The Arena Football League was designed for people who can’t get enough football. Its 20th season began, strategically, the weekend before the Super Bowl, when no other football was scheduled, and the local franchise, the Chicago Rush, opened at home two days before the big game, thus setting itself up as the only football in town for the next three months. The Rush caters less to football’s fans than its fanatics, such as the guy in front of me as I pulled into the parking lot of Rosemont’s Allstate Arena. He had a Bears window flag on one side of his car, a Rush window flag on the other, and various Bears- and Rush-related decals on the back window. There was one of an unlicensed Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes pissing on a list of the Bears’ division rivals, and another of some other character taking a dump on a Green Bay Packers logo. I’m sure that inside the arena this fellow felt right at home.

Arena football is played on a 50-yard-long field not much wider than a hockey rink. The boards are cushioned and the fast surface complements the players, who tend to be quick and fleet (even the linemen), most of them former college players too small for the NFL. Nets rise at each end of the field, and the kickoff, from the opposite goal line, typically bounces off the netting and into the hands of a receiver, who skitters off and eventually crashes into either the boards or an opponent. It’s football with the look and feel of pinball. Eight men play on a side, with the pass-oriented offense consisting of three down linemen, a blocking back, a quarterback, and three receivers–one of whom is permitted to race at full speed toward the line of scrimmage before the ball is snapped. As for the defense–well, let’s just say there was more defense played in the NBA back in the cocaine-crazed 70s.

The prices, with tickets as low as $10, and free programs any self-respecting franchise would charge $5 for, make the Rush affordable for families and groups of teens. In fact, at least two large birthday parties for preteen boys appeared to be going on in the upper-deck end-zone section where I was sitting. It was almost like watching a football game at Chuck E. Cheese. These boys were football fanatics too–the ones who didn’t don the freebie Rush T-shirts the parents were distributing said no only because they were already wearing football outfits. Two had on Peyton Manning jerseys, and one die-hard Bears fan actually sported a Kyle Orton. Early in the second half I spotted three boys down below in a skybox who stripped off their shirts to go bare-chested; it’s only a matter of time before beer replaces sugar drinks and they’re doing the same at Soldier Field.

Mike Ditka came on board as an owner of the Rush before last season, and for this year’s marketing campaign he’s lent the team the use of his old uniform number, 89, and the “Grabowski” tag he coined to salute his old Bears as working stiffs. The Rush has actually adopted Grabowski as its mascot, but he looked like an overgrown Muppet in danger of melting as he ran out onto the field between flamethrowers belching fireballs that almost reached the Allstate Arena’s wooden ceiling. Add the thin film of dry-ice fog on the field as the players emerged and the arena had the distinct feel (if not the aroma) of a Pink Floyd concert. The PA music dissed the visiting New York Dragons as they were announced by playing the “don’t hurt me” refrain from “What Is Love,” and after that the filler tunes tended to be songs that were considered cutting-edge 10 or 20 years ago (if ever): “Bust a Move,” “Electric Avenue,” “Paradise City,” “I Want Candy,” “It Takes Two,” and “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It.” Of course there was the romping “Who Let the Dogs Out.”

The game wasn’t without its moments, but the “exceptional” plays felt like something pulled off in a rec room with a Nerf ball. Falling down in the end zone, New York wide receiver Angel Estrada caught a ball that had caromed off the sideboard. You don’t see that in the NFL.

The Rush trailed 31-27 at halftime. Their 12 possessions had produced eight touchdowns, a missed extra point, a field goal, and two interceptions (both thrown by Chicago quarterback Matt D’Orazio, on one of which he threw the ball behind a man open in the end zone). The last time the Rush had the ball, time ran out after the kickoff. Though the defenses stiffened in the third quarter, when the Rush took a 33-31 lead (another missed PAT), it looked as if the team that got the ball last would win.

New Chicago kicker Steve Azar, having a miserable day, missed a field goal early in the fourth quarter. Then the Dragons converted a fourth down and four to go deep in their own territory (punting is forbidden), and went on to score a touchdown and take a 37-33 lead (after yet another missed PAT). The Rush failed on a fourth-and-seven near their own goal, and that led to an easy New York score and a 44-33 lead midway through the final quarter. But nobody who knows arena football was saying New York had put the game away. Chicago’s Dennison Robinson weaved through the defense for a touchdown, and when the Dragons fumbled the kickoff C.J. Johnson grabbed the ball and tumbled into the end zone. The Rush was suddenly up 47-44.

Unfortunately, 91 seconds were left to play. “Dee-fense!” chanted a bunch of boys looking quite gothy with their blue lips–from a trayful of birthday snow cones–and as the PA system suddenly jumped into the present with the opening of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself,” the crowd was into it. This didn’t stop New York quarterback Aaron Garcia from finding his man in motion again and again and marching the Dragons to a 51-47 lead with 48 seconds to go.

But New York booted the kickoff off the center scoreboard–a no-no, kind of like hitting a lamp with the Nerf ball–and Chicago was awarded the ball at the 20, almost midfield. A few plays later the Rush found itself at the Dragons’ goal line. D’Orazio was snuffed on a quarterback sneak, and the Rush called time-out with nine seconds left. On the next play he rolled out, couldn’t find a receiver, ran, was hit at the one-yard line, and stretched the ball into the end zone for a game-winning touchdown–except that Robinson was flagged for an illegal block, and the Dragons were ruled the winners. What kind of a football game ends on a penalty? An AFL game. As any rec-room player knows, when mom calls downstairs to say that’s enough, it’s over.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Teve Woltman–Chicago Rush.