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New Orleans' Arena Football League team, the VooDoo, opens at home this weekend with high hopes of playing in the championship game — with the home-field advantage.

Last July Mike Neu took a memorable walk in downtown New Orleans. As he strolled from his car to the New Orleans Arena, he experienced a sensory smorgasbord. Torrents of boisterous fans poured into the building. Live music pierced the afternoon air. The excitement was palpable.

'I was like a little kid," Neu recalls. "To walk up and see that, it just had a big-game feel to me."

New Orleans was playing host to its first-ever ArenaBowl, the Arena Football League's championship game. The only thing detracting from Neu's enjoyment was the fact that the team he coaches, the New Orleans VooDoo, was not playing that day. Neu says he wanted to feel the sting of being a spectator.

'I wanted that little hit to the heart," he says, making a stabbing gesture to his chest. "And make me hurt a little bit and have the chills go up and down my arms, because I wanted to see what that atmosphere was like all off-season to motivate me each and every day to find some way to get better."

Coming off a 5-11 season last year, its first losing campaign in franchise history, the VooDoo has plenty of work to do to harbor hopes of becoming a championship-caliber team. The good news is the team's recent struggles have done nothing to cool the ardor for the city's newest professional sports franchise.

In fact, in only its fourth season with a team, New Orleans is showing itself to be something of an arena football hotbed. Fan support is among the best in the league, and last year's ArenaBowl, which was awarded in the spirit of post-Katrina altruism, was such a success that the game will return this July.

The VooDoo opened the 2008 season on the road last Friday against the Los Angeles Avengers. The team's home opener is at 2 p.m. this Sunday (March 9) in the New Orleans Arena against the Orlando Predators.

To say New Orleans has a limitless appetite for football doesn't fully explain VooDoo fever. Numerous defunct professional leagues have shown that you need more than players and a place to play to achieve sustainability — you need a plan.

The AFL has smartly packaged its product as a fan-friendlier, more offensive-minded iteration of its NFL counterpart, and the result has been steady growth of this off-season alternative. The league was founded in 1987 with just four teams and has since expanded to four divisions with a total of 17 teams.

In its first season back after a one-year, Katrina-induced hiatus, the VooDoo led the league in attendance last season, averaging more than 16,000 fans. The team has sold more than 10,000 season tickets for this year, which also is tops in the league.

The popularity of Arena football is rooted in its embrace of a fan truism: Scoring is good. Arena fans aren't happy until the scoreboard operator suffers from carpal tunnel syndrome. The rules of the game feed this need.

Arena football is played on a field that is 85 feet wide and 50 yards long. Instead of the NFL standard of 11 players on a team, the indoor game uses eight.

The defense is intentionally put at a disadvantage. One offensive player legally gets a head start — he can run toward the line of scrimmage before the ball is snapped. Only one of a team's two linebackers can blitz.

The clock rarely stops, and players aren't out of bounds until they've been slammed into a padded sideline barrier.

Punting is outlawed and kicking is discouraged. The goalposts, which are only 9 feet wide, are less than half as wide as NFL uprights. Taut rebound nets border the outside of the goalposts so that missed field goals that bounce off the nets are still in play.

The net result of all these rules is a game so high scoring it occasionally makes the NFL look like international soccer by comparison. Final scores routinely reach into the 60s and 70s. In short, Arena football is a distillation of the NFL's most exciting elements — all the passing, the punishing hits and the points without the peripheral stuff.

In addition to proffering an entertaining product, the Arena League also has effectively tapped into some other fan favorites: affordability and approachability. The VooDoo offers single-game tickets starting at $8, and season tickets cost as little as $64.

Once fans come to a game, the league wants to keep them coming back. It does this by giving them unparalleled access to the participants. Souvenirs are a good start. Anytime an errant pass or wayward field goal attempt finds its way into the crowd, the fans get to keep the ball.

The AFL's most decidedly democratic stroke is its "Fans Bill of Rights." Contained therein are a number of assurances of a wholesome and entertaining game experience for every spectator. But the best part is a clause that states it is every fan's inalienable right to go on the field after the game is over and get the autograph of any player on any team. That small gesture closes, if only for a few minutes, what has been an ever-expanding gulf between professional athletes and the people who pay money to watch them play.

And fans love it.

What VooDoo fans will see this season in New Orleans is a team that has turned the page on its "quarterback situation." Steve Bellisari, who started the final five games of last year, is now the unquestioned starter. He took over for the struggling Andy Kelly last season. Kelly, who is the AFL's all-time leader in passing yards and touchdown passes, has retired.

A year ago, Bellisari was a rookie backing up an AFL legend. This season the former Ohio State Buckeye will be expected to demonstrate the poise and demeanor of a veteran.

'He can make all the throws," Neu says. "He can make big plays, but being a good manager of the game and being a good leader, that's what I'm looking for from him."

As a rookie, the left-handed Bellisari showed uncommon accuracy. He completed 63 percent of his passes for 2,287 yards and 47 touchdowns. He was only intercepted 12 times, but that's still an area where Bellisari craves improvement.

'I think we need to get points every time we get the ball," he says. "Turnovers are at such a high premium in this league. We committed too many of those. I'll be the first to admit that there were probably a couple of plays where, trying to do too much, we turned it over. You can't have that happen."

Bellisari, who spent two seasons with the NFL's St. Louis Rams as a safety, also possesses excellent mobility. He was the VooDoo's second-leading rusher in 2007 — but in the indoor game, there's much less room to roam.

'Obviously running isn't very effective in this league just because of the space — you have to make a lot of people miss, and it's really hard to do that," Bellisari says. "It helps in the fact that I can get away from some of the pass rushes, but for the most part, it's get rid of the ball quick and let our guys make the plays."

If Bellisari should ever be sidelined by injury, he's backed up by former John Curtis Christian School and University of Memphis star Danny Wimprine.

The VooDoo's offense suffered a major setback before it even played its first game this season. Wide receiver Derrick Lewis, the team's top free-agent acquisition, tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee during a training camp drill and will miss the entire season.

Lewis, a New Orleans native who attended Clark High School in New Orleans and once played for the Saints, was expected to be the VooDoo's home run threat. Last year with the Austin Wranglers, he caught 139 passes for 1,903 yards and 41 touchdowns.

The 32-year-old Lewis may be out for the year, but his head coach says he continues to inspire his teammates.

'Derrick left a note on the board in the locker room for the team about making sure you play every play like it's your last, you never know when it may be," Neu recounts. "That message alone spoke a thousand words to this football team. Everybody knew at that point, we've got to become tighter, everybody's got to step up, we've just got to become stronger and that much more dependent on each other."

One of the players who will try to fill the void left by Lewis' injury is receiver Wendall Williams, who was activated from the VooDoo's practice squad for the final six games of last season. During that time he averaged better than 10 receptions and 100 yards receiving per game.

'Losing someone like [Lewis], I don't think you can really replace him," Williams says. "As a group we all have to pull together and step our game up because it's going to be a lot harder without him."

Another former New Orleans Saint, tight end Zach Hilton, will try to make his imprint on the indoor game as a wide receiver. The 6-foot-7, 250-pound Hilton played three seasons with the Saints, including a breakout year in 2005 when he had a career-high 35 catches.

Fullback James Lynch, who earned All-Rookie honors last season, returns to the VooDoo backfield. At 276 pounds, he's a sledgehammer of a man who'll be counted on to pass protect, catch passes and take handoffs in short-yardage situations. Last year, he scored six touchdowns.

Fortunately, the VooDoo's biggest off-season defensive acquisition has remained healthy. Defensive back Lin-J Shell comes to New Orleans after spending his first three Arena seasons with the Orlando Predators. Last year the ubiquitous Shell tallied 110.5 tackles (third best in the league), four interceptions, three forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries.

Shell says he expects to be an impact player for his new team.

'My personal goal is to be the best, to be a name remembered in the league," Shell says. "But at the same time, while I'm playing, my No. 1 goal is for the team to win."

Neu doesn't pause when ticking off Shell's lists of attributes: "His competitive fire, his work ethic, his character. He's tough, he's physical, he's a great cover guy. He's got the whole package."

In the off-season, the VooDoo parted with two of its most high-profile players. It traded fullback Dan Curran to the Georgia Force for former Salmen High School and LSU defensive lineman Mike Sutton. Curran, who is the VooDoo's all-time leading rusher, recently signed a two-year contract with the Seattle Seahawks.

New Orleans also shipped its top pass rusher, defensive lineman Henry Taylor, to the New York Dragons for wide receiver Mike Horacek. Taylor, who had eight sacks last season, was the highest-paid player on the team.

The VooDoo's march to ArenaBowl XXII is beset with obstacles, namely the three teams in its own Southern Division. The division was slimmed by one team when it lost the Austin Wranglers during the off-season to the AFL's minor league, which is called af2.

But the leftovers are no pushovers. With the exception of New Orleans, all the other returning Southern Division teams (Orlando, Tampa Bay and Georgia) made the playoffs last season.

Still, the VooDoo's motivation is unique. No other team in the league has a shot to play in the ArenaBowl on its home field.

'That's a huge incentive," says QB Bellisari. "Anytime they put that in your backyard, you want to play for it. If you're not thinking ArenaBowl, you shouldn't be here."

It's apparent the New Orleans players aren't the only ones thinking ArenaBowl. Last year's championship game marked the first time it was held at a neutral site, and it was a sellout.

'It's right back here again in our city," Neu says. "That means it was a great show a year ago. The only thing that could make that any better is if the VooDoo were down there on that sideline and being a part of that atmosphere."

Adam Norris is a sports anchor for WGNO-TV, ABC26 in New Orleans.

click to enlarge The AFL has established a fan-friendlier game in which fans are on their feet a lot during high-scoring games. If a ball is thrown into the crowd, whoever catches it gets to keep it. - MICHAEL. C. HEBERT/NEW ORLEANS VOODOO
  • Michael. C. Hebert/New Orleans VooDoo
  • The AFL has established a fan-friendlier game in which fans are on their feet a lot during high-scoring games. If a ball is thrown into the crowd, whoever catches it gets to keep it.
click to enlarge Coach Mike Neu hopes to take his team to the ArenaBowl in New Orleans this year. Coming off a 5-11 season, the VooDoo's first losing campaign in the franchise's history, he has his work cut out for him. - MICHAEL. C. HEBERT/NEW ORLEANS VOODOO
  • Michael. C. Hebert/New Orleans VooDoo
  • Coach Mike Neu hopes to take his team to the ArenaBowl in New Orleans this year. Coming off a 5-11 season, the VooDoo's first losing campaign in the franchise's history, he has his work cut out for him.
click to enlarge A year ago, VooDoo quarterback Steve Bellisari was a rookie backing up legendary AFL play-caller Andy Kelly, who has retired. Bellisari started in five games last year. Now he's the starter and is backed up by former John Curtis Christian School and University of Memphis star Danny Wimprine. - MICHAEL. C. HEBERT/NEW ORLEANS VOODOO
  • Michael. C. Hebert/New Orleans VooDoo
  • A year ago, VooDoo quarterback Steve Bellisari was a rookie backing up legendary AFL play-caller Andy Kelly, who has retired. Bellisari started in five games last year. Now he's the starter and is backed up by former John Curtis Christian School and University of Memphis star Danny Wimprine.
click to enlarge The VooDoo led the league in attendance last season, averaging more than 16,000 fans. This year it already tops the league in season ticket sales with 10,000. - MICHAEL. C. HEBERT/NEW ORLEANS VOODOO
  • Michael. C. Hebert/New Orleans VooDoo
  • The VooDoo led the league in attendance last season, averaging more than 16,000 fans. This year it already tops the league in season ticket sales with 10,000.
click to enlarge Wide receiver Wendall Williams averaged more than 10 receptions and 100 yards receiving per game after being activated from the VooDoo practice squad for the last six games of last season. He will help replace star receiver Derrick Lewis, who is likely out for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. - MICHAEL. C. HEBERT/NEW ORLEANS VOODOO
  • Michael. C. Hebert/New Orleans VooDoo
  • Wide receiver Wendall Williams averaged more than 10 receptions and 100 yards receiving per game after being activated from the VooDoo practice squad for the last six games of last season. He will help replace star receiver Derrick Lewis, who is likely out for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.
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