ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Thirteen years ago this month, one of sports’ strangest marriages took place when then-World Wrestling Federation kingpin Vince McMahon teamed with football’s Dick Butkus and wrestler/Gov. Jesse “The Body” Ventura to give birth to the XFL.
Along with a cast of hundreds and the financial backing of NBC, they brought us innovative rock-’em, sock-’em outdoor football that featured NFL wannabes, plus a heavy emphasis on showbiz. (And, FYI, the “X” didn’t stand for anything.).
But if you blinked, you might have missed it. It arrived with great fanfare and flamed out in what seemed like an instant.
The league was the first to use overhead cameras on the football field, a custom the NFL quickly adopted. Quarterbacks in the eight-team, coast-to-coast league wore mics that enabled the home viewers to eavesdrop on the play calls, and some defenders wore helmet cams. The football was black and red. Those ideas weren’t adopted by the established league.
And on the sidelines, there was a fun aspect the NFL has managed to avoid with a 10-foot pole: Reporters were instructed to run onto the field to conduct interviews between plays. In one laugh-out-loud instance, a reporter stuck a mic in the face of a player and told him to hang up the phone on his assistant coach so he could answer questions.
It was straight out of “Saturday Night Live.” Players even had any nickname they wanted on the back of their jerseys.
At the league’s ballyhooed opener at UNLV’s Sam Boyd Stadium on Feb. 3, 2001, a capacity crowd of 30,000-plus, in addition to a national TV audience, looked on. They witnessed the Las Vegas Outlaws and RB Rod “He Hate Me” Smart beat the NY/NJ Hitmen 19-0. Three years later, Smart was in the Super Bowl with Carolina.
Yet, despite the good times, the arrow-slinging came from all directions in short order. One newspaper headline summed it up: “Would someone please put out a contract on the XFL?”
Good grief, it’s not like McMahon and his cohorts invented cancer.
At that opener, pregame festivities included pyrotechnic displays and Vegas showgirls in the stands masquerading as Outlaw cheerleaders. And once the game started, Ventura, working as a color analyst, offered high-decibel commentary from his platform in the bleachers, often belittling the NFL in the process.
Ex-Dallas Cowboy receiving standout Drew Pearson, meanwhile, was the Hitmen’s general manager. His QB was Charles Puleri, who guided New Mexico State in 1991-92, and in that second year was the Big West Conference’s passing efficiency leader.
“I look back on the XFL as being a great opportunity,” Puleri said in a recent phone interview from Boca Raton, Fla., where he’s a residential mortgage specialist. “I know the ratings plummeted from the first couple of weeks, but it was better than sitting at home. The football was good; the players were good.
“But their (XFL) big mistake was denouncing the NFL on the air. You can’t do that.”
On the other sideline with the Outlaws was Brett Bech, a former New Orleans Saints WR who’s now an assistant strength and conditioning coach with the Cowboys.
“They tried to promote it too much like wrestling,” Bech said. “People who wanted to watch football didn’t want to see announcers screaming.
“I think it was really successful at the beginning because it was a novelty. The games were good, too.”
Puleri, who had a fling with the Cowboys in the summer of 2000 before getting cut, was the Hitmen’s first draft choice.
“I was flattered,” Puleri said. “I was obviously happy.”
But that joy was tempered when just before the season the Hitmen changed offensive coordinators.
“We learned the whole playbook before training camp, and then they brought in a new guy it and it was like learning Chinese algebra.”
Maybe that’s why the Hitmen were shut out.
Once the game started, other wrinkles implemented by the league were seen.
For instance, there was no coin flip before the kickoff. Instead, two rival players had a 15-yard, side-by-side dash to gain possession of the ball positioned at midfield, with the winner’s team having the choice to receive.
“Yeah, we gave some thought to the head-on suggestion, but we already lost a guy in Orlando (which also played that night) the way it is,” Butkus, the league’s competition chief, said after the game.
Also, the punting game underwent an overhaul. Balls that went 25 yards or more downfield were considered live, plus there were no fair catches. Super ideas. But what was with the 5-yard protective halo around the return man on the catch?
Butkus explained at the time that fans wanted more runbacks. Baloney! Fans wanted to see return men get their heads crammed into their socks.
Actually, much more was expected from the imagination of McMahon. With the WWF, instead of sticking verbatim to the college wrestling manual, rules were tweaked dramatically, such as permitting folding chairs to be used as weapons, and eye-gouging and choking were allowed within reason.
“They tried to make it like a wrestling team, with villains and good guys,” Puleri remembered. “When we played Chicago at Soldier Field, they wanted (Ventura) to go down on the field and argue with Coach (Rusty) Tillman.
“There were just too many sideshows going on. In the springtime, with nothing else going on, it could have gone really well.”
So, what’s wrong with sideshows considering the players weren’t all that well known or fabulous? Denver Broncos fans, however, will recognize the name of linebacker Paris Lenon, who played for the Memphis franchise and is the last active player from the XFL.
Where the league came up woefully short was when McMahon made Mother Nature his weather czar.
Would it have been all that inconvenient to truck in snow for games in Chicago and Memphis? Or in Los Angeles, maybe a Hollywood movie studio could have created hurricane-force winds that would have made kicks and passes an added adventure. Sort of like watching Tim Tebow throw.
And why stop there? The folks in Birmingham and Orlando could have left on the hoses and flooded their fields. As even NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell knows, bad-weather games mean good ratings.
“I hadn’t even thought of that,” Bech said. “But that would have really brought the circus out.”
After its initial season, the XFL disappeared, somewhat to the surprise of Bech.
“I remember our last game we played, they said we’ll be back near year,” he said.
Oh, well. RIP, XFL.