For those fans wondering what to do when faced with the stress of a looming NFL lockout, a possible premature end to the Hornets’ playoffs chances, and soccer and baseball seasons in the early stages, there is a new entrant to the local sports stage, the New Orleans VooDoo arena football team.
To the football purist, the Arena Football League may seem an unwelcome venture – it is played in indoor arenas (the VooDoo play in the New Orleans Arena), it has odd, seemingly gimmicky rules (such as kickoffs that bounce off nets and into the field of play) and it seems to have players who not only play both ways on offense and defense but they also seem to be largely unknown. But for those same purists consider another point: The earliest, original form of football featured players playing in both directions, and versatility, toughness and durability were considered key qualities. The style of football played in the arena game is most reminiscent of the kind of backyard football many played growing up, which involved evading walls, scratching bushes, trees, protruding bricks and low-hanging branches. Such rules were all truly gimmicky but were also fun and required a very special skill set. When given the rare chance, many players, especially quarterbacks and wide receivers, prove very adept at the NFL game. Most notably, Kurt Warner, a likely future Hall of Famer who played for the St. Louis Rams, New York Giants and Arizona Cardinals, showed that such a skill set could be very dangerous indeed when released into the unsuspecting defenses of the big league. In the early stages of his career Warner developed a release, timing and accuracy tailored to the narrow confines of the arena league field, close quarters that require tight spirals and pinpoint passes.
The arena league also features local players familiar to those who follow New Orleans and Louisiana high school and college football. Such players include quarterback Danny Wimprine (of River Ridge and John Curtis High School); wide receiver/defensive back Carlese Franklin (Kentwood, Kentwood High School, McNeese); wide receiver Hutch Gonzales (Covington, Southeastern Louisiana); running back Jason Schule (Chalmette, La.-Monroe); linemen Mogut Ruffins (Louisiana Tech), Daverin Geralds (Baton Rouge), Vaalyn Jackson (Sulphur, McNeese) and Jamelle Cage (Lutcher, Louisiana Tech); defensive backs Jerron Wishom (Lutcher, Louisiana Tech) and John Green (St. Augustine, Southern Miss); and kicker Jonathan Ruffin (Ridgewood High School).
In particular, if there is an overlooked star waiting to be discovered on the New Orleans sports scene it is quarterback Danny Wimprine. One of the most promising high school quarterbacks to come out of the New Orleans area in the last decade, Wimprine excelled as a starter for four years in the NCAA with the Memphis Tigers. At Memphis he is still regarded as perhaps the best quarterback the school has ever seen, breaking almost every conceivable passing and total offense record in their books. He also, for a quarterback, demonstrated a rare and extremely valuable talent for punting. Later, like Warner, Wimprine found that talent and moxy were not always enough to make it in the pros, as good efforts with the Cleveland Browns and the CFL’s Calgary Stampeders failed to gain him a permanent roster spot.
The vagaries of pro football are such that backup quarterback positions can be determined not by arm strength, mental acuity or future potential, but rather by salary structures, local popularity and other needs. Sometimes, the most important need for a team is a backup quarterback who will not challenge the starter’s primacy or an older vet who can offer off-field coaching for a draft pick in whom a team has invested or perhaps it may be someone who is a long familiar friend with the starter or head coach. In other words, as in other professions, inside politics can be a major factor in determining an NFL team’s backup quarterback position and often leaves fans scratching their heads as to why seemingly mediocre talents hold clipboards on sidelines on Sundays while more talented players like Wimprine languish without a job offer. Thus, while the Ryan Leafs of the world can demand high salaries and take up years of playing time, someone like Kurt Warner, in a now legendary but true story, found himself bagging groceries in Cedar Falls, Iowa. The Arena Football League offers a home for such talent and often it blooms before the very eyes of those discerning and passionate enough to seek it out.
Re-emerging under the new ownership of Dan Newman after a two-year hiatus, the VooDoo have immediately ramped up their in-game product to meet the high standards of local football fans. The crowds are already typically well-sized, the Arena offers nearly all the excellent food options found at Hornets games, and when the summer heat turns on, a factor in local pro baseball and soccer games, families might appreciate the option of being indoors as well. In an 18 game season stretching from April to July, the VooDoo will play Friday and Saturday nights in its self-monikered home, “the Boneyard,” a name possibly relating to the fact that the New Orleans Arena and the Louisiana Superdome were built near the old Girod Street Cemetery. The name may be ghoulish but the football is lively, with the VooDoo and its opponents regularly tallying scores between 70 and 100 total points, and they can climb higher. The touchdowns are frequent, the golden footballs are flying and Wimprine is a big part of that. Wimprine’s passes are crisp and he shows quick thinking and quick reaction times on the field, reminiscent of another local pro quarterback who plays in the Dome next door. Football fans have a real opportunity to watch excellent offensive local players who light up the scoreboard every game, and those who love football, and especially those who fear they may not see it for another 15 months, should rush over to the Boneyard to see a most talented quarterback who may sadly never get the opportunity to play in the NFL.