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Have Pads, Will Travel

Why are these guys so happy? Don't they realize this is no way for players with distinguished NFL résumés to continue their careers—practicing on the least chewed-up or rain-soaked patch of grass they can find each day, with their equipment piled on chairs in a makeshift locker room that's really a rec center gymnasium, earning salaries that are probably less than the average All-Pro's monthly budget for bling?

Jeff Garcia, Ahman Green and Hollis Thomas have eight Pro Bowls and 22 playoff appearances among them. They know what most people think when they hear that players of their stature—not to mention former Ohio State running back and ex-con Maurice Clarett—are suiting up for the Omaha Nighthawks in the United Football League, which begins its second season on Sept. 24. "Something like, You play for the who? In the what?'" says Thomas, 36, a defensive tackle who spent 10 of his 14 NFL seasons with the Eagles. "But this league takes you back to your football roots. You find out that the game is just as much fun here as it is there."

Why are these guys so optimistic? Don't they realize that the only thing harder than getting to the NFL is getting back to the NFL? The Nighthawks are the football version of The Expendables. Even coach Jeff Jagodzinski (fired by Boston College in 2009 when he interviewed for the Jets job without his athletic director's permission) and general manager Rick Mueller (canned by the Saints in '08) are castoffs. Yet the players still believe they will soon be welcomed back to the big time. "If you did it once, you can do it again," says Green, 33, the Packers' alltime leading rusher. "But if it doesn't happen, I'll still be glad I did this. Any day that you can put on the pads is a good day."

The NFL will open its season this weekend in football palaces with putting-green fields, but as much as every Nighthawk would love to be playing at one of them, they don't seem to mind their more modest digs. They actually enjoy boarding yellow school buses in their pads, like a high school team, listening to music cranked to the max as they ride to practice, laughing, joking and trying to figure out whether he who smelt it really dealt it. They don't care that the average salary for the eight-game season is $50,000. "This league takes the prima donna out of the game," says Garcia, 40. "Nobody is going to get rich with the money they're making here. We've practiced on five different fields in the last 12 days. It might sound corny, but the main reason we're doing this is because we love playing this game."

While we're getting all idealistic, maybe every NFL player and owner could benefit from a taste of UFL life. Perhaps Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis and Chargers wide receiver Vincent Jackson, millionaires who missed the preseason holding out for more millions, would have similar love-of-the-game epiphanies. Maybe owners, hungry for greater revenues even if it takes a work stoppage to get them, might scale back their greed if they had to live within the UFL's means for a season or two. A little humbling could be chicken soup for the NFL's soul.

UFL rosters are made up largely of recent collegians, but it's the players with NFL track records who have the best stories. You want inspirational? There's Garcia, who starred in Canada and led three NFL teams to the playoffs despite being rejected more times than a first novel. He refused to call it a career even though he wasn't invited to a training camp this summer, when he was everybody's favorite fallback. The Eagles said they would be interested if Michael Vick was suspended, but he wasn't. The Vikings said Garcia would be on their short list if Brett Favre retired, but he didn't. "There's always been somebody saying I'm not tall enough, not fast enough, not strong enough," Garcia says. "Now I guess it's that I'm not young enough."

You want heartwarming? Here's Green coming back to his native Omaha to do CPR on his career. As an over-30 running back, he's facing odds even longer than Garcia's. There are also stories with a darker edge, such as that of Thomas, who is serving an eight-game suspension for violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing substances, and Clarett, 26, a late addition who is launching a comeback after serving 3½ months in prison on robbery and concealed-weapon charges.

They are all desperate to make plays that will stand out on the game tapes that Mueller plans to send to every NFL team. So far Garcia has looked the most worthy of interest, throwing with zip and accuracy and moving around in the pocket with familiar agility. During one scrimmage last week, he coolly eluded a pass rush, then set himself and hit tight end Mike Peterson on the numbers for a 25-yard completion. Given his sharpness and the state of NFL quarterback play, Garcia would seem to have a decent chance to find his way back to the big time after the UFL season ends, but he doesn't necessarily view this year as his last chance. "As long as I feel this good, I want to keep playing," he says, "regardless of where it is."

Why do these guys seem so hungry yet so satisfied? Probably because they've learned that it's possible to keep an eye on where they want to go and still appreciate where they are.

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They know what people think when they hear players of their stature are now with the UFL's Nighthawks."You play for who" Thomas says. "In the what?"