A Deeply Flawed Search For The Soul Of Football With Michael Vick, Chad Johnson, And a Fledgling Flag Football League




The Big Lead

I had cracked the code, I was sure of it. The answer for fixing football was under our noses the entire time. You just take the helmets and pads off, see, and you do it like rugby guys do. Sure, you get some broken noses, some bloody eyebrows, some teeth marks on some elbows — but nobody’s brain is turning to mush.

Because say what you will about how this is what you sign up for, or which rules changes are going to make what sort of a difference, youth participation in football is down and continuing to decline, and football’s ultimate survival depends on where that bottoms out. It is probably true that an NFL contract is large enough to account for the inherent danger in playing football. Most current NFL players say they know what they’re getting themselves into, and they’re willing to deal with that on their own terms.

But even those guys are choosing to walk away from football earlier than they used to.

And a few of them turned up on the first day of the AFFL training camp in McKinney, Texas two weeks ago. I was swallowing some hotel eggs and slurping on some hotel coffee out of a little white hotel mug, and some guy sat down at my table. He introduced himself but I wasn’t caffeinated enough for comprehension on that level. In the interest of full transparency, I didn’t totally know what this event even was. I was here because it had been pitched to me as an opportunity to ask questions of Michael Vick, Chad Johnson, Michael Johnson, Nate Robinson and Carlos Boozer, among others. I had not done what you would call “any research” nor did I have what you might call “a plan” except that I wanted to ask Michael Vick and Chad Johnson about the soul of football.

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“Are you participating?” I asked my new breakfast companion, choosing a verb I knew couldn’t possibly be the incorrect one.

He confirmed, and I asked how he got hooked up with this … event. He explained he’d been at some other event, and there’d been a place to sign up if you were interested in playing 7-on-7 flag football for money. I nodded along and he further explained that since he’d retired at a young age from the NFL because he got six or seven concussions “on the record” his girlfriend had encouraged him to give it a shot.

“This isn’t tackle,” she said. “You can play this.”

Later, I remembered he’d said he played for the Detroit Lions and went to Cal. Triangulating that information with an AFFL roster and Wikipedia searching, I deduced I’d been speaking with Jahvid Best, a first-round pick in 2010 who started 15 games for the Lions before announcing his retirement in 2013. He’s 29.

When you first hear “Chad Johnson and Nate Robinson are playing flag football” you’re thinking this is some kind of a gimmick, like putting Charles Barkley in the celebrity softball game. This is not the case. These guys are competing for a championship and a $1 million prize. Split up into four teams of pros, these guys will take on 128 teams of regular joe’s from all over the country, airing on NFL Network beginning June 30 and culminating with the championship game July 19.

While this sounds like a cakewalk for guys who played in the NFL, you have to remember that in flag football, strength and bulk are useless. Quickness and hip dexterity are what make or break ball carriers in flag football, and because fumbles aren’t turnovers, laterals are a huge part of the game.

That is, as the game was conceived by Jeff Lewis, anyway. When Lewis, who previously worked in capital management in New York, set out to start a flag football league five years ago, he soon learned there was no written down or even generally agreed upon set of rules for it. So he had to create a rule book from scratch. He thought it would take a couple days. It took several months, his aim all along was to make sure flag football moved quickly, and didn’t suffer from the stoppages of play and the penalties and the marking off of down and distance you get in regular football. So an offensive team can only get two first downs. Regardless of where the drive starts, you get one first down for crossing the 50, and another one for crossing the 25. That’s it. Any time there’s a fumble, the ball is just down where it fell, so you just line up and snap it. The defense has to wait two seconds to rush, and the quarterback has to get rid of the ball within four seconds.

That, more or less, is flag football as the AFFL sees it. Backyard stuff. The stuff you did with your friends as a kid.

“It’s the common language all athletes speak,” Lewis said.

“I get to be a kid again,” Robinson said.

“I get to play ball, man,” Vick said. “We’re ballplayers at heart.”

This event was the training camp, and most of the players were just as new to this as I was. Vick is a part owner in the AFFL, but that did not help him understand, during an explanation of the tournament format, why the regular joes would be permitted to sign free agents, and the pros would not.

(He was assured the regular joe’s tend to be pretty loyal to their guys, so free agent acquisitions are rare).

Over hummus and chicken strips, the players were taught the rules of the AFFL and some of the principles of Winning Football as it pertains to 7-on-7 flag style. During a film session they showed a downfield lateral that had the room howling. So now here’s Nate Robinson, Matt Barnes and Tahj Boyd cooking up plans for their team, and then there’s Seneca Wallace teaching Jeremy Wariner, a Gold-medal winning 400-meter guy, how to run pass routes, and Wariner is snatching passes out of the air with one hand, and I’m standing there next to Olympic gold medalist Michael Johnson, because we’re at his facility, Michael Johnson Performance, and he’s on Justin Forsett’s team.

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I ask Johnson if he thinks there is something you get out of playing football that you don’t get out of any other sport. He considers the question for a moment as we squint at each other under the bright North Texas sun.

“It’s a ball sport, but you can really get out and run,” he said. “Basketball is a ball sport, but you never really get a chance to break out and run away from someone. Running is central to most sports. When you’re a kid, you love to run. This sport, there’s acceleration, there’s maximum velocity. There’s no better feeling than running away from somebody with the ball. You can’t catch me. People love that.”

It is here I have to confess a bias. I love football. I played it from childhood through high school. I played basketball, golf and “ran track” in high school, too, and most of my success as an athlete came on the baseball field, but when I remember those vital days of my youth, the rush of playing football is what comes surging back the strongest.

Whatever causes that electric jolt is what I think of as the soul of football. And I hoped these guys could help me figure out what, exactly, that is, so that we might save it.

Is it the collisions? The violence? The fear?

Would the sport be fun to play and watch without pads? Or, in taking away the pads, do you remove the essence of the game?

Can you change football without killing it?

*****

“What’s your name, man?” Chad Johnson said as he sat down. “You smoke weed?”

He was in his soccer shoes, kicking around the soccer ball he evidently brings with him everywhere. Johnson is 40 now, but he looks just like you remember. Pretty much moves like it too, except for one thing: For the first 20 yards, Johnson says, he’s as fast as ever, but after that he doesn’t have the extra gear.

“We all had it,” he says to another player. “I don’t know where it went.”

Many of the players at the AFFL training camp, it is safe to say, still do. Michael Griffin, 33, asked Nate Robinson if he could dunk. Robinson looked up from tying his shoes and made a face.

“What you want to see?” said Robinson, 33, a former Slam Dunk champ. “Between the legs? Reverse?”

There was a lot of general curiosity like that among the players, and if you’ve ever had any curiosity about how athletic ability in one sport translates to another, then you are going to be interested to find out if Matt Barnes can beat an All-American lacrosse player on a go-route, or if Nate Robinson can juke a guy who played safety in three Pro Bowls.

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I asked Chad Johnson if he personally enjoyed the hitting aspect of football. He responded as I thought he might, which was to say the goal, see, was to not get hit, although when pressed he admitted some players did like the contact. That being the case, I asked if he thought tackle football would be fun to play and watch if players were not wearing helmets and pads.

Johnson’s first love was soccer so I figured he’d be (theoretically) open to the idea, but he shut it down fast.

“No,” he said. “It will never get to that. That’s a bit extreme. Without pads, it wouldn’t generate the (packed) buildings. We can change the narrative and say all these things, but the game itself is never going anywhere, no matter what anybody says.”

I asked James Ihedigbo the same thing. He’d just told me he didn’t want his son playing tackle football until high school, so I thought he might be open. But he just frowned and shook his head.

When I got to Michael Vick, he made the face of somebody who asked for Coke but all they have is Pepsi. Then he made the most ironic remark of anybody.

“That’s dangerous, man,” he said.

I protested. Yes, I admitted, you’d have your superficial injuries, but you wouldn’t have the long-term brain damage. Vick had already admitted part of the reason he and so many others were out there was because they were done getting hit. Still, he was unmoved.

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“I don’t think the game ever needs to change,” he said.

I was stuck. It was clear that football players had no interest in a version of football that didn’t include helmets and pads, so what the hell were they all doing 25 miles north of Dallas, on a weekday, learning how to play a version of football which was exactly that?

Because there is no tackling and no pads, flag football falls into the category of Things That Are Not Football, which includes many competitive endeavors like basketball, golf, poker and Fortnite. I mentioned this to Nate Robinson, and I asked what brought him to flag football as opposed to any number of other things he could be doing to scratch his competitive itch.

He said something I heard a lot at this camp, which was that he thought it was cool to play flag football with NFL players.

“I get to be a kid all over again,” he said. “That’s the biggest thing for me. I get to play against great competition, some of the GOATS, you know what I’m saying? I’m out there practicing with Mike Vick.”

They all said something like that, and because there was nothing important at stake for these guys, no career to advance, no coach to keep on the good side of, no television cameras there to turn a conversation into a performance, they had no reason to BS me, and I had no reason to think they would.

These are guys that have always been on a team, have always had a practice to go to, and an opponent to test themselves against.

Then one day it’s over.

And when that happens, and you’re Chad Johnson, or you’re Michael Vick or Nate Robinson, and not only are you famous, but you’re used to competing against the best athletes in the world, playing a pick-up game at the YMCA isn’t going to do it for you. A round of golf with your brother in-law only goes so far.

“The love of the game never leaves,” he said. “Never leaves. You lose opportunity. But the love of the game itself never ends. … That’s why you’re able to get the type of guys you have out here right now.

*****

We’re all used to “competitiveness” in athletes, but what we’re mostly used to is the TV version of it. Kobe jutting out his lower jaw, Tom Brady screaming on the sideline, J.J. Watt brooding in the locker room, and a million Gatorade jugs kicked into oblivion by a player who has just messed up and needs everyone to see how upset he is about it.

That is a type of competitiveness brought on by external factors. The zillions of dollars and the careers that are at stake, mainly, but also by the hierarchy and expectation of conformity involved in team sports (especially football). When all that is stripped away, what’s left is that unmolested sense of competitiveness that brought you into sports in the first place, when you were a little kid — that sports look fun to play, and you’re pretty sure you’re good at ’em.

“Griff,” Vick hollered over to Michael Griffin while warming up that gourd of a left shoulder he still has. “You played safety, right?”

“Yeah,” said Griffin, who played mainly for the Titans during a 10-year career that ended in 2016. “I never got to play you. When we played the Eagles, Kolb played.”

I don’t know anything about scouting football players, but it’s easy to see why Griffin lasted 10 years. He’s one of those guys who takes control of things. He played quarterback for his team, and played it as though it was the most natural thing in the world. The other guy like that was Seneca Wallace, who started 22 NFL games at quarterback between 2003 and 2013. During a scrimmage the second and final day of AFFL camp, Wallace and the 400-meter guy were making arrangements to work on route running together on a different day.

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You know those summer days when you were a kid, and you and all your friends had a basketball game going, and I mean really going, and one game turned into three, and three turned into a best-of-seven, and pretty soon it’s just whoever’s up when the sun goes down?

That’s what this looked like.

Once these guys got through the informational stuff and started throwing that ball around, you had to peel them off the field.

“Since I’ve been young, man, I’ve been picking the ball up and throwing it around,” Vick said. “If I see any person running full speed and throwing his hands up, I want the ball to throw it to him. My wife tells me every time I see a football, I light up. I was working with the FOX crew, and they say every time they bring a football into a segment, I light up. I love football, man. I love the pigskin. I love the laces.”

I set out to learn something about the essence of football, and didn’t get much. Football players want football to be as safe as it can be, and they support various methods of reducing the total number of collisions a football player experiences between childhood and retirement. But what they insist upon is that football not be changed, and as long as it doesn’t they are totally unconcerned about the long-term popularity of the game.

I share their enthusiasm for football, if not their optimism.

What I really learned something about was the soul of an athlete. It’s a playful thing. You catch little glimpses of it in the background sometimes. When bench guys on basketball teams imitate the move of the guy who just scored, that’s a little peek at it. When somebody makes a move so good people start laughing, that’s another one. Watching the AFFL is like watching somebody pretend to be Michael Vick — except it really is Michael Vick, and there’s no telling whether he’s going to be a better flag football player than the actual geologist in Florida who runs a 4.4.

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