given to us. But just to take it away seems very disrespectful, very childish. It seems that they had the funds in place. They just had some upper management issues that nothing to do with the players."

As Price continues training, he's keeping an eye toward the next iteration of the XFL. He's also considering taking legal action against the AAF, perhaps joining Schmidt and Northrup's lawsuit.

"To just have [the league] dismantled while we're at a practice like that, it's crazy," Price says. "So hopefully this lawsuit, or whoever else, can see it through that what they did was wrong and they should pay out these athletes and coaches for the time, for the contract that they had."

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