Chuck Wright was hooked the first time he tried professional indoor football. His pay for that game: a $10 bill and six-pack of Bud Light.
“If I never did anything else,” he said, “I could always say I got paid to play. It’s true.”
That was 10 years ago, and the 34-year-old is still going strong, now with a team called the Omaha Beef. It’s an eclectic mix of dreamers hoping to get noticed by a team in the Arena Football League, CFL or even the NFL and realists like Wright who know they’re going nowhere.
Each Beef player signs a contract promising $75 a game, and each will tell you it’s not really about the money.
Jesse Robertson and Davon Bridges are among the dreamers. They drove here together from the East Coast, took up residence at a motel and spend their days painting and cleaning apartments, working out and hanging out. They live for the two nights a week the Beef practice and the Friday or Saturday nights they play games. For them, the games are an opportunity to put their skills on film and send it to talent evaluators in more prestigious leagues.
Established in 1999, the Omaha-based team is the oldest indoor football team in the nation. The Beef found the spotlight a couple years ago when owner Rich Tokheim offered Tim Tebow a roster spot the day after he was cut by the New York Jets. The Beef’s quarterback at the time, James McNear, famously cracked, “I think Tim can learn a lot from me.”
Laugh if you will, but coach Cory Ross said the talent in the Beef’s league, Champions Indoor Football, is better than you think.
“You can see why some guys aren’t at the next level, but with other guys, you wonder why they haven’t gotten an opportunity,” said Ross, 32, who played running back for Nebraska and the Baltimore Ravens. “There are 2,500 college kids who come out as seniors, and only 255 get drafted. That’s a lot of football players trying to find a place to play. Some go to Canada, some go to the arena league. And then there are leagues like ours.”
CIF is one of five U.S. leagues with a total of 44 teams. The Indoor Football League, where players make better than $200 a game, is considered the best of the five and is one step from the AFL.
The eight-on-eight indoor game is played on a 50-yard field laid inside a hockey rink. Dasher boards, sans glass, are the sidelines, and the fans eat it up when receivers go up and over them to catch passes.
The Beef’s quirky nickname is a nod to Omaha’s reputation for great steaks. Their home is the Ralston Arena, aka “The Slaughterhouse,” where they draw about 2,800 a game heading into Saturday’s season finale. The female Prime Dancers and male Rump Roasters, along with a mascot named “Sir Loin,” provide in-game entertainment.
The booster club has been known to fill a 53-passenger bus, “The Meat Wagon,” for games hundreds of miles away. As the team has struggled to a 1-10 record this season, the road following has dwindled to only the most ardent fans, like the five tailgating two hours before kickoff a couple Saturdays ago in an otherwise empty parking lot at the Sioux City (Iowa) Bandits’ arena.
Wright, known as “Gunslinger,” was a three-year starter at now-closed Dana College in Blair, Nebraska, and works at Bellevue University near Omaha. He’s played in several indoor leagues and in his best season earned a total of $5,000, not to mention other forms of pay ranging from that six-pack of beer to vouchers for tattoos.
“I go out there to entertain people,” Wright said. “They’re not paying 10 or 20 bucks to see Chuck Wright the person. They’re paying 10 or 20 bucks to see the Gunslinger. It’s like a wrestling match. That’s what they want to see, someone getting lit up and thrown over the wall.”
Receiver Brandon Kinnie also is in it for the love of the game. He played at Nebraska and went to training camp with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2012. Now he works full-time as an assistant manager at a shoe store and part-time at a Nike outlet.
“I used to envy some of my good friends because they were playing in the NFL and I wasn’t, and I didn’t understand why I wasn’t there,” Kinnie said. “It just doesn’t happen for everybody. It’s OK. I’m enjoying the company I’m with now.”
Robertson and Bridges don’t mind living on the cheap if that’s what it takes to move to a higher level someday. Robertson led Division II in solo tackles for West Virginia Wesleyan in 2013, and Bridges was a three-year starter for FCS-level Villanova.
The Beef provide lodging at a Best Western motel for the handful of players who have no local ties. The team also gives them vouchers for meals at sponsor restaurants. The entire team meets on Fridays for a pregame meal of chicken wings at Hooters.
“Hey, if they’re offering to feed us, we’re going to eat it,” Bridges said. “There is no trying to eat healthy.”
Indoor football’s greatest success story is running back Fred Jackson, who played the 2004 and ’05 seasons for the Sioux City Bandits and in 2007 was starting for the Buffalo Bills. The CFL is a more realistic goal for the best indoor players, but even that’s a longshot.
Calgary Stampeders assistant general manager John Murphy said one or two players a year from indoor teams might make his team’s active roster or practice squad. He said he admires their willingness to sacrifice to pursue their passion.
So does Ross, who told his players as much during his pregame talk before their recent game at Sioux City.
“It’s another day to continue to do something you love,” he said, his voice raised. “Age waits for nobody.”