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Part Three

Fourth and Long

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Fourth Down: Friday

The bus is late getting out of John Marshall. The 25 players not too sorely injured after the week's workouts, and who also could get out of work early enough on Friday to make the trip to Norfolk, are promptly seated at 11:20 a.m. on the charter, their equipment bags in the hold beneath. But while the assistant coaches are here, seated up front, and Melissa Mack, assistant general manager of the Speed, and the ball boy are here, and the reporter and photographer are finally here, the bus itself does not move.

That is because Coach Rock is not here. By 11:30 a.m., the scheduled departure time, the guys are getting antsy, expressed through increasingly loud conversations, dirty jokes and tapping feet. "Let's get this show on the road," someone belts out.

The bus itself is the first sign of luxury the team has seen. It is new, comfortable and equipped with three television sets, one in the front and two halfway back above the seats, dipping from the overhead compartments like movie monitors on an airplane. Assistant G.M. Mack has brought bags of fresh oranges, apples and bananas for the guys to munch on. She promises pizza on the return trip. Just about all the players get two-seat rows for themselves and their gym bags, and memories of college and semi-pro road trips make the setting familiar, comfortable and real.

The sound of two dozen swaggering young men in full pre-battle machismo also rings familiar and clear. Sitting near the restroom in the back, lineman Lawrence Lewis, the class clown, and quarterback Miles are cutting everybody up with one-liners, impersonations and funny voices. "I was a theater arts minor, so I know how to project," Lewis bellows in a sing-song, stereotype-gay lisp. The massive forms of his fellow linemen shudder their seats with involuntary mirth. "If you ain't havin' a good time, you ain't with Law' Lew'," he says, satisfied with the effect.

Coach Rock finally pulls up in his Jeep at 11:40 a.m., and everybody pauses to look out the windows for the reasons behind his tardiness. He begins unloading them from the back of the Jeep — extra helmets for the guys whose heads are too big for the ones that arrived Wednesday.

Things quiet down when he clambers aboard and the bus begins lumbering out of the high school parking lot. Coach Rock steadies himself with his hands on seat headrests as he makes a trip back through the bus to ask how individual players are feeling. When he gets back to the front, he puts in a videotape, and an old AFL game begins to play silently on the screens.

By the time the bus finds the highway, Miles is asleep under his leather coat, and Lewis is snoring.



It's dark on the ride home, their bodies are aching and exhausted, but their voices are filled with the pleasant weariness of victory. Despite the Norfolk Nighthawks' impressive arena; despite their fancy, official AFL field and their numbered jerseys; and despite the backing of 100-odd arena employees and local folks who managed to get into the closed practice game to watch and support them, Richmond got the better of them.

The scrimmage wasn't a real game, per se, just a practice session like any other for the Speed — but against a real opponent, one they will play twice in the regular season. The linemen danced their sumo dances. The defensive backs went one-on-one against the receivers. The coaches screamed and yelled and got in their players' faces. Just like regular practice. And here, the Nighthawks seemed to hold the upper hand.

Then, for about an hour at the end, the teams run plays against each other. Play as teams.

The Nighthawks draw first blood, scoring two quick touchdowns, making one of the extra points, and kicking a 50-yard field goal. Sixteen points.

It looks bad, but the Speed don't give up. Richmond starts to turn things around when they sack the Nighthawks' QB in the end zone for a two-point safety. And when it's their turn to play offense, they strike fast.




[image-1]photo by Chad Hunt / Style WeeklyAssistant coach Reggie Smith and his receivers take a knee for a moment of reflection before the game. The first touchdown, however, is called back on a penalty. They don't let it get them down, ultimately scoring three more, with DeArmas making two of the extra points.

Twenty-two points. Victory.

"Felt good," quarterback Whipple says. "We're finally getting our s—t together. We better not stop now."

In the darkened bus on the way home, Coach Rock puts in a tape of the 1988 ArenaBowl he and Coach Smith played in for the Chicago Bruisers. Before it ends, the team arrives back in Richmond, en route to John Marshall, passing the highway exit that reads: "Fifth Street. Downtown. Coliseum."



"I'm bigger than 340," the lineman smiles, reaching for the roster sheet.

It reads: Jeffery Pierce. Virginia Union University. 6'6". 340 lbs.

"Yeah, I'm bigger than 340," he says again, with a sheepish grin.

Pierce's girlfriend saw last month's Richmond Speed tryout advertised on TV and told him about it. But the May 1999 grad had put on a few pounds since his college days. "I didn't think I was going to make it," he says. "I did it to see if I could really play pro football."

A counselor at United Methodist Family Services, Pierce says he doesn't really care where things go from here. "I think it's going to be a great experience," he says. "The money or what happens next really doesn't matter to me. For me, it's proved that I can make a pro team."

I can.

That seems to be the biggest reason why these players are taking time away from their families, friends and careers to play a new sport, in a new place, and in a new league.

A sport that isn't exactly the one they grew up on. A place with a mixed record of supporting junior teams. But a league of their own, at least for now, while dreams and youth and desire last.

Because they can.

Jump to Part 1, 2, 3

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