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Let’s Get Ready to Fumble

The World Wrestling Federation, professional football, and NBC have joined forces. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Maxim, February 2001

By Allen St. John

“Go buy a seat belt and fasten it tight, because you’re gonna need it,” Vince McMahon bellows into a speakerphone in his Stamford, Connecticut, office as if he were ringside at a WWF steel-cage match. “You’ve never seen football like this, never seen a reality show this brutally honest.”

The man who put the WWF on the stock exchange and, for better or worse, made Jesse Ventura a household name wants your ass. He wants it in front of your television, tuned to your local NBC affiliate, watching the sitting governor of Minnesota ogle the cheerleaders, schmooze with the fans, insult the referees, and, when he feels like it, provide color commentary on a cranked-up minor-league football game.

Stripped of its in-your-face WWF trappings, the XFL is a simple concept. It’s a way for football junkies to get a pigskin fix while Vinny Testaverde is off playing golf. The fledgling eight-team league will play a 10-game schedule, starting on February 3, complete with prime-time network coverage on NBC every Saturday and UPN on Sunday. It all ends with the Big Game at the End, the league’s Super-Bowl-meets-SmackDown on April 21.

But who the hell will be playing? “We had 47,000 inquiries from players,” says Dick Butkus, the league’s director of competition and an infamous NFL Hall of Fame linebacker. “Yes, that does include your plumbers and your electricians. But there are also a bunch of Kurt Warners out there. We’re gonna make them stars.” In reality, while most of the guys will be CFL and Arena Football veterans trying to impress NFL scouts, the XFL is not about the players or the game—or how badly either gets injured. It’s about the show.

Before the first snap of the first minicamp, Vince and Co. showed where their priorities were. They held cheerleader tryouts across the country.

The girls at the NY/NJ Hitmen auditions looked more like the Bulgarian synchronized swimming team—a blur of flesh trying to do more or less the same thing at the same time. But in the XFL, that is not a problem. After all, NBC’s most memorable promo spotlights a shower filled with naked women while the voice-over intones, “Don’t worry, we’ll teach them how to cheer.”

And the Hitwomen, or whatever they will be called, understand their role. Take Envy, a professional dancer from Pennsylvania. She successfully influenced the judges by decorating her exposed navel with sparkling red glitter, and she has no delusions about this gig. “My dad thinks I’m a bimbo,” she admits. Welcome to the first of many XFL moments.

In Vince’s vision, this league is about crushing expectations like beer cans, so when the season starts, Envy, like everything else in this league, will be miked. She’ll be able to crack wise with the announcers, mouth off about the quarterback’s last interception, and presumably wax poetic about the synergy between her shapely buns and those tight pants. All on prime-time TV.

The governor and his posse

The league’s live-not-Memorex policy will also bring that Jerry Springer vibe to the sidelines. When a player misses a tackle, you won’t have to be a lipreader to eavesdrop on the coach’s vein-bulging defensive-back dressing-down. That is part of the show. And right behind the coach on the rip wagon will be the governor of Minnesota and his cronies. The XFL’s announcers will not be confined to a booth. They’ll be second-guessing calls right to the coach’s face or peeking in the locker room, and when they get sick of ragging on guys for dropped passes and missed tackles, they’ll go chill with the cheerleaders and hang with the beer vendors.

“I’m just doing football and having fun,” says Ventura, taking time out from governing the people of Minnesota for a photo op with McMahon. “I did it on Saturday Night Main Event years ago. I expect nothing different now. I’m probably the only man in the world Vince McMahon will cower from.”

No pain, no gain

If cheerleaders and former wrestlers represent two facets of McMahon’s brave new world, the symbol of the football side is Butkus. For those who don’t remember, Butkus was the fearsome Chicago Bears linebacker who defined the NFL’s black-and-blue division, a player who disemboweled running backs and played until the grinding of his bone-on-bone knees could be heard 50 yards away.

Butkus’ mission is to bring old-school football to this new-school league. “It seems like the NFL is getting kind of antiseptic,” he gripes. “You can’t do this, you can’t do that.” At his behest the fair-catch rule is history. Every ball on fourth down is live, and every punt will be returned. The bump-and-run is back, and there is no in-the-grasp rule for quarterbacks. In this league the play’s not over until the signal caller is eating the frozen tundra.

The XFL is a throwback in another way. Only the owners will get rich. All the players are contracted to the league, so there are no bidding wars between teams. The league base salary for the first season is $45,000—with five large more for quarterbacks, ten thou less for kickers. Players will share a $100,000 pool for winning a regular-season game and a $1 million pot for the league’s Big Game championship tilt. “It’s the American way,” boasts McMahon of the league’s incentive program. But even with that Regisesque pile of cash, the top players in the league will just barely break into six figures.

That’s just a fraction of what some players, like Hitmen running back Keith Elias, are used to making. Elias played for the New York Giants from ’94 to ’96 and a year ago was Peyton Manning’s backfield partner in Indianapolis. Now he’s preparing for the second half of minicamp two-a-days on the soggy turf at Kean University in New Jersey. “When I heard about the WWF connection, I wondered what’s going to happen when you score a touchdown,” he laughs. “Is the cornerback going to pull out a .45 and plug you as you cross the line?”

For NFL journeymen like Elias, former stars like Alvin Harper, and near-stars like former 49er quarterback Jim Druckenmiller and Heisman Trophy winner Rashaan Salaam, the XFL is a second chance to make a splash like Arena-Football-refugee-turned-NFL-MVP Kurt Warner. “I don’t feel I ever got a shot in the NFL,” says Druckenmiller outside the Memphis Maniax practice site. “The XFL is going to give people the chance to see what I can do. Maybe I can use this as a steppingstone back to the NFL.”

And McMahon’s OK with that. He seems less concerned with hard-nosed football than high-octane entertainment. “It’s all about fun. We don’t take anything too seriously,” says McMahon. “Except our performance on the field,” he adds as an afterthought. And the wrestler-turned-ringmaster is cocksure the in-your-face formula that worked in the ring will work on the field. “We bring a certain attitude. We bring a tremendous work ethic,” McMahon says. “When you add those things together—who-o-o-a, boy! Football’s never going to be the same.” Who could argue?

Leagues of Their Own

If you think the XFL sounds like a circus, just take a look at these clowns.

The Stars: Calvin Hill, Larry Csonka, Jim Fassel
The Plan: The game is the same, the season is the same, but all the teams are in third-tier cities like Birmingham and Charlotte. Genius!
The Reality: After just 15 months, the league is finished and the players union is attempting to recover $7 million in unpaid salaries. D’oh!

The Stars: Joe Theismann, Warren Moon, Doug Flutie
The Plan: Those kooky Canadians lengthen the field 10 yards, play three downs instead of four, and complicate the overtime rules, hoping it will entice 30,000 people to go watch the Roughriders play games in Saskatchewan.
The Reality: They’ve been strapping on the pads every day of the week for over 40 years. Who knew?

The Stars: Doug Flutie, Herschel Walker, Steve Young, Reggie White
The Plan: Donald Trump and his buddies throw money at anyone with a chin strap in an attempt to steal NFL’s talent.
The Reality: In the midst of bankruptcy, the USFL sues the NFL for $1.5 billion in an antitrust suit. A U.S. district court awards the fledgling league $1. Oops!

The Stars: Kurt Warner
The Plan: Closer to Nerf football in your basement than real football. The field is only 50 yards long, there are no sidelines, and the ball can bounce off a 40-foot net and still be in play.
The Reality: You can’t have second-rate pro football if Doug Flutie’s not involved.

The XFL’s Tag Teams

Filling the country’s biggest stadiums will take more than bells and whistles.

Birmingham Thunderbolts
Stadium: Legion Field
Buzz: Both ’Bolts season-ticket holders get vouchers to WWF’s Armageddon.

Chicago Enforcers
Stadium: Soldier Field
Buzz: Head coach Dick Butkus resigned three months before kickoff.

Memphis Maniax
Stadium: Liberty Bowl
Buzz: Memphis has had a team in every league but the NFL. Hmm.

Las Vegas Outlaws
Stadium: Sam Boyd Stadium
Buzz: A pro team in Vegas named the Outlaws. Good idea!

San Francisco Demons
Stadium: Pacific Bell Park
Buzz: Rice-A-Roni giveaway night will fail disastrously.

NY/NJ Hitmen
Stadium: Giants Stadium
Buzz: A sound system will blast on-field collisions nonstop.

Orlando Rage
Stadium: Florida Citrus Bowl
Buzz: A season ticket is just $85. Hey, you get what you pay for.

Los Angeles Xtreme
Stadium: Los Angeles Coliseum
Buzz: Can the Xtreme fill 100,000 seats when the Raiders couldn’t?