Monday, March 2, 2009

AFL Veteran Talks Bluntly About League's Suspension, Management and Harsh Reality Facing Players

Long before Miles Austin became a Bill Parcells sweetheart in Dallas as an explosive kick returner and reliable 3rd down receiver for the Cowboys, another Monmouth University wideout was making waves in the 1-AA ranks and legitimizing the then-infant Hawks program.

When Will Holder graduated from the West Long Branch, NJ college, he did so as the school's all-time leading receiver in the program's young history with 115 catches for 2,309 yards and 25 touchdowns. He was named all North Eastern Conference selection from 1995-1997, and was a Division I-AA All-American in 1996 when he was the second leading kick returner in the country behind only Randy Moss.

Despite having been invited to try out a few times with a handful of NFL squads, he found his niche as a standout returner, WR and D-Back in the Arena Football League (AFL), starring with the New York Dragons from 2003-2007 and with the Kansas City Brigade this past season.

When the league's owners voted on indefinitely suspending the 2009 season this past December, Holder was one of the vocal players who expressed his frustration with the way the AFL was run and the manner in which the players were given little notice of its uncertain future.

As quoted last month in the NY Daily News: "There are not enough eyes and ears on the owners, who don't seem to have any motivation to build trust. We're dealing with millionaires and billionaires. These are people who know their businesses. They could have told us what's going on months ago so we could get ourselves and our families prepared."

We caught up with Will to talk about the AFL, its failures, its frustrations and its players' prospects for the future.

Hugging Harold Reynolds: You've touched on the unprofessional manner in which you viewed the league as having been run, and the subsequent negative impact it's had on the lives of its players. Can you elaborate on some of the frustrations and arguments you've had personally and that you've heard from teammates?

Will Holder: Where do I begin? The frustrations that many of the AFL’s players have for the AFL are equal and deserved. Depending on who you talk to the depth of the disappointment and frustration varies. Some of the guys have been playing 10+ years and those guys can give you a dissertation with real life personal experiences and examples to draw from, and even name names. Then there are your 5+ year players (such as myself 6+yrs) which obviously wouldn’t be as involved as the 10+ guys, but you get my drift. This was our career. Then you have your 1-2 and done guys who never really saw this as a realistic career for themselves in the first place.

From my standpoint the frustrations are endless. But they begin at a very fundamental binding agreement which we (AFL players union) formed with the league (AFL) called a CBA. Our collective bargaining agreement was restructured in 2003 and was good through 2010. Meaning, simply, the AFL would play, survive etc, peacefully through the 2010 season. Well, the owners, which total 16, with blatant disregard for the CBA voted with a two thirds majority to suspend the 2009 season with “hopes” of returning in 2010. I say ‘done with disregard’ because all this was done without our players union having a say in the matter. Once we did exercise our rights to play this season by simply not agreeing to suspend, the owners threatened to file for bankruptcy. We even, offered to cut our salaries league wide by 20% for the season. Wasn’t good enough. The frustration begins here because there is no clear cut answer as to WHY the owners wanted to suspend the 2009 season. We might hear whispers about revenue/cash flow issues, which we did, so we countered with a proposed cut in the salary cap. Not to mention the fact that the owners never shared proof of such a claim with our players union. Statistics have shown signs of a league thriving more and more with each passing year. To name a few, in 2008 attendance and TV ratings were up higher than any previous year and growing steady for the past 6yrs. And our TV ratings have been better than the NHL’s for the past couples years! Then you add in the fact that ESPN bought into the league in 06’ 07’ and you have what looks like a league that is making major strides. The AFL has no pension for its players, but you felt like things were moving in the right direction where we could possibly have a pension for AFL players in the near future.

So, this brings to mind the question of trust. Trust among players and ownership. The bottom doesn’t just fall out “all of a sudden” like it did for the AFL. Something didn’t seem right when our commissioner David Baker “suddenly” resigned without warning on Arena Bowl weekend 2008 in New Orleans. His resignation came just after the players/owners/league meetings took place. I know people who know Dave Baker personally and even spent significant time with him that weekend the moments leading up to his resignation. I won’t name names because the people I speak of are not affiliated with the AFL, but they have said to this day, they had no idea Mr. Baker was stepping down and that it hit them like a ton of bricks when they found out about it. Since then, they have not heard a word from our former commissioner as their phone calls have gone unanswered so have their emails. Weird huh? Now, word is Baker stepped off with an $8,000,000.00 package from the AFL. Sound familiar? Coincidentally, the league was in debt just over $8mil coming into this season. A debt obviously no one wanted to pay.

Frustration has built up within the players circle over the past few years as more and more NFL owners and former players have discovered the AFL as a new hobby. This has been a particular area of concern among players who felt the new NFL ownership/management coming into the AFL has done nothing but come in and try to change the very things/rules that made our game unique. Rumors suggested they wanted to make the AFL more of a farm league for the NFL. Using their celebrity and star power to strong arm the rest of the ownership around the league, rules have been changing constantly over the past several years. An experiment gone bad if you ask me, by people who have no real passion for this sport. So if you do the common sense math, you have a commissioner doing anything he can do to grow the league. In process you have owners buying in and growing the league under the guise of being passionate about the Arena Football brand. Complicated but simple when you calculate how things came to a head this offseason.

Gene Upshaw was the top executive of our players union until his untimely passing this past summer. Under Gene Upshaw we (the AFL players union) had stability, we had power, we had respect and AFL business was handled with the players interest at hand. When Mr. Upshaw passed all that seemed to have withered away overnight. The next major happening was the resignation of Dave Baker. After that came a powerful investment firm from California called The Platinum Group that offered to buy into the league at 40% stake and take over all management responsibility, better known as single entity. Not every owner was thrilled about having this group come in and basically take over so the Platinum Group transaction did not garner enough votes necessary to become a reality. And that’s when the bottom fell out. So to make a long story short, lol, The owners that voted for suspending the season are the same owners who voted for the Platinum Group buying into the league making us a single entity.

Most of our players, I’d say 99%, had absolutely no idea this disaster was taking place. The majority of players knew nothing until late December just before Christmas when they saw “AFL suspends 2009 season with hopes of returning in 2010” flashing across ESPN. Five hundred+ men and their families (and fans) had the rug snatched from underneath them by the AFL ownership a couple days before Christmas and nobody knows exactly why, or what the ownerships intentions are, or if they are even really planning on reviving the league in 2010. As you can imagine, when one loses his primary source of income, it can have a snowball effect on the rest of his life and his family, which I need not go into detail about. I cannot speak for the hardships of every player, but just know that when a crisis hit one of us, it affects us all. We players are tight, we stick together and stand by one another through thick and thin. But somehow all the unity in the world couldn’t land us on the indoor turf this winter… And that’s what’s so frustrating to all of the players including myself.

To the owners credit, since all this blew over, they have committed to extending health/dental insurance benefits through 2009 for eligible players. Although our health benefits have been scaled back a bit, it’s a start in the right direction.

HHR: Where do many of these teammates find themselves now, after many of whom like yourself could count on the season for the last several years as a career and source of income?

WH: I have been contact with a lot of guys and the one common denominator I hear from them all is “wake up call.” And that’s even from those who view the league in the most negative light. The guys who are less fortunate are making moves obviously to keep from losing their homes, cars, phones and the most basic necessities of life i.e. career changes. Some are looking to play in the CFL. Those who are in a more comfortable position (which are few) are going back to school, starting their own businesses etc. One of the things I have taken advantage of personally is the opportunity to spend increased quality time with my children and immediate family. No matter what you do or no matter how much money you make, you can’t buy back lost time. Additionally I have gotten more involved in my community and even had the privilege to volunteer for the Obama campaign this fall.

HHR: As a college standout at a small college, it would seem that the AFL was a natural fit to get your foot in the door of professional football and catch the attention of NFL scouts. Without that option, where do players who experienced similar success to yours turn now that the league has closed its doors?

WH: Let me first say, the AFL isn’t a natural fit for anybody! Hahaha We all grew up playing football on the big field all our lives and adjusting to the AFL game was a challenge to say the least. But you are right, it did provide players like myself the unique opportunity to showcase our talents against players who were from the elite college programs around the country for the NFL scouts to see. An opportunity which I had coming out of my rookie year with the NY Dragons. The Philadelphia Eagles offered me a free agent contract to play from 2004 through 2006. A contract which I would turn down once they conveniently inserted the provision that said I had to play NFL Europa first. With money being as tight as was, earning the AFL league minimum for my rookie year, was and very few resources from which to draw from, I had to remain in the AFL to keep a roof over my family’s heads. The other option would have put too much of a strain on my wife and two very young children at that time. Then there was the blind optimism on my part, thinking that I’d get another shot to sign an NFL contract with another productive season in the AFL, which did happen 2 years later with the Oakland Raiders.

Without the AFL or NFL Europe, standout players from small schools such as myself have several options, such as to play in similar leagues to the AFL but for significantly less pay. There are pro football leagues starting up all over the country. I’ve heard of at least three since the AFL folded. Then there is always the CFL. NFL teams are also allowed to keep more players on the practice squad than they were able to before. So there are options for the players out there determined to play pro football. I’d encourage standout players from small schools to focus on playing football period no matter what league. The opportunity to show what you’ve got can come and go with the blink of an eye, and its imperative that you are ready for that opportunity.

HHR: As a player, what were your personal expectations playing in the AFL? Out of college did you ever imagine not playing professional football?

WH: My expectations of playing in the AFL were the same as everyone else’s; Get my foot in the door, make a splash, sign with an NFL team and win a super bowl etc… The American dream! Not until my junior year did I think I could play football professionally. I was a late bloomer all my life. I was always fast, quick and naturally strong. It took the advice of my college coach to make me realize I could play in the NFL. So out of college I had a shot with the NY Giants. At this Giants minicamp were players from all over the country who I would watch on TV Saturday evenings and see highlights of on sports center. Well I faired really well against these guys which did a hell of a lot for my confidence. And while the opportunity to play for the Giants didn’t work out, I always knew that had I not rolled both my ankles on that day, I would have been suiting up on Sundays. So to answer your question, No, I couldn’t imagine not playing professional football.

HHR: How did playing at a 1-AA school prepare you for the professional game - both your tenure in the AFL and your tryout with the Raiders, if at all?

WH: For a competitive athlete such as myself playing 1AA college ball always made me feel like I had something to prove. I never got that sense that “I’ve arrived” if you know what I mean. In turn this had a domino effect on my work ethic. One thing lead to the next and I was never satisfied. I admit, between my last game in college and my mini camp with the Giants I did not work as hard as I should have for personal reasons. Being 6ft 185 pounds out of college, I was a dime a dozen and didn’t realize nor did anyone communicate to me effectively enough what it took to make it one the next level. But I’d always reflect back on my 1AA days as my source of inspiration. And my lack of preparation while with the Giants would haunt me in some ways, leaving that ‘something to prove’ taste in my mouth. I had the chance to play against the top talent at my level while at Monmouth University. And every time I played against this top talent, at the end of the day I earned their respect. That earning of a rival players respect became addicting to me. And to be honest no matter what level I played at in college that would have been the same. Also I’d have to point to the fact I was able to play all four seasons going to a small 1AA school. You can never underestimate the importance of gaining that experience being on the field. Had I gone to another college, maybe Rutgers, I probably would have warmed the bench for at least 2 or 3 years because I was not a blue-chipper out of high school.

HHR: What positives have you taken out of your experience in the League, and has that experience opened doors to your present and future endeavors?

WH: Good question… The AFL did a great job at creating an atmosphere of inclusivity unlike any other professional sport. After every game the fans were able to come onto the field and participate in a range of activities and get players autographs. I think the AFL went above and beyond to give back to the neighboring communities, children’s hospitals, local charity etc. This aspect of the league mission statement was held true throughout and was one of the most positive things I can take away from my time in AFL. The closeness of the fans was the most unique aspect to the game day experience. On another note I’d have to say the relationships I have built with players and fans alike has helped shape and mold me into the dynamic person I am today. I’ve always been a people person, but not until my time in the AFL did I realize the effect I had on kids. Or more importantly, the impact any professional ball player has on the youth of today. It was mind blowing the first time I had a kid give to me a collage that he made of me in his spare time. The time I saw a kid crying when I got hurt and had to leave the game against Dallas back in 2006. Or the time another kid’s father told me he was depressed literally when he found out I no longer played for the NY Dragons. So while some pro athletes like the NBA’s Charles Barkley choose not to consider themselves a role model, its hard to agree once you’ve experienced it AFL style. Truly one of the more remarkable experiences of my lifetime, playing in the AFL.

Presently, I plan on coaching and teaching at the high school level, Marlboro H.S.. I aspire to coach in the NFL one day and win a Super Bowl ring, but for now my path will resemble that of my children’s path. As for playing in the AFL again...unlikely, but anything’s possible.

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