Looking for the next Kurt Warner indoors
The Kurt Warner story is nothing new. A quarterback rises from the ranks of the unknown to become NFL MVP and Super Bowl Champion. And as Arena Football League teams around the country prepare to kick off their 2000 seasons, just about every NFL team is ready to scour the indoor leagues, searching for the next superstar.
On the brink of their second season in the Sunflower state capital, the Topeka Knights hope to capitalize as NFL scouts begin the gold rush to the arena leagues. “Everybody that’s playing arena indoor football should be sending Kurt Warner a check,” says Knights co-owner George Lemon about Warner’s career in arena football. “He’s done so much for what we do. He’s given it recognition, credibility, and he’s been a great spokesman.” And Lemon expects the Indoor and Arena Football leagues to reap the benefits of Warner’s overwhelming success for seasons to come.
“It’s gonna make such a difference in these leagues because everyone is going to be looking. (At) every one of these teams, newspaper and TV coverage will go up because everybody wants to have that interview with that guy who’s going to be the next one,” says Lemon. The next star, according to Lemon, may not be a guy who excelled at a major college and just couldn’t crack the pros. “These leagues are a very viable option for a kid who may not be ready academically for college to go and play ball and develop his skills. (It used to be) college, pros, period. Now you have tons of football leagues out there.”
He draws a comparison to the Harlem Globetrotters, who gained worldwide attention without college or NBA superstars headlining the rosters. “My dad (Meadowlark Lemon) played for the Globetrotters for 26 years. The beauty of that team is that these weren’t the ballplayers from UCLA or North Carolina. They were from tiny colleges that were just as good but didn’t get the publicity, and this is what you’re gonna find out (with the Arena Football League),” Lemon says. The style of play also gives those athletes on the fringe of the big time another test to see whether they are ready. “Our game is so fast and hard-hitting that I’ve seen good college players come and as soon as they get on the field they’re like, ‘Whoa! What is this is?’ because it’s a step faster.”
Lemon says word of mouth is key to spreading the news about players with the physical and mental skills to make the jump to the NFL. “Especially this season everybody wants to shake every tree and turn over every rock they can … so (scouts) make the preliminary calls and set up an informal relationship. It’s a good ol’ boy system.” And word is spreading. The Knights’ top man expects the 2000 season to be a landmark occasion for indoor and arena football. “Everybody’s excited; they’re hyped up. The Kurt Warner thing has just been fantastic. People know about this game now…. It is just becoming so popular, and this is gonna be the year,” says Lemon.
The Knights are one of 21 teams in the Indoor Football League that cater to second-tier and midmarket cities, and while management remains hopeful the league will cash in on the growing interest of all arena players, one scout for the Kansas City Chiefs doubts the search for talented players will branch out that far. “We’ll go see Iowa play; they’re close,” says Director of Pro Personnel John Schneider. “I don’t think we’ll hit Topeka. I’m not sure how many games we’ll get to, but a lot of (Arena Football League) games will be on TNN this year, so we’ll be able to see those guys on TV more. That way you can get a feel for them and concentrate on the guys.”
Schneider says three specific types of players with indoor and arena league experience are most likely to break the NFL ranks. “(You have) quarterbacks, cornerbacks, and wide receivers…. In this league, since it’s such a small field, you gotta have a little bit of quickness and change-of-direction skills to be able to get open real quick.”
That minor league talent search has already paid dividends for the Chiefs. “We were looking for a long-snapper,” says Schneider, “And we found Mike Maslowski, who was a linebacker and a fullback in the arena league. We signed him and put him in the World League, and he set the record for defensive tackles last year. Then he came into camp and he was one of the best rookies on our team.”
Schneider says the chances of signing another Kurt Warner are highly unlikely and feels, based on the Rams star quarterback’s history, that move was a bit of a surprise. “I was actually in Green Bay when they signed Warner as a rookie free agent. He was not ready to play in the NFL…. But he was able to go to the arena league and compete, play, and build up his confidence,” says Schneider.
Although another Warner may not be out there, optimism remains high in the Chiefs camp that there are more Mike Maslowskis to provide the intangibles. “You’re gonna sign some guys that have some redeeming qualities that you can take a chance on. Hopefully, they’ll step up and surprise you, and if not, they’re out of a job and they’ll try again next year,” says Schneider.