Many people dream of becoming professional athletes, few people ever get the opportunity. Which is why when I saw that the Rio Grande Valley Dorados, an International Arena Football League team, was having open tryouts, I jumped at the opportunity.
Backing up a little, I’m 5’7,” 165 pounds and my most relevant football experience is middle school (seventh and eighth-grade district champs) football. Shorter and leaner than the Dallas Cowboy’s Cole Beasley, to put it short, I’m far from what would be considered a first-round draft pick.
Nonetheless, on Jan. 19, I walked onto the turf of the Plaza Sports Complex in deep south Texas to prove to myself that I still had what it took to play at an elite level.
I was turned back almost immediately when it was revealed that tryouts would be in “street shoes only.” All I had on me were cheap football cleats and a pair of Crocs to change into after the tryout. I had 30 minutes to get to a store and make my dreams come true.
Arriving back at the complex with a pair of beater sneakers I noticed everyone else was wearing cleats and mine were in the back of my truck. I paid the representatives the $20 registration fee, signed my waivers and began to warm up with the rest of the high school has-beens and college should-of-could-have-would-haves.
The stage was eerily set to that of the 2006 sports drama Invincible, the (mostly) true story of Vince Papale who walked on to the Philadelphia Eagles team in 1976. I just hoped I was the Mark Wahlberg of my own story.
Following warm-ups, the team took a knee in front of the Dorados head Coach Bennie King. King served as the RGV Sol head coach four years previously in 2015. The Sol would belong to two leagues, Lone Star Football, and X-League Indoor football before the team would fold in 2015.
The Dorados originally got their start in the RGV in 2004 and played six seasons prior to their league folding to financial pressures. King said the name of the game was getting back to basics and bringing a familiar face to arena football in the Valley. King also chastised would be players or “suckas” as he would refer to them.
“First of all, I want to thank each of you for coming out,” King said. “A lot of people talk this and that, but you all are here. So, you tell everyone who didn’t come out here that is still talking at home that they’re a sucka for not wanting to put in work.”
We were then split into groups. Originally on my player registration form, I had inked myself as a wide receiver/ defensive back combo. However, I thought choosing one would give me the best opportunity for success or at least a shot. I lined up with the rest of the defensive back unit and prayed for the best.
The position coaches took us through combine drills. The tryout organizers misplaced my sheet in the wide receiver’s stack, so, momentarily, scrawled onto the back of someone else’s form were my times for the L-drill, shuttle and 40-yard dash:
L- drill: 4.19
Humble flex, the decent times boosted my confidence and soon enough, I found myself contemplating the fantasy of making this team and dropping out of school to pursue my professional athletic career.
Then the ground hit me. The defensive backs coach was shouting commands as I struggled to backpedal on cracked dirt and dead grass outside of the main facility in my sneakers.
Eventually, I regained my footing, both literally and metaphorically, and was trained up on the defensive schemes and headed to the one-on-one drills with the rest of the unit. There we would be tested against the wide receiver and quarterbacks’ group. There was a simple formula to success, which we were reminded of by the defensive unit coaches.
“Drive them into the nacho stands,” they said.
Referring to jamming the receivers at the line. The coaches told us that the one-on-ones and scrimmages that would soon follow would be weighted most heavily in the roster cuts. With the only other applicable experience under my belt being collegiate intramural sports, I needed to find a way to stand out. I guess the nacho stand idea didn’t seem too bad.
Making quick friends on the team, it seemed as if every player, except for me who had to keep reminding people of my name, involved some sort of cryptic or ominous nickname like “Joker” or “Cheetah.”
Arriving at the main field again, we were greeted by the offensive unit daring us to try something. A few callous words were exchanged between both sides. The “fun” would soon begin.
I watched with the rest of the unit as the first few pairs of guys went one-on-one. The receiver would run a pre-agreed to route and the quarterback would try to get him the ball. One by one, the first few quarterbacks failed to even complete a pass. The defense would give out names like “Walmart Julian Edelman” to describe a receiver and “Broke Johnny Manziel” to describe an especially boisterous quarterback.
I lined up across a receiver about my height, but before the ball was snapped, a bigger receiver took his place, throwing me off. Pivoting my hips to match where he was going, I jammed him inside five yards and toward an imaginary nacho stand. The defensive unit erupted, and I felt I had proved myself.
Next came the scrimmages, I was taken under the wing of a guy who looked like he was in his mid-to-late 40s who asked if I was ready to be a corner on his scrimmage team. Unable to refuse, I walked onto the field and began sizing up the receiver on my end. A short but built guy with a fauxhawk loomed on the other side of the ball, eager to make an impression on the coaches.
The ball snapped and again Broke Johnny Manziel failed to complete a pass, but I matched my guy step for step. So, I took a moment, readjusted and relayed with my scrimmage team what we thought we should all do. The coaches had told us previously that the possession would go on for as long as it needed to.
On the second snap, Broke Johnny Manziel threw to my side of the field, but my guy was already in the imaginary nacho stand.
“Ball, ball, ball,” I said. Alerting the rest of my unit to the now air-born ball.
Another defender would make a play on the ball and run behind me for the score.
Eventually, the drills stopped. The coaches incorporated some linemen onto the field and started running 7-on-7 scrimmages. My name would stop getting called and on the day before the Star’s first issue of the semester was set to print, it was about time I headed back to San Marcos.
The Dorados begin their training camp Feb. 18, I’m still waiting on my phone to ring.
Highlights of the tryouts can be found on YouTube under the following hyperlinks:
I’m wearing powder blue socks with wiener dogs on them.