The sales manager drops back to pass. He’s looking for an opening somewhere, anywhere on the field when all of a sudden it happens.
The social worker finds a hole in the defense in the back of the end zone. He streaks toward it, the ball sailing high through the air and finally settling into his hands. 3,200 red-and-black clad fans leap to their feet, screaming and cheering as the social worker finds a lucky fan to give the ball to.
Randy Hutchison and Reggie Gray aren’t your average sales manager or social worker though. They’re professional football stars for the Chicago Slaughter of the Indoor Football League, earning about $250 a game to live out their childhood dreams. Players in the Arena Football League, the best of whom earned more than $200,000 before the league shut down for the 2009 season, now earn anywhere from $450-$1,000 per game – not nearly enough to live on.
By Matt Lindner
For many of these guys though, it’s not about the money. It’s about the chance to get out on the field and hear the roar of the crowd long after their dreams were supposedly dead.
“I never planned on playing after college and I got approached by a team right out of college and gave it a shot and fell in love with it right away,” Hutchison says.
It’s a love affair that comes with a lot of sacrifices.
Three days a week, in order to attend practices and games, Hutchison makes the 3 ½ hour commute to Hoffman Estates from Ft. Wayne, IN where he works as a sales manager for toy manufacturer Peg Perego .
“I would say if there’s a competition on who’s driving the longest, I’m winning it,” he says.
And he’s not alone. Many players in indoor leagues across the country commute from other locations to be with their teams.
West Michigan (Grand Rapids) ThunderHawk offensive lineman Vernon Burden is a math teacher at Southfield High School in Detroit. He’s also a wrestling and track coach at the school, something he says makes for a lot of long days during football season.
“I wake up at 6:30, school day starts at 7:20 and days when we would have practice, I would get back from Grand Rapids roughly around midnight to one o’clock depending on what time practice was,” he says. “
His on-field persona is a far cry from who he is in the classroom. Burden has established himself as a fan favorite even in visiting arenas. On this night in Hoffman Estates, he’s hustling to protect his quarterback, talking smack with the fans behind his team’s bench, and doing everything he can to pump his team up.
Burden says the 80 hour weeks can be exhausting, but his students have been very supportive of their math teacher’s “other” job.
“It makes teaching fun too because when I go back to school, it’s all how did your game go, how was this, I’ll show them pictures,” he says. “My students really like it.”
Burden’s teenagers aren’t the only one benefitting from an indoor football player’s positive influence.
As a social worker, 26-year-old Reggie Gray works with at-risk youths ages 17-20, helping give their lives direction and steering them down the right path as they prepare to enter the real world. He feels as though he’s an even better influence on the teens he works with because of his success on the field.
“They look at me as a role model. They see somebody being successful that’s not too far from their age,” he says. “I enjoy what I do because I help them out and show them some of the things I was taught growing up and then hopefully they can become successful.”
And while the long weeks can be draining, all three men say it’s worth it if only for the chance to don Superman’s cape 16 weeks a year.
“The big thing is for the love of the game, being around all the guys, the team camaraderie and getting a chance to go out and play a game you love at 27 years old,” Hutchison says.
“Football wise, I’m gonna go until my body says no,” Gray adds. “As far as helping kids out, that’s all I want to do for the rest of my life in some form or fashion.”
“Unless there’s a team closer to where I live, I don’t know if I can do the 80 hour weeks anymore,” Burden says. “This might be the last hurrah season, but who knows maybe some blessings will happen and I’ll have one or two more.”
Matt Lindner is a contributor to ESPN.com and MLB.comFollow paulmbanks