A night with the fledgling AAF: Minor league feel with major hopes
ORLANDO, Fla. — Matt Simms threw toward his running back, Tarean Folston, who tried to cradle the ball after it hit his palm. Instead, it bounced into the air.
Waiting was Orlando linebacker Terence Garvin, who was in the spot right where the ball popped up. And 51 yards later, Garvin celebrated in the end zone — the first defensive touchdown in Alliance of American Football history. It was the 28-year-old’s second interception of the day in a 40-6 Orlando win over Atlanta.
Defensive Player of the Game @T_Garvin28 with the Pick 6️⃣
— Orlando Apollos (@aafAPOLLOS) February 10, 2019
The score didn’t really matter on a debut night for the AAF that was ultimately successful. The two most important aspects for the league in the short term — engaging football and fans to watch — were present. A lot had to do with top-end AAF players like Garvin, whose story is commonplace in the league.
Garvin made the Pittsburgh Steelers’ roster as an undrafted free agent in 2013 out of West Virginia. He spent time with five NFL teams over six seasons, including starting three games for the Seattle Seahawks in 2017.
A free agent the majority of 2018 after the San Francisco 49ers released him, he needed a place to play. He searched for a spot after being oh-so-close to getting a prime defensive role for years.
Garvin backed up Ryan Shazier in Pittsburgh. Played primarily special teams in Washington. Played strongside linebacker, which he felt was not his natural position, for the Seahawks. Seattle gutted its defense after 2017 and Garvin was caught up in the change. Stints in Miami and San Francisco were short-lived.
“I’ll be real, and I tell everybody,” Garvin said. “I never really got the opportunity to just be a linebacker.”
This type of opportunity might have never come for him had he continued to try to bounce around the NFL. Instead, he tried the AAF, which gave him a shot to start and potentially turn into an early star.
“I don’t try to toot my own horn. I don’t try to do that, but I’ve been around some good people,” Garvin said. “I played with Troy [Polamalu] for two years. I played under Larry Foote. Like, I’ve been with these people who have been guys. I played with Bobby Wagner, with K.J. Wright.
“Like, I’m in there with these people. I’m just always like that Temptation you never got to hear, you know what I mean? That’s what I called myself.”
They all heard him Saturday after he led Orlando with 11 tackles, defended two passes, intercepted Simms twice and added a tackle for loss. In a league in which it looked like the rules favored the offense, with only five pass-rushers in non-play-action situations, it was the defense that thrived early.
Sure, there were issues on Saturday night with the technology — particularly with its fantasy gaming app, and the San Antonio-San Diego broadcast had audio malfunctions.
But the on-field play was as good, if not better, than expected. Having no kickoffs or extra points was jarring at first, but it ultimately was unnoticeable. It’s something the NFL should legitimately consider. Some of the production elements — like having the replay official on air to transparently show the review process — were smart. So, too, was the sub-three-hour game time. The game speed might have been a little slower, but that’s unsurprising when everyone in the league is either a one-time NFL castoff or a developmental player nowhere near the level of the NFL’s premier players.
“We’re very, very excited about the start. We couldn’t be more pleased,” said Jeff Fisher, the former Rams and Titans head coach who serves as the AAF’s head of football strategy. “Yes, there’s room for improvement. There’s room for better coaching. There’s room for players playing together and improving throughout the season.
“And there’s room also from a tech standpoint. We had a few with some apps and all those things.”
But it was a start, and on this night, the spectators were there. Two hours before the game, men and women in makeshift togas tailgated under makeshift lights outside Spectrum Stadium.
Two police officers said it was a calmer presence than crowds that show for UCF games. It was a smaller group of people, too — the announced attendance of 20,191 was likely generous, as the stadium never looked more than one-third full at its peak.
But the fans who were there were passionate — already owning various Apollos paraphernalia. They roared when Steve Spurrier was introduced. They made enough noise to make it noticeable on key downs. And despite intermittent rain, a good chunk of fans stuck around to the end.
“We want to be part of this on the ground floor,” said Eric Gorecki, 42, of Deltona, Florida, one of the fans dressed up in a toga in the parking lot. “Because we think it’s going to be very successful.”
Fans around him agreed. In the NFL season, they are Minnesota Vikings fans — they even tailgated under a Vikings tent. Orlando had no pro team to call its own, so when Orlando was given an AAF team, they were in.
Two attended the Apollos’ draft party. They experienced the way the club — starting with Twitter-engaging team president Michael Waddell, a former college administrator at Arkansas and Illinois — interacted with and embraced the fans.
“That’s 50 percent of why we’ve embraced it,” said Jesse Solum, 49. “The fan access.”
On this night, the access would be good. A large contingent of fans waited outside the locker room after the game, where Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston also popped up. Apollos players reached up to railings to sign autographs after the rout. Following his media responsibilities, QB Garrett Gilbert stopped to take photos with fans on the concourse while speaking with a reporter.
It’s a different world, a different lifestyle — a minor league feel with the hopes of reaching the big time.
“I really liked it. I thought we had a real nice crowd,” Garvin said. “They were into the game. It wasn’t like an atmosphere where they were out there just sitting around. They were really cheering.
“I really felt like it was a home game.”
For the AAF on Saturday, with everything being a first, it’s a start good enough to build on.