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Arena football is back—and so is Art Schlichter

Detroit quarterback Art Schlichter runs a bootleg left, then turns and scrambles back to the right as three Denver linemen close in. Just before reaching the sideline, Schlichter cocks his right arm and throws a hard, tight spiral half the length of the field. Touchdown. With 9:37 left to play, he has tied the game with his second scoring pass in less than five minutes. The crowd erupts, and as Schlichter jogs to the bench, several fans raise their index fingers in his direction.

This is the way it was supposed to be in pro football for the former All-America from Ohio State. Never mind that Schlichter's Detroit team is named the Drive and not the Lions, or that half the length of the field is only 25 yards. Forget that the Denver Dynamite—not the Broncos—scored on its next two possessions and won the game, 35-22, before 8,048 fans in Detroit's 18,227-seat Joe Louis Arena. What matters is that Schlichter is playing again, and so is the rest of the Arena Football League.

Now in its fourth season, Arenaball is still seeking to carve a niche for itself in the crowded world of pro sports. "We're not in competition with the NFL," says Jim Foster, the league's founder and commissioner. "Our fan is the football fan who doesn't love baseball, the person who is waiting for the NFL to begin."

The 1990 edition of Arenaball has six teams, based in Albany, N.Y.; Dallas; Denver; Detroit; Pittsburgh; and Washington, D.C. Each plays an eight-game schedule, with the top four finishers advancing to the playoffs. After six weeks of play, the league games have attracted an average crowd of 7,809, with defending champion Detroit, Dallas and Denver tied for the lead with 4-2 records.

Schlichter is the biggest name in this little game, though he's not the player he was with the Indianapolis Colts before he was suspended by the NFL for 13 months in 1983 for gambling on football. He then was denied readmission to the league after he pleaded guilty to a gambling charge in 1987. At 30, he still has a strong arm, but there are rolls of flesh around his midsection.

Until he signed a contract in early May to play Arenaball, Schlichter had been out of football since his release by the Ottawa Rough Riders of the Canadian Football League after the '88 season. In October '89, he pleaded no contest to charges that he passed a bad check in Ohio, and he later entered a 30-day gamblers' rehabilitation program at a Las Vegas hospital. Schlichter was being treated on an outpatient basis when Detroit general manager Gary Vitto contacted him about playing.

"Everyone makes mistakes, and we felt that Art's problems were all in his past," says Detroit owner Mike Ilitch. "And let's face it, he does have name recognition."

Fan reaction to Schlichter has been mixed, and the occasional "What's the spread, Art?" has been bellowed from the seats. "The fans pay their money; they can yell whatever they want," says Schlichter. "Sometimes I get a good laugh myself."

And sometimes he doesn't. Denver lineman Keith Smith continually jawed at Schlichter the first time the two teams met and finally struck a nerve. "I asked him who he was betting on," Smith said after the June 22 game. When Smith sacked Art with less than a minute to play, Schlichter grabbed Smith's fallen mouthpiece and flung it into the stands. "He showed no class," Schlichter said later. "He just didn't stop talking, and a lot of it involved gambling."

Against Denver, Schlichter completed 16 of 44 passes—several were dropped by wide-open receivers—for 197 yards and two touchdowns. A week later, Schlichter completed 11 of 18 passes for 166 yards and four TDs as Detroit defeated Dallas 53-14 before a home crowd of 12,984, the largest of the Arenaball season. Then, in a 50-21 victory before 11,814 at Knickerbocker Arena in Albany, he threw for 254 yards and seven TDs.

There is still a lot of interest in Schlichter back home in central Ohio. The Columbus Dispatch sends writer Tim Wilson, who grew up with Schlichter in Washington Court House, Ohio, to cover his games. "This is the happiest I've seen him in about 2½ years," says Wilson. "But Art also realizes that this is his last chance."

Arenaball is the last chance for most of its players. One-time NFL starters (for example, Charlie Brown, once a Smurf receiver with the Redskins, who plays for the Washington Commandos) are in the same boat with former college players who haven't given up on their NFL dreams—like Thomas Monroe, once of Prairie View A&M and now with the Pittsburgh Gladiators, and Sam Moore, of Sam Houston State and the Dallas Texans, who were tied for the league lead with 30 receptions after six games. But if there is desperation in the air, it doesn't diminish the product.

"It's the most exciting brand of football there is," says Detroit Lion tackle Lomas Brown, who tossed the coin before the Drive-Dynamite game. "You know these guys must love the sport, because they're certainly not playing for the money. There's no way I'd play for what they get."

What they get in the standard player's contract is this: $500 a game for players with at least one year of pro experience, $400 a game for nonpros, plus a $50 bonus for each player whenever his team wins. Iltch says the owners also decided that each team could pay a higher salary to one or two players with proven drawing power. Schlichter says he is paid $500 a game. "For most of them, this is just a summer job," says Foster. "It sure beats sloppin' cement."

Evidence that Arenaball is a short-timer's profession came on Opening Night, June 8, when Pittsburgh competed without three of its players. Receiver Brad Calip was getting married, lineman Rodney Garner was graduating from Auburn, and receiver Julius Dawkins was attending an international fitness convention in San Diego.

This season, there is added pressure for Arenaball to establish a firm foothold. Next March, the National Spring Football League and the World League of American Football are expected to begin play, giving the indoor game some serious outdoor competition.

For Schlichter, it is also a season for planting new football roots. "I see this as a very positive step toward my rehabilitation and possibly playing somewhere else," he says.

"I think 99 percent of the people hope Art does well," says Vitto. "He certainly brings credibility to the league, which is something we need at this stage."

The league did not view Schlichter's gambling history as a detriment when he signed on. "It was discussed briefly," Schlichter says. "I mean it's not as if there's a line on every Arena game." Still, Arenaball has some long odds to beat.



The Denver Dynamite (right) hammered the Detroit Drive 35-22 in Motown.



In six games Schlichter has thrown for 23 TDs and 1,283 yards.