Former Mizzou offensive lineman, A.J. Ricker, is with his third team in as many leagues.
After being drafted by the Chicago Bears of the NFL, he played with the Rhein Fire of NFL Europe. On Sunday, however, he will be starting at center for the Tampa Bay Storm of the Arena Football League.
“I went to the coaching convention in Dallas,” Ricker said. “They needed a center, and I said, ‘Why not?’ Now I’m starting there.”
Other teams in the AFL’s Southern division include the Austin Wranglers, Georgia Force, Orlando Predators and ... Kansas City Brigade?
In a move to replace the New Orleans VooDoo following Hurricane Katrina, Kansas City was granted an expansion franchise, the Brigade.
Division realignment won’t take place until the offseason, and the Brigade will play out this season with the VooDoo’s schedule.
Ricker said he looks forward to his Missouri homecoming when the Storm clashes with the Brigade on March 5 in Kansas City.
“It’ll be exciting to get to play back here in Missouri. I’ll have ex-players and friends and, of course, my women at the game,” Ricker said with a chuckle.
Though there are vast differences between itself and the NFL, the AFL is quickly gaining popularity across the country. Last year, league attendance grew for the fourth consecutive year, reaching close to 13,000 per game. NBC is televising games regionally for the fourth consecutive year. To highlight the league’s popularity, EA Sports, makers of the Madden NFL Football series, has a game due out Feb. 7.
Many fans of the AFL say the interest comes from the faster pace of games, rules that favor the offense and big hits.
One of the biggest differences is the size of the field. AFL teams only have 50 yards between the end zones leading to a plethora of points.
There are also only eight players on the field at a time for each team.
“There’s just a center, guards and a tight end on the line,” Ricker said. “It was an adjustment with less people on the line.”
At the beginning of each game, teams kick off from their own goal line. Kicks usually travel the length of the field and off the net between the uprights. Instead of being out of play, balls that hit off of the net are considered live. This includes missed field goals and passes from quarterbacks.
Another noticeable facet of the game is the sideline barrier, a 4-foot-high wall with 3 inches of padding. Players are often body-checked into the wall, which is located anywhere from 1-3 feet out of bounds.
“When I first saw somebody go into it, I said, ‘Dang! That looked like it hurt’,” Ricker said. “Guys learn how to take the hits, but it seems that’s where fans are getting into it more.”
Aside from seeing hits that would make ESPN’s “Jacked Up”, fans can literally get involved in the game. They are allowed to reach over the sideline walls and break up passes without drawing penalties. When this happens, the down is replayed.
The offense still has an advantage over the defense regardless of the venue.
Receivers are allowed to go in motion in any direction. Fans will frequently see players get a running start toward the line in order to get a jump on the cornerback.
There is also an ‘imaginary box’ that linebackers must stay inside. It is as wide as the offensive line and goes back as far as the referee who lines up behind them. The linebackers are forced to stay in the box until the ball is released or until the man they are covering goes out for a pass.
There are also rules that limit rushing the quarterback. Only one player can rush at a time, and it must be through the middle of the offensive line. This could explain why last year’s top defense gave up an average of 45 points per game.
“Even though there’s lots of hitting and excitement, it’s nothing to score 40 to 50 points in a game,” Ricker said. “In some NFL games, you’re lulled to sleep. But there’s always action in these games.”
For those interested in tuning in to AFL action, KOMU/Channel 8 is broadcasting the Chicago Rush at Colorado Crush game at 2 p.m. today.