Former Missouri football players pursue dreams with RiverCity Rage
By Andrew Astleford
ST. CHARLES – The dreamers arrive before 4:30 a.m. at Vetta Sports facility, carrying coffee cups and Gatorade bottles, duffle bags and desire.
It is the first full week of pre-dawn practices for the Indoor Football League’s River City Rage. Three former Missouri players — Pig Brown, Darnell Terrell and Xzavie Jackson — prepare to run wind sprints on an indoor soccer field. They once dazzled thousands of screaming fans at Memorial Stadium during the 2006 and ’07 seasons, one of the most successful two-year campaigns in the program’s history. Now they tape their ankles atop an air hockey table and navigate past a Ms. Pacman machine on their way to Field No. 1 — a route they hope is no more than a detour on their way to NFL glory.
In the lobby before practice begins, players gather around tables near a black LG flatscreen television that flashes a rerun of ESPN’s “SportsCenter.” It is early March, the first week of NFL free agency. A graphic stretches across the screen announcing that eighth-year wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh has signed with the Seattle Seahawks for $40 million over five seasons. Below the television, Brown and Terrell and Jackson chat with teammates, far removed from the glamorous NFL lifestyle broadcast to the world.
Six weeks later, on the eve of this weekend’s much-anticipated NFL draft, the three former MU veterans seem far-removed from the bright NFL futures they once considered theirs. As five new Missouri Tigers command the spotlight, expecting a call in this year’s draft, these three play in small arenas before small crowds for small paychecks. But their NFL dreams live, so they keep pursuing a game and a passion that, more than 15 months after the final snap of their college careers, won’t let them go.
Brown plays to beat an Achilles injury that robbed him of a guaranteed NFL future. Terrell plays to answer a competitive streak that nagged at him whenever he played pick-up basketball and flag football games in Columbia. Jackson plays to make good on a promise made to his now-deceased father.
And all believe they will make it back.
Understanding the odds doesn’t always diminish the dream. Of the 100,000 high-school seniors who play football each year, the NFL Players Association estimates 215 will someday make an NFL team. Once players graduate college, most move on, content to keep their football flame alive in newspaper clippings or by playing backyard flag football games. But for some, the passion burns too deep.
Dr. Tom Ferraro compares some players’ commitment to post-collegiate competition to coping with a career-ending injury. Ferraro, a sports psychologist from Williston Park, N.Y., with more than 15 years experience working with athletes, labels the condition as “identity foreclosure,” the inability of a competitor to outgrow childhood passions.
“They have fallen in love with Division I crowds,” Ferraro says. “The narcissistic gratification is immense, and they just kind of hold on. … It’s hard for some people to give up that identity and to give up the sport.”
Although that can be true in any sport, it takes on an even greater intensity in football. Baseball offers the minor-league system and city recreation leagues. Informal basketball and hockey teams can be found in gyms and rinks throughout the country, played by men decades past their prime. But once a football player hangs up his college cleats, the chop blocks and helmet-to-helmet collisions are mostly over.
The Indoor Football League is a rare exception to that rule. In July, the 19-team league, whose officials liken it to second-tier minor-league baseball, was created after a merger between the 4-year-old Intense Football League and the 3-year-old United Indoor Football League. Teams are divided into two divisions within two conferences, the United and the Intense, and play 14-game schedules that run from March to July.
In 2001, the RiverCity Rage began as the St. Louis Renegades of the Indoor Professional Football League. Now, they compete in the United Conference’s Atlantic Division and hold a 4-1 record before hosting the Saginaw Sting on Saturday.
It’s a world away from the dazzle of the NFL. Players make $200 a game, with a $50 bonus for each victory. Some seek outside employment, though most nap and train when they are not at practice. The RiverCity Rage provides its players with all-expenses-paid two-bedroom, one-bathroom apartments at a west St. Charles complex and covers travel expenses to games at locations such as Upper Marlboro, Md., and Rochester, N.Y. Sometimes players receive vouchers to local restaurants such as King Edward’s Fried Chicken & Fish and Chevys Fresh Mex.
“They’re not doing it to support their families,” says John Aebischer, RiverCity Rage general manager. “They’re trying to get to the next level.”
It’s a steep climb but not an impossible one. Team officials say a St. Louis Rams scout usually attends home games in the 9,755-seat St. Charles Family Arena. Almost all who chase this dream find inspiration in Kurt Warner, a two-time NFL MVP quarterback who played for the Arena Football League’s Iowa Barnstormers from 1995 to ’97. And last season, running back Fred Jackson started three games for the Buffalo Bills after playing for the United Indoor Football League’s Sioux City Bandits in 2005.
Former Nebraska quarterback Eric Crouch knows how hard it can be to abandon the game. Crouch, the 2001 Heisman Trophy winner, played short stints with the Rams, Green Bay Packers and Kansas City Chiefs but failed to catch hold in the NFL. So in 2006-07, he played with the Canadian Football League.
“I’ve been playing football since I can remember what a football looked like, whether it was in the backyard or in the street at night or in the snow,” says Crouch, who owns a park-and-playground equipment sales service in Omaha.
“It becomes who you are.”
And that’s why Brown, Terrell and Jackson are here at Vetta Sports facility, playing football for $200, food vouchers and hope. Always hope. After their Missouri careers ended, each was signed as an undrafted free agent. Each was given a shot with an NFL team. Each was cut.
Now, none of them can let go.
At the kitchen table in his St. Charles apartment, Pig Brown purses his lips and relives Oct. 27, 2007, the day his sure thing turned into an unknown. That’s when the former Missouri safety shredded his right Achilles’ tendon in the final minutes against Iowa State. That’s when his plans changed.
“I knew I was supposed to be in the NFL,” he says now, his voice still filled with the confidence of a winner. “I knew I could compete with the best of the best at the highest level.”
Brown arrived at MU as a junior-college transfer from Georgia who started one game for Missouri in 2006. Throughout the 2007 season, his second in Columbia, he enjoyed a rapid ascent. During preseason workouts, teammates voted him a senior co-captain, along with tight end Martin Rucker, defensive tackle Lorenzo Williams and wide receiver Jason Ray. As the season progressed, he was named a two-time Big 12 Conference defensive player of the week and began to receive All-America and All-Conference considerations.
Before the injury, it had been a good day. The Tigers led the Cyclones, 42-28, late in the fourth quarter in Columbia. They were about to improve their record to 7-1 in what would be a 12-2 Cotton Bowl-championship year.
With a little less than three minutes left against Iowa State, Brown stalked a 16-yard screen pass. A sharp pain streaked through his right leg. “My foot felt like rubber,” he says now.
Brown collapsed. Teammates huddled around him. Junior safety William Moore supported Brown’s back and helped trainers unpeel him from the FieldTurf. “It’s over,” Brown said to himself then.
A cart carried Brown off the field. After the game, he hobbled from Memorial Stadium on crutches. That night, he tossed and turned. Why didn’t this happen two games earlier, against Oklahoma, when he was eligible for a medical redshirt and could play another season? Why did this happen at all?
As the weeks passed, he went through physical therapy three to four hours a day, trying to turn back the clock. Scouts still assured him he would be drafted. Philadelphia Eagles officials told him to stay by his phone on draft day in April 2008. Chicago Bears officials said they would take him in the fourth or fifth round.
Brown watched ESPN’s draft coverage with his girlfriend, Jasmine, at her home in O’Fallon. He kept his cell phone close.
Rounds 1 through 3 passed. Where was the call from Philadelphia?
Then rounds 4 and 5. Where was the call from Chicago?
Finally, rounds 6 and 7.
His cell phone sat silent.
“I was like, ‘Seriously? Are those guys really that much better than me?’” he says now. “It will bring you down because you see guys who went to no-name schools go before you.”
Later that spring, Brown participated in a free-agent minicamp with the Kansas City Chiefs, with his Achilles at 85 percent. He struggled to make cuts with wide receivers sprinting at full-speed. Nothing came of it.
“There were times I wanted to give it up,” Brown says.
But he didn’t. In December, former Missouri cornerback Paul Simpson approached Brown about joining the RiverCity Rage. Earlier, coaches had called Simpson about trying out for the team and asked if he knew of former college teammates who might be interested as well.
At first, Brown didn’t want to do it. He had been working at the Boys and Girls Town of Missouri in Columbia and had enjoyed mentoring young kids. Joining the RiverCity Rage would mean a smaller paycheck and an uncertain future.
After considering the offer more, Brown began to believe. Why would they sugar-coat anything? he thought to himself. Coaches had pitched an opportunity for him to keep in shape and to showcase his skills in front of professional scouts. The RiverCity situation represented a chance to refocus his NFL dream.
Then, shortly after New Year’s Day, Brown agreed to play. His dream breathed again.
“I was anxious to get back to playing football, because I’m not going to treat this league any different than any other league,” Brown says. “You can’t, because what if a scout were to come in and see you’re not taking this league seriously? Why would they want you on their team?”
Darnell Terrell still had it. The feeling hit him when he spun opponents during pick-up basketball games. It hit him when he backpedaled with wide receivers during flag football contests at MU’s Stankowski Field. It hit him on Sunday afternoons when he switched on NFL broadcasts and said to the screen, “I belong out there.”
Terrell, a former Missouri cornerback, helped the Tigers lead the Big 12 Conference in total defense during league play in 2007. Scouts considered him a practice-squad player who lacked elite instincts but had the potential to develop into a safety. They cited his 6-foot-3, 205-pound frame as a plus.
A day after the 2008 draft, the Cleveland Browns signed him. Terrell was one of 19 defensive backs invited to a May minicamp. Some considered him to be one of the group’s most promising players because of his athleticism.
Workouts started well. He began to move up the depth chart. One defensive-assistant coach told Terrell he wanted to sign him. Midway through the month, then-coach Romeo Crennel called Terrell “decent.”
It turned out decent wasn’t good enough.
In June, Terrell was cut. He would no longer sprint stride for stride with Pro Bowl wide receiver Braylon Edwards in workouts. He would no longer squeeze each tenth of a second from his 4.48 40-yard time to scratch his way toward an NFL start.
Instead, he returned to Columbia, where he adjusted to a 9-to-5 job with Sprint. He found that he enjoyed walks on campus during sticky afternoons knowing that not another hour would be spent in a drab hotel room in Cleveland studying zone coverage schemes from a playbook that stared back at him like a drill sergeant. He was free.
“That time I didn’t have football,” Terrell says, “it was lovely.”
But football wasn’t done with him. It had defined his life since he started playing as a high school freshman. He knew he could develop into a promising prospect, but he had never considered the NFL until he received a taste. Once he did, he was hooked.
About the same time Brown considered his football future, Simpson, a former Missouri cornerback, told Terrell he had received the call from RiverCity Rage officials. They wanted to know if Terrell might join, too.
At first, Terrell brushed it off. Seven months earlier, he had dreamed of buckling a bright-orange Cleveland helmet that glistened under the Sunday afternoon sun. The IFL was way off his radar.
Simpson convinced Terrell that the IFL would fill a need in Terrell’s life. When they arrived at RiverCity practices earlier this year, Terrell felt he didn’t belong; it was too small-time. But once he began to pump his legs, his football instincts returned. He was back, playing a game that gave him purpose and joy. He wanted more.
He wanted another shot at the NFL.
“I’m no stranger to hard work, so I don’t mind,” Terrell says. “If I put everything into it, and I don’t achieve it, at least I can say I tried.”
Xzavie Jackson wanted his father, Harvey Jackson, to be there. He wanted the mild-mannered man, known to most everyone else as “Coach,” to battle chronic obstructive pulmonary disease long enough to see his son emerge from an NFL tunnel in Cincinnati or Philadelphia.
Harvey Jackson, a smoker from an early age, was known to generations of young athletes in Vacaville, Calif., where he coached softball, basketball, Pop Warner football and baseball. But he never coached his own son and refrained from offering Xzavie competitive advice at home. “He wanted me to learn on my own,” Xzavie Jackson says.
But something rubbed off. In college, Jackson matured into one of the Big 12 Conference’s best pass rushers. As a senior in 2006, he earned seven sacks and led all Missouri linemen with 55 tackles. That season, coaches named him to the honorable mention All-Big 12 Conference team.
In May 2007, the Cincinnati Bengals signed him as an undrafted free agent. He loved slipping on his black-and-orange jersey before practices and preseason games, imagining what was to come. He imagined himself on the field and his father in the stands.
Then, early in preseason camp, he pulled a thumb from its socket. He played through the pain to show coaches he belonged. He refused to tell trainers until the third preseason game because time on the sidelines meant time closer to a flight home, he figured.
Still, it happened. In early September 2007, eight days before the start of the season, the Bengals released him. “When they cut me,” Jackson says, “my heart was hurt.”
That heartbreak soon seemed like a temporary setback, one that made the next few months that much sweeter. Not long after he was cut, Jackson earned a spot on the Philadelphia Eagles’ practice squad. He met the franchise’s face, five-time Pro Bowl quarterback Donovan McNabb. He partied at three-time Pro Bowl defensive end Jevon Kearse’s mansion. He earned $4,700 a week on his practice-squad salary, more than enough to live a life of fancy. “I had dreamt of it,” he says. “But it was happening (then). Everything was going into place.”
It didn’t last. The previous offseason, upon coaches’ request, he had gained 30 pounds from his former 280. By the following June, coaches were upset that he no longer exploded off the line of scrimmage.
“You’re slow!” Jackson remembers Eagles defensive line coach Pete Jenkins screaming during practices. “You’re SLOW!”
After Philadelphia cut him he had tried out for the New Orleans Saints but was never signed. His football life had been in limbo — until RiverCity coaches asked about his interest in the Indoor Football League.
Jackson viewed the Rage as a chance to build character and to keep in shape. Sure, it required a mental adjustment. During those quiet moments alone in his bedroom in his St. Charles apartment, he stared at the ceiling and thought to himself, “Man, why am I doing this?”
“But when I say that, I tune back in,” Jackson says now. “Man, this is going to help me get back into the league.”
He remembered the vision — him on the field and his father in the stands. He remembered gazing at his father’s sunken face and giving his word. He remembered wanting his father to say, “I saw my son succeed.”
“I’m going to do this for you,” Jackson told his father.
“No,” Harvey Jackson told his son. “Don’t do it for me. I don’t want you to ever do anything for me.”
On Jan. 31, Harvey Jackson died at his home in Vacaville two weeks after his son, Xzavie, joined the RiverCity Rage.
Harvey Jackson never saw Xzavie star on Sundays, but Xzavie continues to play in his honor. Life moves on, turning detours into destinations.
WHAT LIES AHEAD
In the St. Charles Family Arena, an announcer’s booming voice bounces off empty seatbacks. Men dressed in black Missouri jerseys mill throughout the concourse. In the third quarter, the 2,378 in attendance let out a loud “Ohhh!” when Gateway Soul defenders crunch RiverCity quarterback Efi Eyo into a wall that rings the 50-yard field.
“Remember, players may enter the stands,” the announcer cackles over the loudspeakers. “Fans may not enter the field!”
In the final minutes of RiverCity’s 72-0 exhibition victory, Pig Brown turns and faces the crowd. He raises his black helmet toward the ceiling and swings his thick dreadlocks in delight. A year ago, he and Darnell Terrell and Xzavie Jackson dreamed of earning NFL millions. Tonight, he settles for small satisfactions, such as being named the player of the game after earning 4 1/2 tackles and one interception.
“I have to take a different route,” Brown says. “I can’t do anything about that.
“If you want to chase something, you have to go after it.”
After the game, children jockey for position behind the Rage bench. Their thin fingers clutch black markers and miniature footballs. A 15-minute autograph session will begin soon.
Near midfield, Brown and Terrell and Jackson gather for victory photographs. They smile at the cameras, dressed in those red-and-black uniforms that seem so foreign to their NFL dreams. Lenses shutter and capture them in a stop along their detour. They trade bright grins.
Then they turn toward the youthful faces, eager to face what lies ahead.