A wing and a prayer

With Blackbirds, Baltimore gets an indoor football team and players get a chance to hold on to professional dreams

March 10, 2007|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN REPORTER

Their helmet logos and black-and-red uniforms resemble the Atlanta Falcons', and their most recognizable player, Joe Maese, spent four seasons with the Ravens. Those are about the only connections between Baltimore's newest professional sports franchise and the NFL.

Unless you count the past and present dreams of many involved with the Blackbirds.

Scheduled to open their inaugural season in the American Indoor Football Association with a game tonight in Reading, Pa., the Blackbirds have a 28-year-old owner, a coach who has spent much of his career indoors and a roster filled with players still hoping for a chance at the big time.

"In the back of my mind, I'm always looking at it from the standpoint of maybe, what if?" said defensive back DaLawn Parrish, a 30-year-old high school teacher who played at Wake Forest. "Maybe someone will see. Maybe something can happen. It's never too late. Kurt Warner did it."

Like many of his teammates, Parrish isn't in it for the money. Players in the AIFA - considered a couple of levels down from the Arena Football League - make $250 a game. The Blackbirds also will give their 20 active players a $50 bonus for each victory in a 13-game season that stretches into June.

There are some Blackbirds, such as former Maryland strong safety Milton Harris, who want to give it a shot before starting a career outside football. Harris, who finished playing in College Park in 2005, put off applying to the U.S. Capitol police to play for the Blackbirds.

"I've had to start from scratch, from the bottom, per se, throughout my whole career, so this is nothing new for me," said Harris, who walked on as a junior at Maryland after playing at Delaware State and wound up starting as a senior. "I'm just looking to make the most of the situation."

So is Maese, 28, who found out about the Blackbirds by accident. Visiting friends in Baltimore over Christmas from his home in Arizona, Maese heard on a Thursday about a tryout two days later in White Marsh. A long snapper who was released by the Ravens after the 2005 season, Maese will play fullback and linebacker for the Blackbirds.

Asked if his ties to the Ravens make him the marquee player for the Blackbirds, Maese said, "I definitely don't because I'm doing something I've never done. I'm an NFL snapper, I'm not an NFL fullback. I know I have this NFL logo on me. I hope to do well and hopefully live up to it."

Does he think this will lead back to the NFL?

"At the very least, I'm staying in great shape," Maese said. "I tell you what, I'm having a lot of fun and we haven't even played a game yet. When I was with the Ravens, there was nothing like playing in Baltimore. It's a football town. It's nice to put pads on and play in front of these people again."

Shannon Heaton, the team's oldest player at 34, will be putting on pads for the last time. Heaton, a 6-foot-4, 295-pound offensive lineman, played at Perry Hall and has played semipro ball for the past 11 years, winning two national championships with the Central Penn Piranha.

"This is my NFL, basically," said Heaton, a meat cutter earning his first paycheck for playing football. "It took 11 years to get here, but I finally made it."

Heaton's first try at indoor football was short-lived, back in the early 1990s with a semipro team called the Baltimore Claws.

"We played four exhibition games and that was it," Heaton said. "It just didn't seem to catch."

Alexander Austin, a real estate investor from Prince George's County who bought the Blackbirds with a business partner for an undisclosed six-figure sum, is hoping that the team will become more of a fixture with a cult following.

`The city of Baltimore has a strong tradition of football anyway," said Austin, a former defensive back for Towson who played three seasons of indoor football. "I think it would be helpful if we can catch onto the Ravens' fans and give them the same excitement that the Ravens give them every Sunday."

Austin said the team is hoping for an average attendance of 7,000 at its five home games at 1st Mariner Arena.

Sitting in the purple T-shirt he bought for the Ravens-Indianapolis Colts playoff game in January - the one with UNITAS 19 on the back - Tim Rose of Westminster is looking forward to seeing the Blackbirds in their home debut March 31.

"I'm kind of excited that we can continue after the NFL season and watch the guys play indoor," Rose said as he watched the Blackbirds work out at the Owings Mills SportsPlex earlier this week.

It seems fitting that a team filled with late bloomers will also be late starters. Every other franchise in the 15-team AIFA has begun its season, with some teams having played as many as four games.

Coach Chris Simpson hopes the city's football tradition will trickle down to the Blackbirds.

"We've got a very educated audience," said Simpson, 42, who previously coached indoor teams in San Angelo, Texas, and Lincoln, Neb. "They don't grasp the indoor game a whole lot, but they're very educated, very passionate. It's a different game. We're not trying to be the NFL, but there's a lot of excitement that comes with it."

don.markus@baltsun.com

Leagues apart

Here are the main differences between the AIFA and Arena Football League. In the AIFA:

No rebounding nets in the end zones come into play.

Two receivers instead of one are allowed to take a running start from behind the line of scrimmage.

The "jack" linebacker can move outside the tackle box before the quarterback releases the ball, unlike in the AFL.

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