A writer's attempt to make the reborn Columbus Destroyers
Under the inflated dome of the Bo Jackson Elite Sports complex in Hilliard, a small army of men in Columbus Destroyers T-shirts warm up early on a Saturday in March. About 130 players have paid $100 to $150 a head for the shirt and the privilege of trying out for the city’s Arena Football League expansion team. I’m hoping not to be the worst of them.
Just after 9 a.m., head coach Matt Sauk calls everyone to midfield. The first segment of the tryout is modeled on the NFL Combine: the 40-yard dash, a cone drill, a short shuttle and the broad jump. “This is your chance,” Sauk says. “Don’t hold anything back.”
A hierarchy emerges. Some players are talented enough to compete for a roster spot. Others are athletic but not pro caliber. And some are just here to say they did it. It’s reassuring to see a few balding heads and sagging bodies. I’m 35 and haven’t played competitive football since middle school. Also, I’m wearing Rawlings cleats. Rawlings are objectively terrible, and mine aren’t even football cleats.
“This is the most expensive T-shirt ever,” says one skinny player who has accepted his fate by the end of the first drill. We rotate to the broad jump, where a player who looks like he was genetically engineered in a lab outleaps my best effort by nearly 3 feet. This is football tourism for some of us.
We line up for the 40-yard dash, and a coach asks for my number. No number, I tell him, I’m media. He smiles wide. “Get it,” he says. I run hard. I do not get it. Whatever it is left me behind long ago. I decide that rather than try out as a wide receiver, as I intended, I’m now going to try to be a quarterback.
The arena, stagnant for most of the morning as players wait around between drills, comes alive when the actual football begins. As defensive coordinator Clay Harrell tells our group: Football is fun; the real world isn’t (though he phrases it in poetically profane coach-speak). He’s right. Football is exhilarating, intoxicating even, especially when it’s been years since you’ve had a hit. Today is an escape.
The quarterbacks line up in two rows, taking turns throwing to receivers on either side of the field, one after another—boom, boom, boom, boom—a baptism by fire. Bad passes waste everyone’s time, and a couple of mine kick up synthetic black dirt short of my target. I realize I’m costing everyone else reps. I pull myself out. A few minutes later, Sauk calls out the first cuts by number: “90. 4. 94. 134. Green shorts.” I’m green shorts. I imagine others might be relieved to see a notebook in my hand rather than a football. The only people Americans likes less than journalists are bad quarterbacks.
Afterward, Sauk laughs and apologizes for cutting me, though I point out that technically I’d already quit—an unparalleled competitive failure. No one will be signed today, but he plans to bring back at least four players during training camp or sometime during the season, which starts on April 27.
A few days later, the Destroyers announce the first tryout signing, Trevon Saunders, a wide receiver from Columbus Africentric Early College and Urbana University. Congratulations—call me if you want some lightly used Rawlings.
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