Under the dim glow of fluorescent lights set high in the once-white ceiling of a Topsham sports dome, a motley group ran and sweated Sunday afternoon, chasing a shared dream up and down the fake grass field.
They’d come from just down the road and as far off as Memphis, Tennessee, each paying $60 for a chance to play professional arena football.
A few of the players at the open tryouts for the newly-formed Maine Mammoths had played for other arena teams. One had trained in the National Football League. But most were dedicated amateurs or former college athletes who make their living off the field but still nurse a dream of getting back on it.
Whether they were in playing shape or a few years and pounds past their prime, each of the the 31 men competing for spots in the Mammoths’ training camp planted their cleats into the AstroTurf with the same fervent hope.
“It’s just a chance to say you’re a professional athlete,” said Anthony Hicks, a Biddeford resident who was a defensive back at the University of Maine and now plays for the unpaid Southern Maine Raging Bulls. “You pay to play for so long.”
Most of the 40 players who will go to training camp later this month have already been recruited. To land one of the five open slots the Mammoths’ coaches stressed Sunday that players must be one thing — fast.
Arena football is played on 50-yard indoor fields surrounded by boards, rather than the 100-yard open gridirons used in the NFL. Opposing teams field eight players each on offense and defense and the tight quarters place a premium on speed and agility.
“In this game, if you ain’t fast you ain’t playing,” said Mammoths defensive back coach Steven Barker as he clicked a stopwatch timing players’ sprints. “It’s speed, their start, their finish, the control of their upper body.”
Barker was looking for players who could run 40 yards in around 4.6 seconds, which is a good time even in the NFL, but Hicks wasn’t sure he was quick enough. Three strides out of his starting crouch, the 32-year-old let out a grunt of frustration. “I just know I need to be faster out of the box,” he said later.
Zarrick Smith, a wiry 30-year-old receiver who’d taken three flights from Memphis to attend the tryout and arrived in Maine amid “the most snow I’ve ever seen,” was more confident in his pace. “I’m a smaller guy, so there’s some stuff that I can do that some of the bigger receivers can’t,” he said.
Although the chance of going pro attracted players from far beyond Maine, none of them seemed to be there for the money.
Feliks Cobanovic, a 25-year-old who’d played soccer and football for Portland High School, drove to the Seacoast United Maine complex to tryout as a kicker but said he had no idea how much arena football players make. Team President Will Riley admitted that, with pay of $200 a game plus the cost of housing and meals, players weren’t in it to get rich.
On the sidelines, a bit before the tryouts ended, Riley watched quarterback Michael German throw balls to his aspiring teammates. German had signed with the Mammoths after getting cut from Tennessee Titans’ off-season training squad and, even in the drills, his skill stood out.
Riley said he knows that the 26-year-old quarterback is working for another shot at the NFL. In that, he shared something with many of the older players on the field Sunday.
“You get a lot of guys who are still chasing the dream,” German said.