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Interview with Charleston Challengers head coach Chris Bransfield

JH: How you doing today Coach?

CB: Hey there Jesse. Just fine, thank you.

JH: Coach, you're 6-0, a mark that, frankly, has surprised the rest of the league. Have you been surprised by the team's success?

CB: Well, I have to tell you, I'm not too surprised. There's something about the south you know...we're fighters. Hell, we've been fighters since the civil war and we're gonna keep fighting....and we're rising.

JH: Why the turnaround, then? Your team is off to a start that will probably end up as your franchise's best regular season ever.

CB: Our team is made of veterans, pure and simple. I think it's true that when you put a group of veterans, or even past stars, to make a team, the chemistry just explodes. It's when you just have a veteran or two when you run into trouble.

JH: Sort of like when you had Jerry Rice in place as your main source of leadership

CB: We had all our hopes on Rice for several years, and though he's well loved in all trailer homes down here, he couldn't carry the team himself. But with Gannon, Bettis, Hearst, Galloway, Elam, our defense...it's like the Detroit Red Wings of last hockey season...Veteran chemistry. We're dynamite together, with no single part greater than the whole.

JH: Your success in recent weeks, however, has sparked a lot of criticism. You hear a lot of folks saying that the Challengers are only putting up wins because they're lucky. How do you answer such criticisms?

CB: People will always say you're lucky when you win. Especially that fucko EaWisneski. He's a real typical Boston fan when it comes to that...funny thing...if the damn YANKEE can't blame it on the money he'll blame it on luck. But seriously, we would have beaten any team with the way we played last week.

JH: As I understand it, you were forced to bench two of your players, Joe Horn and Joey Galloway, last week.

CB: To put it bluntly, they weren't playing with us as a team. They seriously need to learn that the confederate logo is about team pride. Regardless, they've apologized, so they'll be back in this week's game.

JH: Well, it's still a long road ahead for your team. What kinds of things will you be focusing on as you enter the second half of the season?

CB: Our challenge is to continue to avoid injuries, keep a good sense of humor, and continue to show that you can't be 6 and 0 based on luck. Beating Boston, New York, and Montana consecutively is no stroke of luck. It's talent. Purely southern talent at that. Plus, we'll go on to respectfully beat another team of rivals next week. It's always fun beating the retards anyway. I know Jerry will be cheering for us Sunday.

JH: In your opinion, is this a team with the ability to make this Charleston's first championship year?

CB: This is our year to go all the way. No question. Just ask Rich Gannon.


Gentleman of Ill Repute: The Minicamp Diaries, Part IV

Chicagoans, I've learned, live by three cardinal virtues: 1) Always choose deep-dish over thin-crust pizza.  2) Always blame the Great Chicago Fire on Ms. Whats-her-name's cow.  3) Always have Jason Elam on your fantasy football team.  And by the looks of things today, this third virtue may count for the most. 

We were stuck in traffic on I-90 West, making molasses-slow progress toward DePaul University, where the Black Sox were opening their first spring minicamp.  With the prospects of a long wait ahead of us, we looked for some means of diversion.  Ricardo and his improviso guitar playing (with Jackie on harmonica) had been banned when we had passed through Ohio, and for some reason my cohorts did not want me to regale them with more stories of my FFL glory days.  Their loss, I suppose.  Now, besides its faulty air conditioning, the Manfordmobile's radio antenna was also on the fritz.  Resourceful as usual, Bob reached out of the car and wrapped some tin foil around the antenna, allowing us to sample the local AM stations.  Manford tuned into WMVP, the local sports talk affiliate, where a heated discussion was already taking place:

CALLER:  "----and where does he get off ripping down an institution of Chicago?  He might as well dance on George Halas's grave."

DJ: "Now come on, here.  The Black Sox are a team looking to rebuild, rebound.  And sometimes that means that you have to take your team in a new direction. How are you gonna say that they---"

CALLER: "---Yeah but what guy comes in and does that at the expense of the entire team's morale?  Look Tom, Jason Elam is the last remaining guy from the '96 team.  What guy does this? Yeah, I'll tell you what Tom.  It's these new executives, these.thieves.  And that coach, he's just aawell I can't say it without you bleeping me Tom, but he's a gentleman of ill repute."

The tirade went on, the result of backlash from the day's earlier news.  Hendrik deBoer, head coach of the Black Sox, had announced that he would not be retaining kicker Jason Elam for the 2002 season.  This was a forgone conclusion for those of us covering the league closely, and for many fans it was probably expected.  Chicago had made an abundance of moves in the offseason, bringing in both Edgerrin James and LaDainian Tomlinson to supplement the backfield.  But for Chicago fans, this was the pain of letting go, a proverbial slap in the face of nearly a decade of tradition.

But to really understand why this action could provoke so much wrath from the Chicago faithful, one must understand the curious coaching career of one Hendrik deBoer.  deBoer arrived in January 2000, ironically enough, upon a wave of steady optimism.  Though Coach Lukas Welburn was still revered by fans, it was clear that his best days of coaching were behind him.  In the modern FFL, where competitive feelings now breed year-round involvement by coaches, Welburn's laidback approach to coaching had outlived its usefulness.  His moonlighting as a successful plumber also created strains with management, and a quick change was made.  Yet deBoer did not make a very auspicious first impression.  In a March press conference, the cocky deBoer exclaimed that he would "make this league my bitch," said that "my hiring is the best thing Chicago ever did" and announced that "the real history of Chi-Town starts today.  Now treat me as your Jesus, a'ight?"

Later, during training camp, he was reminded by FFL sideline reporter Ricardo Dayton that Chicago had been pegged by Manford Fowler to finish dead last in the FFL Central-South division.  That remark led to fisticuffs;  at one point Dayton shoved deBoer over.  The coach flipped, landed on his head, but then immediately bounced back up and resumed fighting.  Surely this was evidence of a force to be reckoned with.  And the controversy did not end there.  During a particularly tough 51-38 loss to the Predators, Hendrik received taunts from his brother and opposing coach across the field.  He charged out to attack his sibling, only to be restrained and then ejected from the game.  (One wonders what the meetings between Atlanta and Chicago will be like THIS year.)  But now deBoer had committed his most grievous sin -- leaving city idol Jason Elam off of the protected 3-man roster.  This was going to be tough to live down.

In the parking lot outside of the DePaul practice field, the most zealous fans were having a field day.  After we had parked, Manford and I looked on as a group of fans in Elam Black Sox jerseys engaged in the ritualistic torture of a Hendrik effigy.  One of the Elams held the sackcloth Hendrik taught while the others pummeled him with their fists.  Then, a small child, no older than 10, was egged on by his father to give the effigy a swift flying dropkick.  The Elams danced around their prey, dousing it with a mixture of garbage and kerosene.  We really had to marvel at their thoroughness.  They even made sure to soak the eyes with extra fuel.  Then, as a final indignity, the rag doll was hoisted up and shoved onto a long vertical railroad spike, the spike penetrating the doppelgangers posterior and emerging from his neck.  Lit ablaze, the Elams gave out a cheer.

Things weren't quite as animated on the Black Sox practice field, though a lot of preparation for 2002 was certainly going on.  With the majority of the team's strategies and personnel of the past three years scrapped, the onus for redesigning the Chicago offense now falls squarely on deBoer.  What was debatable before is now clearly true; this is deBoer's team to run now, and whether he sinks or swims will depend on his own actions.  Starting with the trade for uber-quarterback Daunte Culpepper early in 2001, deBoer began to redesign the team's playing style in radical ways.  After all, the Welburn era never really saw any franchise quarterbacks.  Dave Krieg and Troy Aikman never put up numbers of any consequence.  And while Drew Bledsoe, (a pretty good quarterback in his own right) had a tenure here of several years, he did so with year after year of horrible supporting casts.  How else would Jason Elam have stuck around on the team that long?  With a rock-bottom 0-13-1 finish in 1998, and several lackluster seasons since, Culpepper was the first reason for optimism in Chicago for a long time.

This offseason brought more change in the guises of Edgerrin James and LaDainian Tomlinson.  Though James is one of those FFL players whom everybody will have questions about this preseason due to his recovering ACL, deBoer sees him as a key find who could elevate the Black Sox to real playoff contenders.  "Some people have had their doubts about him," says deBoer, "but they'll rue the day they let him go to my team." And in a steal of a trade, deBoer was able to abscond with Tomlinson from Miami by merely shelling out a third round pick.  The duo of running backs, now hurriedly learning the Black Sox's offensive scheme, will certainly be the x-factors in 2002.  Best case scenario: James returns to form, Tomlinson avoids a sophomore slump.  Black Sox go 9-5, win division, cruise into playoffs.  Worst case scenario: James is hurt, or lackluster in his play.  Tomlinson hits the wall.  Culpepper can't make up the ground lost and the team garners another 5-9 type season.

Whatever the outcome, deBoer seems prepared.  "I've learned a lot since I arrived here.  And with the team we have this year, we have the tools to win the Fantasy Bowl.  It's no longer about building for the future, the window of opportunity is now and I intend to go for it."

That evening, the Black Sox closed out their minicamp with a night game scrimmage.  Coach K and I walked the sidelines with deBoer.  Known as the Black vs. Silver game, it was a split-squad showdown showcasing all the players at camp.  Here we would get a good look at the changes for the 2002 Black Sox team.  On the Black side: Culpepper, James, Trung Canidate, Wayne Chrebet, Az-Zahir Hakim, and Rickey Dudley.  On the Silver: Quincy Carter at QB, Tomlinson, Mike Alstott, Darrell Jackson, Johnny Morton, and Kevin Johnson (in an improvised no TE offense deBoer experimented with in the scrimmage.)  Defensive coordinator Brian Nocera walked the sideline for the Silver side.  

After winning the coin toss, the Silver team struck quickly by returning the kickoff for a touchdown.  The play involved a lateral at the 35 to receiver Kevin Johnson, and was instantly recognizable to Coach K as one that special teams guru Antti Koskelo pioneered in the 2001 season for the Montana Blazers.  It seems that deBoer has demonstrated a willingness this season to borrow from the best minds in the game.

The next several possessions yielded few scores, and the first quarter ended at 7-0.  However, Culpepper took control of the game at the outset of the second quarter.  The successful drive: James sweeps right for 5, Culpepper completes an out pattern to Chrebet for 3, James runs a counter left for another 4 and the first down.  Then, in shotgun formation, Culpepper fakes the draw to James and fires out to Hakim for a 22 yard pickup and first down.  A holding penalty on the next play sets the Black team back, but Culpepper responds with a 16 yard strike to Hakim.  After an incomplete, James wraps in a 10 yard catch for the first down.  The Black Sox begin to eat up the clock, driving it into the red zone on the legs of James.  Then, rolling out for an option play intended for James, Culpepper keeps the ball himself and barrels in for a 12 yard TD run.

The Silver team struck back on the following drive, bringing the score at the close of the second quarter to 14-7.  Tomlinson monopolized the drive with 6 carries for 37 yards.  Quincy Carter capped the drive with an 18 yard hook to Darrell Jackson. In the third quarter, the Black squad took advantage of Carters inexperience.  Leaving their cornerbacks in simple man coverage, they sent their linebackers in one multiple blitzes.  Noceras playcalling was unable to adapt, and Carter was left to force the ball unwisely.  Black squad cover man Kwame Lassiter returned one pass for a 48 yard TD, evening the score at 14 apiece.  Nocera regrouped his Silver team, though, and on the following drive he fed the ball continuously to Tomlinson, who ripped up the Black defense for 7 more carries and 50 yards.  Deep in the red zone at the 8, Carter faked to Tomlinson and, stutter-stepping to the side, wobbled an off-balance throw into the corner of the end zone, where Jackson was somehow able to bring it down, netting his second TD of the game.  The drive was followed by a series of innocuous attempts to hit the red zone Black punt, Silver intercepted, Black punt, Silver punt.  Going into the fourth quarter, though, Silver led Black 21-14.

Yet Culpepper was able to bring on more FFL All-Pro type magic.  Coach K noted that he is showing more finesse in his passing game, making more improvisations on the line and not being afraid to take the ball himself.  He showed just that in the drive opening the fourth quarter, as he completed 5 of 7 passes for 59 yards, and ran for 15 more himself.  A light toss to Rickey Dudley produced another score from 3 yards out.

With the score tied now at 21-21, the Silver team began its next drive at their 27.  Carter aired up his first pass, completing an 8 yard reception to Morton. Tomlinson took the next two handoffs for 7 and 8 yards.  After a delay of game penalty (another mark against Carters inexperience) Morton took in the biggest offensive play of the game, a 37 yard reception along the left sideline.  Here, however, the Black defense dug in, deflecting a Carter pass and stuffing Tomlinson twice in the line.  In an attempt to break the tie, the Silver squad brought in Jason Elam to break the tie.  The crowd let up large cheers, perhaps to let deBoer know who their man was.  Elam lined up for the 45 yard attempt.  The snap came. The defensive tackle lunged forward and split the line, sending the right guard teetering backward.  He went skyward, and as the kick went up, was nearly able to jar the ball with his fingertip.  He might as well have, as the ball sailed right of the goalpost.  Those hardcore Elam men were, I imagine, crestfallen.  I wonder if the dropkicking kid was as well.

Now with time running out, Culpepper and his unit ran onto the field to make a last ditch effort to avert an overtime.  He took the ball himself at first, grinding out a number of yards before being mauled by the opposing middle linebacker.  With no timeouts left (and 17 seconds remaining, the team assumed a hurry-up, three-receiver offense.  Culpepper dropped back into the shotgun, weaved left, and then fired a ball to James in the middle traffic. The strong safety bumped the ball with his wrist, but James somehow maneuvered himself to grasp onto the ball.  Falling forward, he was able to break away from the safety and charge for a 49 yard TD catch.  What a play.  

The game over, Coach K and I tried to interview deBoer.  However, he was already swamped by the ESPN folks.  We couldnt even get Nocera to sit down with us, because SI and FOX had dibs on the post-game interview.  Even Telemundo had outflanked us in the press corps.  So, the FFL Tonight crew piled into the Manfordmobile and headed out into the night.  The next morning, driving through eastern Iowa, we could still pick up faint traces of the WMVP signal.

CALLER:  Didja see the hands on Edge? He's like a god among men out there!

DJ: Well, it looks like they have a solid game plan implemented, and really, its a question of whether Edge can stay healthy, and Culpepper can put in another good year.  I dont think anyones going to be missing Elam. It was his time to move on.

CALLER: Who?  

The Minicamp Diaries, Part III: The Great Black and White Hype
The New York Z-Force's practice facility in Hackettstown, NJ is awash with propaganda. Propaganda for winning, that is. Of the twelve FFL franchises, no other team has approached New York's count of four championships. And let me tell you, they do not let you forget it. Take, for example, the team's minicamp practice facility. Driving up in the Manfordmobile, we noted the four obscenely large championship banners flying above the security gate. The years 1992, 1994, 1997 and 2000 were plastered on every wall, every door. And the theme continues, as the repeated black and white Z-Force motif gives the building the look of a perverse KISS theme park. Heck, I made the Z-Force's complex my veritable souvenir store. When I get home my kids can look forward to Z-Force matchbooks, ballpoint pens, coasters and an inflatable Peyton Manning chair. My lone disappointment came when the toilet paper lacked the Z-Force's traditional interlocking "Z-F" logo. Though, to my astonishment, the tater tots served in the cafeteria do. And last, but not least, is the hardware. Head coach Jason Zieger brandishes his set of Fantasy Bowl rings like they are magical talismans, as if he too were somehow imbued with a divine fantasy football instinct. But the question one always considers about the stout Zieger is whether he is a wizard of drafting talent, or the metaphorical Wizard of Oz, a lucky fool hiding behind the curtain and living off an inflated reputation. The team's marketing cries out hype, but even the most cynical of FFL aficionados must admit there is some substance behind the hype. Undeniably, the Z-Force have a consistent record of success. But will it continue in 2002? Or is this a bubble primed to burst? That is what I aimed to find out.

Zieger strides about the practice field like an experienced field general, barking out commands and gesticulating wildly at players out of earshot. He gives his offensive line encouragement in true Parcellian cadences: "This is what you lifted all them weights for!" The practice is disciplined, workmanlike, precise. The Z-Force are a team steeped in professionalism; without a doubt they are in it to win it. Certainly, a season without a Fantasy Bowl appearance (such as last year) is deemed a failure. And yet, I find the mood of the practice particularly telling given that the minicamp is an exercise in futility for many of the players on this field. It was no secret when the season ended that the team would be retaining the same three superstars -- Marshall Faulk, Peyton Manning and Terrell Owens. And so they are -- Zieger made this clear to the players from the outset of camp. So what keeps the practices here from lapsing into a farcical "going through the motions?" Well, to many of the players, it is the loyalty factor.

New York has made a business out of being good to its players. The number one media market in the country helps to fill deep pockets, so certainly the Z-Force's top players are well paid. But money is not the only factor. Run these names over in your head for a moment: Dan Marino, Emmitt Smith, Marshall Faulk, Brent Jones, Sterling Sharpe, Morten Andersen, Terrell Owens, Antonio Freeman. By and large, these players have played nearly all of their careers for the Z-Force. Zieger is fiercely loyal to his players, more so than any coach in the FFL. Zieger rarely trades away his top talent, and often puts the franchise tag on players for multiple years. This, Zieger says, is what he views as his philosophy towards winning -- draft well, manage conservatively, foster the talent. But what is one man's strength is another man's weakness. While Zieger has ridden the successful years of Smith, Faulk et. al. to Fantasy Bowl success, there has also been a downside. FFL critics will quickly note that he has put too much faith in old Z-Force retreads -- the debacle of drafting Herman Moore in 1999, the failed experiment in using Mark Brunell two years in a row at QB, the injury-plagued season of Jerome Bettis in 2001 (Bettis was a N.Y. rookie in '93). He even kept Rick Mirer bouncing around on the Z-Force bench for a number of seasons. In fact, the same critics would say that his emotional loyalty toward the players will be the franchise's undoing in the coming years. Emmitt Smith's eroding skills made him a detriment to the Z-Force lineup in recent years, and any aging of Marshall Faulk may do the same. In an FFL world where fortunes continually change, and loyalty can only go so far, Zieger iswell, old-fashioned.

But don't tell any of this to his players. To them it doesn't amount to a hill of beans. As I walked the practice field, I looked on as the running backs were going through their hand-off drills with the scout team. Faulk, darting in and out through the holes of the o-line, seemed to have fully recovered from his 2001 knee troubles. At the same time, two non-franchise-tagged players, were going over the fundamentals of ball carrying. Emmitt Smith, such a fixture in the franchise history, was playing the role of mentor -- giving tips on avoiding the fumble to second-year back Michael Bennett. I ventured over to the QB's and receivers, where Manning was running one of the offense's stock plays: a fake handoff, rollout, and out pattern to Owens. Manning's first pass lofted just over the receiver's head. On the second, he connected on the strike and Owens sprinted into the end zone. Among this boy-scout squad, Owens may be the only focal point for any sort of controversy. This offseason he announced his intentions to try out for the FBL, and he attended workouts with the San Diego Zoo and Maine Competition. It rankled Zieger, sources say, but if so, it isn't showing up on the field. It will be interesting to see if the brash Owens, indomitable Faulk and emerging leader Manning can continue to comprise the top 1-2-3 punch in the league.

That evening, Coach K and I sat in on the team's playbook session. Just as Zieger shows loyalty to the roster, he also stays loyal to his system. With the exception of circumstances due to injury, the Z-Force have always run the Pro Set 2RB / 2 WR formation. If this minicamp was any indication, it looks like New York will be doing the same in 2002. As we watched, Zieger was scrambling over an overhead screen, drawing out the blocking and route patterns on a play named 2-48 Left Cross Y-Wing 3. As in the day's earlier practice, I noticed that many of the younger players were chipping in their comments and observations. In the context of what we had seen earlier in the day, the reason for such eagerness soon became clear. While in some FFL camps there is a cutthroat atmosphere (early Predators practices come to mind), here the focus was secondary -- make a solid impression on the coach, and he'll be liable to give you a second look on draft day.

Why such enthusiasm? Simple math. The Z-Force are a winning team, and with the best keepers in the FFL, they most probably will be again. Wide receiver Chris Chambers summed it up for me: "When I came here last year, I was almost overwhelmed by the atmosphere. All they seem to know is winning. There's just a lot of tradition and positive vibes that coming out of that locker room." Yet there is another side of playing here. The jackal-like media. The aforementioned commerical hype. The hopeless expectations: bring home a fifth Fantasy Bowl title, or consider it a wash. "In some ways, the expectations they have for you here elevate your game. But if you're not careful, you know, they ride you out on a rail," said Chambers. Such is the paradoxical life of the Z-Force player; Manning, Faulk and Owens had to emerge from the shadows of Marino, Smith and Sharpe. And for the next generation of the New York Z-Force? Well, they'll just have to do the same. "It makes me worried for what it will be like here whenever we start to lose," says Manning, who won Fantasy Bowl IX in his first full Z-Force season. "When that happens, a lot of uncertainty will be cast upon the whole playoff picture. It will be interesting to see how we can react as a team."

I would think that the rest of the FFL's coaches are waiting to find that out too.

The Minicamp Diaries, Part II: A War of Northern Agression

Peeling through the South Carolina low-country, we were making good time to Stables, SC, site of the Charleston Challengers minicamp. However, an uncharacteristic mid-April heat wave had set in on the East Coast, leaving our morale low and our supply of ice cold drinks even lower. Couple this with the fact that the Manfordmobile's air conditioning is only occasionally functional, and you've set up a formula for a major Hester tantrum. I mean, do you think that Chris Berman and Tom Jackson have to put up with this? They have walk-in humidors for their fancy gold-plated cigars, and college kids that hover around them like obedient bees. Or, well, so I've been told. The security guards in Bristol are sensitive about who gets to ride in their elevators. But I did see Linda Cohn at the local Friendly's once, eating one of those sundaes with a cone for a hat. Anyway, we had been on the road all day, and we needed some diversion.

Salvation came in the form of a handwritten signpost at the side of the road, advertising Tealick, SC's Spring-Time Fair. Bob derisively mocked the advertisement, chalking it up as a "hicktown grunt n' square dance." But Manford was unconvinced, and demanded that Coach K pull off at the next crossroad. This was getting to be a tiresome trend. The Never-Empty one had lobbied for stopping over at every Shoney's, Cracker Barrel and Waffle House that we had seen on the trip. I groaned in disgust, considering the mental image of seeing Fowler stuff his face with yet another handful of mashed potatoes. Coach K obviously shared my opinion, as he unleashed a profanity laced tirade directed at the Fowl Man. Jackie and Ricardo, who probably didn't care either way, lounged in the bed of the truck, sharing a smoke. We passed another sign for Tealick's fair, this one emblazoned with a bright picture of a blueberry pie surrounding by hungry round-faced children. Manford reiterated his demand to stop. Coach K dismissed him, his perpetual snarl now accentuated by veins starting to emerge at his temples. Fowler grabbed at the old man's neck, wrestling him against the front seat and pinning me to the passenger side window in the process. Coach K pounded his foot on the gas, hoping to lurch Manford backward. We started to careen out of control. Bob dove over the fray to grab the wheel, coasting us into the breakdown lane. Looking through the rear-view mirror, I saw Ricardo and Jackie, sprawled on the side of the road, about a quarter of a mile behind us. Lesson learned: never silence the big man when he's got pie on his mind.

We pulled off the highway onto what was certainly the road less-traveled, a bumpy, dusty road partially enclosed by a swath of tall trees fringed by hanging Spanish moss. This part of the ride was decidedly more quiet. Whether this was because the fight had produced a calm or because of the searing heat in the truck is up to debate. Eventually we reached the one-stoplight town of Tealick, spilled out of the Manfordmobile, and headed toward the fairgrounds. Coach K and Manford, seemingly reconciled, headed off to sample the local hickory barbecue. Ricardo announced that he had a hankering for authentic Southern chaw, and he headed out in search of it. I decided that my best bet was to get the lay of the land and find someone who is a fan's fan, a blue-blooded follower of the Charleston Challengers.

My search did not take long. Several paces away I found a van, airbrushed to the nines with silvery grey and the stars and bars of the Confederate flag. Challengers paraphernalia dominated the vehicle. Flags, pennants and vinyl stickers abounded. A bobblehead Jerry Rice adorned the windshield; the mudflaps featured headshots of Kerry Collins (perhaps a critique of his playing ability?). The man accompanying the van, whom I conservatively estimate to be a robust 400 pounds, was wearing a big and tall jersey of Charleston's latest acquisition, wide receiver Joe Horn. "This, my friend," bellowed the porcine man, "is what I call the War Van." His name was Paul Atkins, and since 1995 he had seen it all, every home game in Challengers history.

Atkins set up his wares for the fair: three stuck pigs roasting on separate spits, side by side. He generously lubricated his swine with a buttery glaze, took a seat on his 1996 EFC Championship lawnchair, and began commiserating about Challengers football. Being a Challengers fan, said Atkins, was not just following a team -- but following a way of life. One had to embrace the team's look, the team's player, and most of all, the team's leadership. He gestured to the back of the van, where a mock shrine featuring a facade of melted candles surrounded a photo of head coach Chris Bransfield. Most important, he noted, was the underdog mentality of the team. "Look at them," Atkins said. "Smaller market. Less resources. Tough division. And the most important thing, they're not the same as the rest of the East teams. They play New York, Boston, Middletown. They fight the good fight, the underdog fight. All over again, it's a war of northern aggression. And they're united together, they're not afraid, they just come to play."

Was this the substance behind Challengers fandom? Channeling ancient spirits of the Civil War through a football team? Worshipping Chris Bransfield? Being fat? I decided to further investigate. Other fans were less "involved" than Atkins, but they too embraced the underdog persona of the Challengers. Despite being the losingest franchise in FFL history, they were unequivocally loved. Hope Cedar, a local barkeep, said that she thought that "the Challengers feel like community. Been some rough times in the area, economically. Too much tourism, too. Those boys play hard, and we appreciate 'em for it." Peter Olympus, a gas station attendant, said that while the Challengers made it to the Fantasy Bowl in each of their first two seasons in Charleston, it was the four straight seasons of finishing in the cellar that softened the hearts of Challengers fans. Shades of the "dem bums" Brooklyn Dodgers mentality, perhaps? "They've had to learn how to survive, and they're just biding time to become a first place team," said Olympus.

The next day we arrived at the Challengers minicamp, relaxed and refreshed. The same couldn't be said for Charleston's offensive line, who were huffing and puffing through an exhaustive series of laps around the field. An offsides call during drills had prompted the grueling punishment. Clearly gasping for air, one of the men jogged over to Bransfield. He was hunched over and dripping sweat. "Coach, we got it. Break it up, we're overheating."

Bransfield's response was terse and to the point. "This is about discipline, son." He then gave him a slap on the shoulder pads and sent him off in the other direction. "Besides," he yelled after the player jovially, "It's good to be warm. That'll be our edge."

I sit with Bransfield as the morning's practice goes on. Added discipline, it seems, is the theme of this week. The Challengers are in many ways a team preparing for mass revision, and discipline will be needed in order to weather those changes. Barring a significant trade, the Challengers will probably enter the draft with Jerry Rice, Joe Horn and Tony Gonzalez as their three retainees. Other than that, there is much left to be decided. Will there be enough depth? Who will quarterback? Most importantly, can the Challengers solve their toughest woe -- the running game?

Lamar Smith was a disaster in 2001, failing to be the franchise back they had hoped him to be. Ron Dayne has never been consistent, and the other Challenger runners were nothing but scrubs. Smith's performance was so disastrous, he was not invited by Bransfield to the spring minicamps, and was instead given an early pink slip. The focus in these minicamps has instead been to streamline the passing game.

Passing drills and playaction pitches seem to dominate the playcalling of the day. I watch as Kerry Collins engineers an example of the new complex offensive schemes Bransfield has devised to go against the opposition. Collins takes the snap, fakes a handoff to James Allen, rolls right, and then effortlessly flicks off a short pass to Tony Gonzalez. Derrick Alexander and Jerry Rice, the wideouts on the play, have played effective decoys; they spread the scout team secondary wide, giving Gonzalez the running room he needs. He streaks down the field, hustling in for a 48 yard TD catch. Notably, Bransfield yells out congratulations to Rice and Alexander. Obviously, he is a man looking at the larger design of this season.

"This year is the year for us to make a move," says Bransfield. "We broke into the playoffs last year, and if we can add a couple of key elements, we may just shock the rest of the league." Bransfield pledges that the team is going to be very creative this year, perhaps even experimenting with a run-and-shoot setup. He acknowledges that the team has lacked a franchise running back for several years, but feels that adequate talent will be available when the team picks seventh in this year's draft. "Other than that," says Bransfield, "We can only work now on building a solid core of leadership."

Veteran Jerry Rice is hoping to be that glue that keeps the receiving corps stuck together. He has taken newcomer Joe Horn under his wing this year, tutoring him on the revised playbook. "He's my guardian angel," says Horn. Horn has struggled in some of the early practices, primarily because the Challengers offense contains more intricacies and audibilized routes than those he ran in Boston. But Horn is a pretty good complement to the team in his own right; his confidence from his Fantasy Bowl X win has made him eager to help this team achieve stardom. His enthusiasm has infected the locker room with a good vibe, even if many of those in the room will be looking for work elsewhere this summer.

As we loaded into the Manfordmobile to continue on our minicamp tour, I glanced back at the playing field. The underdog Challengers were huddled together, going over the merits of the day's practice. Players were arm over shoulder, buzzing over the success of the new plays introduced that day. Bransfield emerged from the mass of players to call after me. "Hey, tell those guys up North not to underestimate us. We may not be the best, but we'll be coming up to play." Behind him, the players jumped up and let out a huge cheer for their coach. It was enough to make me think that portly Paul Atkins might be on to something.

Survival of the Fittest: The Minicamp Diaries, Part I
Uncertain looks in their eyes is what you see first.  Uncertain looks, because careers and lives will be indelibly impacted by the next several weeks.  It is a still locker room.  Sure, the jocular banter is still there, the usual smalltalk is evident.  But there is a seriousness of purpose to this part of the season, and the businesslike ambiance soon takes a hold. The players suit up, trot out on the field, and begin their pre-practice stretching.  The morning rain has left the field muddy, but this is not a time for the uniforms to stay clean.  For some of them, a future job is all but assured.  Marshall Faulk and Randy Moss don't need to worry about what where they'll be playing in September.  But for the vast majority of the league, the league's annual rite of natural selection is at hand.  Enter the FFL minicamps.
Springtime has arrived, and in typical FFL fashion, a strange reversal of the seasons is at hand.  For FFL players, spring isn't a metaphorical period of renewal and hope.  Quite the opposite -- it is a time for desperation, for lost hopes and fragile loyalties.  It is the time of harvest, the separation of the wheat from the chaff.  An entire roster of players will be pared down to three survivors.  Is this what keeps the league fresh and vital, or is it merely cruel calculus?  Well, that point remains to be debated, but the men on the practice field I'm watching don't care about the rationale.  They're merely focused on the result.  If they attain one of the coveted three roster spots, they hit a big payday.  If they don't, well, there is still that line of scouts from opposing teams watching from the far side of the field. This is the way it has always been; minicamps are a cross of triumph and turnover. And when a player is on the bubble in between the two, that's when it gets really interesting, and that is why I am here.  This spring the FFL Today has taken a tour of the FFL minicamps, and in the process we've gotten an inside look at a prelude to what should be an exciting 2002 season.
It's been a long winter for those of us in the FFL offices here at Olympus Parkway.  Slow news days.  Bad coffee.  Fowler has gotten fat off his book royalties. Bob has been trying to calculate what percentage of the Waikiki Tsunamis' late-season wins were due to backup tight end Ken Dilger.  Niofred has been trying to fix our toaster (we don't get the fancy shit like they do up the road in Bristol.)  Meanwhile, Ricardo has been touring the midwest with his band, Trendsetter 2000. And we haven't seen much of Jackie Zieger, whose vacation in the south of France has attracted the papparazzi.  And me? Well, I do my fair share of autograph shows.  Chicks dig the vintage 1992 Thunder uniform. 
But when April came around, business was back to usual.  We loaded up into the Manfordmobile (again, not as fancy as the plush leather charter jet seats they get in Bristol) and set off on the road.  First stop: the Atlanta Predators minicamp. That's where I am now, watching the morning session with head coach Fred deBoer.  And, just as his players bear a look of uncertainty, so apparently does he.  After taking home a championship in his rookie coaching year of 1999, deBoer and his Predators have fallen on hard times.  In two straight seasons Atlanta has been picked as a favorite to win the FFL South-Central.  But in both years the Kansas City Blockers, playing with not a little finesse and overachieving, have won the division. What is worse is that the Predators have been booted from playoff contention in the final week each time.
What has gone wrong? deBoer chalks up many of the problems to injury, which is a fair attribution.  Fred Taylor, he of the ever-present knee and hamstring troubles, has kept getting sidelined.  However, there is something else that has been problematic, something more elusive.  deBoer readily admits that the team has lost some of the fighting spirit of '99, and that he aims to reclaim it.
Kurt Warner takes the snap, drops back, and fires a rocket to backup received David Terrell.  It bounces off his shoulder pad, and he stumbles to gain control before the scout team corner gives him a swift hit.  The pass was dead on, but Terrell misjudged it.  deBoer drops his clipboard to the ground.  Tearing off his hat, he strides over to Terrell, throwing his cap into the misty turf.  Receiver Marcus Robinson comes over to intervene, putting his hand on deBoer's shoulder in what appears to be a calming gesture. But deBoer turns on Robinson, tackling him to the ground.  Assistant coach Matt Pattavina runs over, pulls off the coach, and restrains him. 
Certainly there is a fighting spirit back, if only in the heart of deBoer.  But whether he can get the whole team to buy into this philosophy will be the key.  Warner is certainly with him, as he has been the past three seasons.  deBoer, after all, gave him his first big break, and he answered with an MVP 1999 season.  However, Warner's impeccable performances have not been supplemented by quality play by the backs and receivers.  Taylor has been hurt.  Robinson never replicated the seasons he had in Colorado.  Joey Galloway's best days are behind him.  None of the backups have stepped in to contribute.  All said, this has been a team carried by Warner, and Warner has only been able to do so much.   
Over the next several days, it is clear to the team that at least two of the three pre-draft roster spots are tied up.  Warner's return is a given, and his favorite target -- Isaac Bruce -- will also be back.  Bruce's ability to garner 10TDs a season him a lock too.  The uncertainty rests upon that third spot.  The most likely candidates: Fred Taylor and Anthony Thomas.  Taylor has been a mainstay on the team since the Minh Le era.  Thomas was acquired at the beginning of the offseason in a trade for Ricky Williams.  It was an unsurprising move, considering that Williams never really gelled with the Predators offense, and that rumors of a post-Week 14 fistfight between deBoer and Williams continued to surface.
The pressure to produce, I notice, falls on Taylor.  Thomas and Taylor are getting equal reps in practice, but Thomas IS the new guy.  What is unspoken is whether he is there to pressure or supplant Taylor.  deBoer is tightlipped about the situation, only saying that the best back will be with the team come drafttime. 
Taylor seems pretty nonplussed for a guy about to potentially lose his job.  He tells me that he is feeling great, that he has been working hard on his durability this offseason.  He talks about his goals for the season -- 15 TDs, 1300 yards rushing.  He goes on to talk about the deep roots he feels with this franchise, the only one in the FFL that he has known.  Clearly, he feels guilt for the hard times the Predators have fallen on, and he aims to make it up.
Thomas, on the other hand, doesn't feel that this is a competition.  Whether cockiness or confidence, he expects to be the team's starting back in September.  The coach told him as much, he says, when the team acquired him.  Anthony may be right.  As the camp begins to wrap up, I notice that there is more of a buddy relationship forming between he and deBoer, while Taylor has become quiet, reserved.  The numbers for the final scrimmage hold no definitive insight -- Thomas averages 4.3 yards a carry, Taylor 4.2. 
deBoer makes several cuts, leading to a somber mood as the camp breaks.  A defensive tackle, just given his proverbial pinkslip, bellows to me: "%$&# deBoer! &)%& him! Yeah, that's right, you can put that in your paper!" Several others clean out their lockers.  A tight end I talk to says that he will head to the Middletown Syndromes' minicamp in the hopes of getting a look as a walk-on. Life, as it is in the FFL, goes on.
Before making my way out of town, I sit with deBoer as he watches over gametapes of the team's first rival of the 2002 season -- the Montana Blazers.  Between taking notes on the snap calls of Brian Griese and biting into a White Castle hamburger, he waxes philosophical on the state of the 2002 Predators.  He tells me, in a note of true sincerity that is lacking from his on-the-field tirades, that he is part of a cruel business.  The cuts have to be made, and loyalty can not get in the way. He doesn't say as much, but it looks like Taylor may be finding a new backfield in the fall. Then again, maybe his luck will change. deBoer has been known to take chances. 
As has been his tradition this preseason, deBoer ends his day by walking over to a bust of the head of Justin Billings (original Predators owner) and rubs it for good luck.  "He knew about intensity," says the coach.  "This is what I'm trying to teach them."