Wrapping up farewell visit to Fairbanks, Alaska, my hometown for 25 years. I have coffee and this morning’s Fairbanks Daily News-Miner in hand. There’s an ad about a football game in the sports section. Professional football by way of the Fairbanks Grizzlies, a first-year IFL (Intense Football League) franchise.
There has been high school football in Alaska for years, but that’s it, no college or junior college football. Apparently, the Grizzlies are playing arena pro ball at Carlson Center, a generic all-purpose sports arena built behind my back while I was out of state. Game time is 7:05.
I show up at six to nose around. Fans are already tailgating. Can report the Grizzlies got cheerleading right — very attractive Lady Grizzlies form two lines and cheer patrons as they walk between them into the arena. This is a family crowd, say 3000 fans, lots of kids and wives. People seem enthusiastic, happy to be here. I find Jay McDiarmid, Grizzlies co-owner, mid 30s, short black hair. “We are considered professional,” McDiarmid says. “The players are paid $255 a week with a $35 win bonus. We have 20 players on our active roster. Right now, our team is 60 percent local kids, 40 percent out of state.”
McDiarmid tells me he’s a local physical therapist and when Chad Dittman (founder of the IFL) brought the team to Fairbanks, “we signed on as the team’s trainers and physical therapists. I started doing more managerial stuff for him and just said, ‘Hey, this is fun, let me get part of it.”
Chad Dittman started the IFL five years ago. It’s a Texas league, five teams in the state, and one, tonight’s opponent, Louisiana Swashbucklers, is located 35 miles over the border. Two Alaska teams formed this year, the other being the Anchorage Wild.
Brian Stuvek kicks off for the Grizzlies. The game’s not bad, play is far above high school football. These are men on the field, late 20s to late 30s. They can run crisp plays. Quarterbacks can put heat on the ball. Blocks and tackles are hard. Runners can move. And because the field is small, and only eight men line up per side, the visual effect is speed to the point of blur.
At halftime Fairbanks is down 35 to 0. I’m in the Grizzlies locker room waiting on the coach. The room is becalmed, not even the sound of cleats on concrete.
Grizzlies head coach John Fourcade comes in. He’s 47 (looks 57), gray hair, average build. Fourcade was quarterback at Ole Miss in the late ’70s, early ’80s, broke Archie Manning’s career passing record. He played four years of NFL with the New Orleans Saints, another nine years of pro ball in the usual off-brand venues. The Grizzlies guide says he’s been coach and general manager for ten years in other arena leagues, owns several Hooter’s restaurants and a golf course outside New Orleans. Bio does not compute with head coach of an obscure indoor football league’s startup franchise in faraway Fairbanks.
If there ever was an occasion for an inspirational halftime speech, here it is. Coach Fourcade takes a slow turn around the locker room, and in a lilting Bayou drawl, begins, “This is such an embarrassment. I’ve been here nine weeks, and we still have players who do not know how to line up correctly and call a play. Don’t know the damn play. Don’t know what’s going on. YOU DO NOT KNOW HOW TO COME OUT OF A HUDDLE!
“They aren’t beating us. WE’RE BEATING EVERY BIT OF OURSELVES! Offensively. Offensively we stink. We can’t pass protect. We can’t catch the football. We can’t even throw the football. I don’t know what you do offensively, if you can’t do those three.
“Let’s talk about defense. Secondary guys, QUIT TRYING TO ANTICIPATE! DON’T CALL OFF NOTHIN’. We play man to man or we play sky. You have to stay in those two coverages! YOU HAVE TO MAKE SOME PLAYS BACK THERE!
“You can’t quit. If it’s 35 to nuthin’, I don’t care. If we lose this ballgame, I don’t care. BUT WE ARE NOT GOING TO BE SHUTOUT!
“Fumble, turn it over, fumble, turn it over, missing wide open receivers, don’t step up to the bar, don’t get protection. All I can do is call it — YOU HAVE TO PLAY IT!
“We’ll make some adjustments on both sides of the ball, that’s part of the game. But, if we cannot cover, I don’t know what to say except I’ll bring some more [players] in tomorrow. I am sick and tired of one play, two plays, and a quick easy touchdown. IT’S UNBELIEVABLE OUT THERE!”
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The Grizzlies scored 27 points in the second half. Unfortunately, the Swashbucklers scored 58 points, making the game’s final score: Swashbucklers, 93, Grizzlies, 27.