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Little Big Men

The Crush is ready for its close-up.

It had to compete for face time with the Indy 500, a Cubs-Rockies slugfest at Wrigley Field and the Memorial Day cookout in Uncle Elmer's back yard. But the Colorado Crush's first-ever home playoff game, against the San Jose SaberCats, drew a big enough (and loud enough) crowd Sunday afternoon to ensure that arena football will survive at the Pepsi Center for another season or five. Before 13,315 witnesses, John Elway's scrappy blend of NFL castoffs, ex-Scottish Claymores and small-college standouts beat the defending Arena Football League champions by the AFL-typical score of 56-48. This Sunday, the Crush will host the Chicago Rush for the American Conference Championship.

Amid beer-fueled dementia, bombs bursting in air and some musical detonations that may have disturbed the good people of Albuquerque, the Crush-SaberCat outcome seemed almost beside the point. The point is that arena ball, dismissed for years as "real" pro football's badly-dressed, loud-mouthed little cousin from the sticks, has begun to grow up. AFL attendance has increased 41 percent since 2001 and now averages 12,872 per game -- 14,000-plus in Denver. The game's developed a culture and a fiercely loyal cult all its own. Still a "second-tier" sport? Not to the starry-eyed six-year-olds in the front row slapping high-fives with their heroes.

For Elway, the last three years have been a labor of love and an expression of self. The Broncos Hall of Famer became the expansion Crush's principal owner and CEO in 2002, and after the team went 2-14 in its first season, he hired a new coach, brought in better players and helped loft his franchise into the top rank of the seventeen-team league. "My heart still gets in it just as much on the management side as it did as a player," Elway told an online audience earlier in the season. "It gives me that adrenaline rush each weekend."

So, too, the fans. Crush season-ticket-holder Ben Starkey says he's fallen in love with this frenetic, touchdown-a-minute brand of ball, played on a fifty-yard strip of AstroTurf so close to the paying customers that a lot of them are on a first-name basis with their favorite pass receivers. "I go nuts at these games," Starkey says. "You're up close. You're personal. Sometimes these guys wind up in your lap." As Crush quarterback John Dutton puts it: "The fans actually get to see who's under that helmet."

For the players, most of whom are required by the rules to play both defense and offense, life in the AFL still doesn't bring the perks and privileges Jake the Snake and Champ Bailey take for granted. Arena player salaries average $37,000, and half the gridders work off-season jobs -- everything from digging ditches to selling real estate. But spending a career in arena football no longer smacks of failure. "The talent level has increased tremendously, across the board, in my six years in the league," says Dutton. "Team ownerships have improved dramatically, so the franchises are now stable. NBC has done a great job with the broadcasts. The pay and the benefits are much better. It's a blessing to be here."

An exceptional drop-back passer at the University of Nevada, Dutton was drafted in 1998 by the Miami Dolphins and had brief stints with the Atlanta Falcons and Cleveland Browns. If the NFL calls again, he'll answer. After all, the ascendancy of Kurt Warner, the former AFL quarterback who went on to become a Super Bowl MVP with the St. Louis Rams, remains a staple of arena-football lore. But if Dutton's lot is to be an AFL lifer, that's okay, too. For one thing, he gets to throw the ball on virtually every play. "We don't have any thousand-yard rushers in this league," he points out. "This is a passing league, and every quarterback has to love that."

Contentment wasn't always so easy to come by. When the AFL began play in 1987, players earned as little as $100 a game, and over the years, 33 franchises have vanished -- among them the Minnesota Fighting Pike, the Oklahoma City Yard Dawgz and two separate editions of the Denver Dynamite, the second of which expired in 1991. Crush head coach Mike Dailey, who's been banging around the AFL for fifteen seasons and stands fifth on the all-time-wins list, with 85, had early-era doubts about the future of arena ball, especially when the league owned the players and the coaches outright and allocated them to teams according to need. After joint practices, he recalls, "You'd literally trade a player right there at dinner and then tell the players that night at the hotel, 'You're going to practice with Pittsburgh [tomorrow]; you're practicing with Washington.' And sometimes, the next night, the other coach would say, 'Hey, you sent me a guy who can't play; we're sending him back.'"

In 1990, his first year as an assistant coach with the now-defunct Washington Commandos, Dailey earned $5,000 and had to moonlight as a college coach. "My wife was so supportive of me," he remembers. "I kept thinking, I'm gonna hate to break her heart when we can't make the mortgage."

According to arena ball's creation myth, former NFL marketing executive Jim Foster "invented" the game in 1981 while watching an indoor soccer game at New York's Madison Square Garden. He is said to have sketched his ideas on a spare manila envelope -- like Lincoln committing the Gettysburg Address to his shirt cuff. Foster refined the game's rules and quirks for five years before the first "playtest" game was staged in Chicago in 1986 -- pitting the Rockford Metros against, well, the Chicago Politicians.

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