Dream Team

Not all hopes will be crushed at the Crush open tryouts.

Just after midnight, the bus broke down outside Salina, Kansas. It was George Walker's 24th birthday, but he wasn't thinking about cakes or candles or celebrations or anything like that. He was thinking that he'd been on the Greyhound for almost two days, all 325 pounds of him stuffed into a narrow seat whose recline lever didn't always work, and now they were going to hit Denver even further behind schedule. Someone said it was two below zero outside, and he could believe it. It already felt that cold inside the bus, because the heating system had failed way back in Kansas City.

What a way to chase a dream. A cross-country bus ride -- $200 round trip. A missed connection in Indianapolis. A three-hour delay under a driving snowstorm in St. Louis. Highway robbery at the rest stops -- ten bucks for a skinny burger, a soda and a little bag of chips. All told, they got in six hours late. That left just eighteen hours to clean up, eat something and work the road kinks out of his body. Then he might grab a little non-moving sleep at the motel and get over to the tryout by...let's see here, what's this say? Oh, yeah, six -- as in "Registrations will begin at 6:00 a.m."

For most people, this would be nuts. Forty-eight hours on the highway from Easton, Pennsylvania, for a long-shot chance to play pro football. Even one of Walker's best friends back in Phillipsburg had said he was crazier than most. But that didn't bother Walker. You gotta set your mind to it, he thought. They said the guy who climbed the Himalayas was crazy, too. But look what he did. He was an underdog, just like me.

Mark Manger
George Walker gets big air.
Mark Manger
George Walker gets big air.

So George Walker -- age 24, 5' 11", 325 pounds -- set his mind to it. And on Saturday, December 10, at six o'clock in the morning, he lumbered onto the field at Englewood's South Suburban Sports Dome filled with hope. This was the day of the fourth annual open player tryouts for the Colorado Crush, John Elway's world-championship Arena Football League team. About a hundred players turned up, despite the darkness and the chill. Wearing a T-shirt, XXXL shorts and his orange-and-white sneakers, Walker stood out even in a very beefy crowd -- a massive, pale form with redwood calves and a midsection Falstaff might envy. He's a formidable chunk of human being, a behemoth. But he speaks as gently as a choirboy: "I love football," he says. "Football is life."

For players at a tryout like this one, it had better be. It had better mean that much. Because on this day, neither Crush head coach Mike Dailey nor his staff of barking assistants -- several of whom seemed angry at the dawn itself -- was about to cut anyone a break. As always, the rules were simple and spartan: Show up at six, pay the $75 registration fee (no credit cards accepted) and bring your own water. Want your ankles taped? You do that yourself, too.

In return, the team gives you a black-and-white T-shirt with "Colorado Crush Tryout Camp" printed on the front. And they give you a look. In most cases, a very brief look. "For almost all these players, the chances are low," Dailey said that morning. "But you never know. There will be some guys here who are caliber players, who have played college football and have been productive at that level and are prospects for pro football. There are also guys here who have never played football -- not at the high school level, not in college, certainly not at the pro level. It's an all-comers opportunity for them. Sometimes, when you are watching the game, you think: 'I could do that.'" He paused significantly. "Well, here you are. This is your chance to come and see if you really can."

Teams can count the guys who've actually made it this way on one hand. An open tryout for a major-league baseball organization might win a player a place in the low minors -- some instructional league where he gets eight bucks' meal money a day and from which he may never ascend. Arena Football League tryouts -- most of the league's eighteen teams hold them in late summer -- are even tougher, because unheralded, no-name players find themselves competing for spots on a big-league team with an established roster. In the case of the Crush, it's the team that won the 2005 Arena Bowl championship with a 51-48 victory over the Georgia Force. Still, it can happen. Colorado State's Thal Woods made the Crush as a wide receiver/defensive back via an open tryout before the team's inaugural 2002 season and stuck around for three years. When Dailey coached the AFL's Albany Firebirds, he found cornerback Evan Hlavacek in an open tryout. Hlavacek later played for the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars.

On this December morning, Dailey and company had their eye on several ex-college prospects, but even they were startled by the presence of Paul Toviessi, a 6' 6", 265-pound defensive end who was a second-round draft choice of the Denver Broncos four years ago -- the 51st player chosen overall. Toviessi played his college ball at Marshall -- the West Virginia school that produced NFL stars Randy Moss, Chad Pennington, Byron Leftwich and Darius Watts -- but in his second training camp with the Broncos, he suffered a gruesome bone-on-bone knee injury that appeared to mark the end of his football career.

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