On the sandy shores of the Coney Island Channel, under the shadow of the Parachute Jump, a group of elite athletes fight for one more shot at the NFL. And in that same shadow, one man looks to build a professional football farm system the NFL simply can't do without.
On an artificial turf baseball field, under the shadow of the Parachute Jump - a red, sky-piercing spire of metal that was, on this particular night, shouting congratulations to the World Series-bound New York Mets - 100 or so yards from the frigid, lapping waters of the North Atlantic, a contingent of elite athletes, many the product of venerated college programs, some one-time draftees, others former priority free agents, all still NFL hopefuls, look to eke out another season, another drive, another handful of snaps, one more chance, one more opportunity, to call themselves a professional football player.
And here, on the outskirts of Brooklyn's Coney Island, a man - lithe, bald, intense, prowling the sidelines like an apex predator pursuing its next meal - looks to build a way station, a bridge between the tenuously connected worlds of the amateur and pro games, to develop a farm system, which the NFL's 32 owners - and their money - simply won't, ultimately can't, ignore.
With his second season at the helm of the fledgling league coming to a close, the man remains on the search for answers, desperately seeking handholds, hugging the increasingly slick rock wall in front of him with his body and clinging tight to the vision that first brought him out onto this ledge, seemingly willing with his mind the precipitous drop below his feet to disappear.
Here, on a brisk Thursday night in autumn, with the chill of winter just seeping into the air, the Brooklyn Bolts and the Florida Blacktips of the Fall Experimental Football League (FXFL) squared off in the final game of the league's 2015 season. And Brian Woods, the league's commissioner and its creator, along with a sparse crowd of onlookers, watch, a kind of quiet uncertainty traveling the stadium's undercurrent.
The Bolts, behind the efforts of a former first-round pick in the 2009 NFL Draft - none other than former Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Minnesota Vikings quarterback, Josh Freeman - would eventually emerge victorious. But for Woods, it wasn't the outcome on the field that seemed to concern him most. Moments before kickoff, Woods took a beat to peer around at the stadium's seats, dotted with fans adorned in Mets regalia and Halloween costumes, more empty blue plastic visible than he'd likely prefer to see.
"Ultimately, the FXFL isn't necessarily about huge crowds," Woods says, before adding, "We'd like to get the best local turnouts we can get."
If that sounds a bit like a man trying to convince himself that the fake grass at his feet isn't green, the stadium lights above him really not all that bright, the wind blowing in off the water not carrying a certain bite, you may not be far off. But still, for a man like Woods, a man who's put everything he has - along with the money of 17 private investors - into the league, there's nothing he can do but square his shoulders and move forward.
"I think the business model is in line with what I conceptually put together from day one, in that we would try to keep our costs down - that was a big priority - we would partner with minor league baseball clubs that weren't using their venues the months of October and November," he says. "They would do all the local marketing, the advertising, and I just think it takes a little while to build a fan base."
Woods, clad in only a blue suit to shield his body from the increasing cold, continues his patrol, eyeing the product he hopes will make the NFL stop and listen, will make the football-watching world take notice, will fill seats here at MCU Park in Brooklyn, at Dutchess Stadium in Fishkill, N.Y., and, in turn, allow Woods to develop and expand a league whose sole intent is to incubate talent for the already near-bursting NFL pipeline. With backing from the likes of Mets owner Jeff Wilpon - the Bolts are a joint venture between Wilpon and the league - and nearing the end of year two, the league has seemingly made some material gains.
"Last year we returned almost 30 percent of our players to the NFL, and I think this year we're looking at a number, when it's all said and done, very similar to that," Woods says.
What Woods means is that approximately 30 percent of the players who were on FXFL rosters in 2014 were signed to NFL training camp rosters - only one, running back Tim Hightower, signed by the New Orleans Saints just this week to replace the injured Khiry Robinson, managed to make the leap to an active NFL roster.
The others, like former Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd, a sixth-round pick of the New York Jets in 2014, played for the Blacktips during the FXFL's inaugural season and was subsequently signed by the Pittsburgh Steelers this past summer. When he couldn't hack it there, he moved to the Canadian Football League. Boyd's now without a football home.
Guard Mike Golic Jr., son of NFL veteran Mike Golic, was named a 2014 FXFL All-Star for his work with the Bolts but is now playing for the Arizona Rattlers of the Arena Football League after a short stint with the New York Giants. A.C. Leonard, a star tight end at Tennessee State University, joined the FXFL after failing to make the Minnesota Vikings as an undrafted free agent. He joined Golic in the AFL this year.
The NFL's seemingly limited interest in the players the FXFL has worked with, along with an estimated $9 million operating budget that resulted in a cumulative financial loss for the league in the 2014 season, has raised the specter of concern for Woods and the FXFL already, just two short years into the process.
The original plan, as laid out in this Associated Press article from June 2014, called for a six-team league with 40-man rosters and, interestingly, potentially no punts, kickoffs or extra-points. Players were to be paid a minimum of $1,000 per game, and the pool of talent the league would pull from was not to include experienced professional players.
These days, the on-field product isn't really all that different from what you see at the NFL level in terms of functionality. All the special teams plays remain. The helmets, uniforms and cleats are just as slick, the cheerleaders just as scantily clad. But that's where the similarities to the NFL and the FXFL, as it was meant to be back in the summer of 2014, end.
The league currently consists of three teams, not six. Player pay has been dropped significantly. And Woods and Co. have opened their hearts - and their wallets - to former NFL players like Freeman, likely in an effort to help marketing and up the overall talent level of the league. The gameplay though, remains a far cry from what you'd expect from a field full of players who've, even if for a short time, played for a professional team.
The Bolts-Blacktips game was, simply put, rife with blunders on both sides. After an interception return for a touchdown by the Bolts on Florida's first offensive series, there ensued a cadre of issues including, but not limited to, missed extra points, missed field goals, blocked punts recovered for a safety, a long pass completed not over a defensive back hands, but through them, and confusion at one point on behalf of the officiating crew as to the number of personal foul penalties a Bolts offensive lineman had incurred. Three and the player in question would have been ruled ineligible for the remainder of the game. The refs originally ruled that his night was done.
On further review, they concluded he'd only actually been penalized twice.
And with the Bolts attempting to drive late in the first half, the officials brought play to a halt for halftime, seemingly with time still left on the clock.
But Woods, stepping back from the field's edge as play between the Bolts and Blacktips made its way toward the sideline, remained resolute.
"So I think you know the league's been a success, just now trying to find other ways to monetize it," he says. "But I think what we're working with right now is clearly a sustainable business model."
That word - "sustainable" - has likely become the mantra that Woods mutters to himself every night before bed, every morning as he traces the lines of his face with a razor in the mirror. Sustainable is his path to a viable league. It's also his path to a partnership with the NFL - something he and the rest of the league's investors knew from the very beginning they'd need if they were to continue operating in the long-term.
Woods allowed that he has attempted to engage the NFL and its owners on several occasions since the FXFL's inception. To this point, without corporate sponsors and without having yet created that "sustainable" product he's chasing, Woods hasn't been successful in drawing the NFL's interest.
Because of this, he's played up the other aspects of the league, focusing on enticing the NFL via the "different components" he believes the FXFL can offer beyond player development. Components, interesting enough, that have been in place from the jump and actually helped inspire the league's experimental moniker.
"One of them is the referee aspect," he says. "So, I think the opportunity for them to use this as a league that utilizes NFL rules to train officials like all the other minor leagues and developmental leagues in the country have. This is something the NFL is missing."
Woods also believes the FXFL can provide a kind of testing ground for the NFL when it comes to proposed rule revisions. Want to move the point after try to the one-yard line? Test it out in the FXFL. Want to see what the game would be like without kickoffs altogether? Give Woods a call.
The NFL's Competition Committee, a group of eight members chosen to oversee competition and suggest rule changes, is the arm of the league most concerned with things like moving kickoffs to the 35-yard line and extra points to the 15. The committee, currently comprised of league heavyweights like St. Louis Rams head coach Jeff Fisher, Dallas Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones and Giants owner John Mara, apparently has yet to see the need for a venue other than the league's preseason to test out such recent rule changes.
But still, when all is said and done, what Woods needs and what he hopes the NFL wants is a farm system, something akin to the developmental launching pads that leagues like the MLB, NHL and NBA already enjoy.
It hasn't been an easy road, of course. And it seems unlikely to become a suddenly trouble-free endeavor. Already the FXFL has been forced to scale back, with one of the league's original four franchises, the Boston Brawlers, having ceased operations prior to the start of the 2015 season. Already player pay has been reduced, down from the original $1,000 per week (Woods estimates that some Blacktips players aren't even making $300 for the three days of practice, one walkthrough and a game they put their bodies through in a seven-day period).
With only one game remaining on the FXFL's six-game slate for 2015, a Friday night matchup in Wappingers Falls, N.Y., between the Blacktips and the Hudson Valley Fort, and the attrition seemingly already begun, time may be running short for Woods.
But with the restless movements of a man who's maybe hoping more than he's expecting, Woods signals his intent to soldier on.
"Going into our second year, because of our success and the number of players we returned in year one, there was definitely more interest and more awareness about the FXFL," he says.
"So it wasn't as hard for us to find quality players. And I think a perfect example of this is our Brooklyn team, and you look at one of our quarterbacks, he was a first-round draft pick not that long ago, so I think the talent on the Brooklyn team this year I think will get at least 20 of these guys back to the NFL."
But what if Freeman, what if none of the players in the league, can again become NFLers? What if the league doesn't itself develop fast enough to create a product - whether it be players, refs or rule changes - that the NFL wants to be part of?
What if the financial losses mount before the FXFL can churn out even one player, one ref, one success story, capable of proving the viability of Woods' league. And what if the failings of the Association of Professional Football Leagues, the Atlantic Coast Football League, of NFL Europe, the XFL and of the early AFL, become the failings of the FXFL, become the failings of Woods?
Like so many times before in his career, on this night, Freeman led the Bolts offense back onto the field with about three minutes left on the clock and the game on the line. The crowd, small though it may have been, roused themselves long enough to breathe a quick burst of life into the stadium, cutting through the night's chill and creating a palpable tension where before there was, save for scattered shouts of encouragement here and there throughout the game, mostly apathy.
Freeman would eventually lead the Bolts to a field goal - his initial drive proved fruitless, but a punt muffed by the Blacktips gave Brooklyn the ball back on Florida's 36 - with Freeman doing just enough with his arms and his legs to get the Bolts into comfortable range for the game-winner.
The celebration, while real and clearly meaningful for the players, was clipped, as though each man in turn was suddenly struck by the fleeting nature of the game at hand, the game they so cherish, the game that has brought them so much success, so much adulation, too much pain, too much frustration. The fans turning toward the exits mustered only a lukewarm cheer for the Bolts and Blacktips efforts, their energy seemingly expended, as though they, like the players, were to set to make their way slowly across the field to the dugouts and the locker rooms beyond.
And still, Woods prowled. Gathering players for a conversation here, shaking hands, rubbing elbows there. On this night, the quality of the on-field product was just one of many questions Woods likely wishes he had answers for. But with the stands and the park clearing and the wind biting harder than ever, there seemed little about which to be certain as the FXFL closed the book on another game, readied to turn the page on another season.
Woods, standing on the covered mound of MCU Park, a gray beanie now atop his head, the quarters of his suit flapping gently in the wind, set his feet, squared his shoulders, and again willed the ground beneath him to remain intact.