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Dream Team

Mark Manger

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.

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.

"For most of the three years since then, I didn't even think about coming back," Toviessi said at the Crush tryouts. "But eight months ago I made up my mind to try, and I've been training ever since. I'm not in great shape yet, but the knee is fine. God will open the door if it's meant to be."

The door Toviessi was talking about leads right back to the bigtime. "I'll do anything I have to to return to the NFL," he said. For his part, Dailey was giving the big D-end a long look. "It's rare that you get a player of his caliber at a tryout like this," the coach said. "We know he's got some health problems, and if he's a guy we're interested in, the next step would be a pretty intense physical exam to see where he is."

Toviessi was not wholly pleased with the attention he got from the media. "Hey, you blew my cover," he half joked. "I was trying to stay low-key today." On the other hand, most of the tryout players would have been thrilled with a little more notice, especially from the Crush's cold-eyed coaching staff. Instead, a lot of them were busy dealing with their own issues. A sparrow-legged pass receiver named Jeremy Daniels, who played high school football at Hinckley and West high schools, said he has a scholarship offer from the University of Hawaii. But he would just as soon skip that part altogether and, at age eighteen and 165 pounds, go straight to the pros. "You play college ball just to get here, so why bother?" he reasoned. Raymond Gilmore, a 330-pound lineman out of Northeastern [Oklahoma] State, had something else going on. He looked mid-summer sweaty and thoroughly exhausted after just a few warm-up drills, and he had a theory about it. "Nobody really told me the air was thinner up here," he said. "So when I got off the plane from Fort Worth last night, I kind of felt the effects. I'm kind of feeling them right now."

Apparently, so were some of Gilmore's comrades. A version of the long-established "combine testing" that all pro football leagues use, the Crush regimen is designed to reveal what Dailey calls "good football savvy" and to find players "who take coaching well, who run well, who change direction well." Translation: a brutal boot camp of wind sprints, crab walks, high kicks and side shuffles, followed by timed 40-yard dashes, 20-yard shuttle runs, 225-pound bench presses, crossover step drills and jumping tests. This stuff separates the swift from the halt in short order, and winnows the committed from the lax even faster than having to tape your own ankles when it's still dark outside. By 9 a.m. -- two hours into the ordeal -- the sidelines were drenched in fatigue, and the men's room had become a bedlam of anguished gagging and retching.

Dailey had cautioned that some players might not be at their best. "That's part of it," he'd said. "Sometimes you don't know where you are until you get out here and you realize how hard it is. We may not totally discount a guy if he's got some talent, but if he's not in shape, it will be tough for him to have his best showing. What we're looking for is the guy with something special. It's hard to stand out in a crowd."

For Adam Fass and Blake Dart, that proved a challenge. A slightly built nineteen-year-old wearing a white pukka-shell necklace and a silver earring, Fass said it was his dream to be the Crush's starting quarterback. But a couple of things stood in the way of his displacing incumbent John Dutton. First, Fass's claim that he was 5' 9" and 150 pounds seemed a touch, well, optimistic. Second, he had an admission to make: "Actually, I didn't play quarterback in high school. I was a kicker." Dart, a quiet 26-year-old with battle scars on his face and about forty feet of Ace bandage encasing his legs, spoke from the other end of the experience spectrum. He played college football at Kansas's Washburn University, and for the past two seasons, the 245-pound fullback/linebacker was with second-tier arena-ball teams: the Billings Outlaws and the Wichita Aviators. At the Crush tryouts, his hopes were dashed when he pulled his left hamstring in the timed 40. As it happens, bad luck seems to follow Blake Dart to auditions: In June 2003, he was showing his stuff at an invitational NFL tryout camp in Denton, Texas, when he strained his right hamstring. "This is just terrible," he said before saddling up for the drive back to Garden City, Kansas. "Nothing I can do now except do well in the bench press and hope my 40 was quick enough to get noticed."  

If the cruelty of bruised muscle fiber ruined Dart's day, the futility of sheer bulk spelled the doom of Walker's. After his seemingly endless bus trip, the big guy had slept pretty well, and he arrived at the sports dome -- it was a killingly expensive cab ride -- feeling just fine. "My chances are as good as anyone's," he said before drills started. "I gotta go in thinking I have a 100 percent chance and then play my best. I've made the commitment."

But Walker's performance on the green artificial turf didn't dazzle anyone -- not even him. A quick pass receiver like Jeremy Daniels can stop the clock in the all-important 40-yard dash in 4.4 or 4.5 seconds; even a big lineman like 275-pound Justin Colburn, who played tackle and center at the University of New Mexico, can turn in a respectable 4.9. By comparison, George Walker was Santa chugging after his sleigh -- 6.8 seconds. "Looks like the Lincoln Memorial running out there," another player said. Walker's flexibility and quickness skills were pretty good -- "I only missed one or two of the stunts," he reported, "I toughed through it" -- but the standing long jump was another matter. Spider-built, rubber-legged types leaped almost ten feet; George managed just a bit over five, landing with a huge thud. In his $15-an-hour job at his stepfather's plumbing and remodeling company, Walker is the kind of willing giant who can manhandle 900-pound boilers and thick sheaves of metal pipe. But he's less adept lifting free weights. Despite his sore leg, Dart made 31 repetitions in the 225-pound bench-press, and Colburn, who has a tattoo announcing "Unbreakable" above one of his twenty-inch biceps and one reading "Fight to Live, Live to Fight" on the other, topped the whole field with 35. Despite his 325 pounds, Walker did just seven reps, fewer than most of the 185-pound guys.

Put simply, George Walker is not the next Thal Woods. He's no Paul Toviessi. And Colorado Crush linemen Kyle Moore-Brown and Hugh Hunter don't have a thing to worry about from him at the moment. But if there's anything to be said for determination, perseverance and heart, Walker's dream of turning pro is not over. Not now. Not yet. Not at age 24, when the world is still ripe with possibility.

"It was great," he says now of his tryout. "I enjoyed it. Even the bus ride. The whole thing was fine. Because I got the opportunity to do something besides just talk about my dream;I got the chance to do something about it, to try and play pro football. Afterward, I talked to Coach Dailey, and he told me the things I need to improve on in terms of speed and endurance. Next year there are tryouts for the Philadelphia Soul and the New York Dragons -- closer to home. I'll be there. This is definitely hard, but you don't quit because of that."

Truth be told, grueling road odysseys are not much of a challenge to George Walker. "This was the first time I ever got to take a vacation by myself," he says, obviously looking on the bright side. He dismissed the discomfort he felt in the wake of his Crush workout -- discomfort powerful enough that, after watching the Heisman Trophy presentation on TV that Saturday night, he wound up sleeping in a chair in his motel room. "I was fine," he says. On Sunday night he slept on the floor. "No big deal," he says. In fact, don't bother talking to him about what it means to succeed, because he already knows what it takes just to stay alive. Back in 1996, when he was fourteen, George was suddenly stricken with spinal meningitis, spent more than a week in the intensive-care unit at Easton Hospital and very nearly didn't make it. On March 22, 1996, he says, he had a near-death experience that changed his life, put him in touch with an evangelistic Christian belief in God and, when the crisis passed and he began to recover, impelled him toward the football field, suffused with a discipline that came from both within and without.  

As a teenager, he weighed just 185 pounds while playing offensive tackle and linebacker for Phillipsburg [New Jersey] High School, just across the Delaware River from Easton. To say it plainly, he was no star. Didn't even start much. Rich kids got most of the playing time, he says. Popularity contest. But once faith and football got inside Walker, they never left. His family didn't have money for college, so after living for a spell with his father in Oregon, he went to work -- tearing out bathrooms, wrangling huge boilers, installing drywall. These days, he weighs almost 150 pounds more than he did at P-Burg High. His eyes are still hyper-sensitive to light as an after-effect of the meningitis. And his football now consists of Sunday-afternoon sandlot games with friends in a local park -- full-contact tackle football with no pads and no helmets.

"There are very few injuries," he says. "We're tough. We're all used to the hitting, and we play honest and fair. That's one of the things about the game. It doesn't matter who you are or where you're from, you share the game and you bond quickly. I don't know what I'd do without it. For me, it's life. And it's not over."

At the close of the December 10 tryouts, Colorado Crush coaches told the players that if the team was interested in them, they'd hear about it in a week or so. If they heard nothing after two weeks, they could assume the matter was closed. Along with almost everyone else, George Walker got no phone call. In the meantime, he returned to the East Coast on the bus, a trip destined to take even longer than his westward swing.

For now, though, Walker believes that time is still on his side. Despite the fact that this journey cost him $700, he was encouraged by his Crush workout. He pledges to lose fifty pounds this year -- via protein shakes, salads heaped with boneless, skinless chicken, and plenty of gym time. By next year he hopes to be pretty good with free weights, a lot faster and quicker to react. All the while, he says, he will be "living every day to the fullest" -- even when that means hauling pipe or swinging a sledgehammer.

"You just can't give up, ever," he says. "I won't, because I need to live my dream and do what I love, which is play football." Even in his seemingly boundless hope, there may be a whiff of doubt. His 24th birthday, which arrived on a freezing bus in Kansas, didn't much affect him, he says: "It was just another day." But next year's birthday may signify something else: It will be a reminder that the clock is ticking. "A quarter-century," he says quietly. "Kind of a milestone. That will probably mean something. My prime is now, and I better take advantage of it while I can. Before it's too late."


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