Three Penn State football products — Deion Barnes, Tyrell Chavis, and former starting quarterback Christian Hackenberg — have found themselves playing professionally in a startup football league.
The Alliance of American Football’s inaugural season will kick off the Sunday after the Super Bowl, February 9, on CBS.
Through the decades, other leagues have tried and subsequently failed to rival the almighty empire that is the NFL. Having secured a contract with a major cable TV network and the backing and involvement of NFL greats like Troy Polamalu, Michael Vick, and former NFL executive Bill Polian, the AAF is attempting to learn where past leagues failed.
The league is the brainchild of Charlie Ebersol, director of the ESPN 30 For 30 documentary about another startup league, the XFL, and son of former legendary NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol. The elder Ebersol is on the board of directors for the AAF and will serve as an advisor for the league.
Barnes, who played through 2014 with the Nittany Lions, spent the 2015 NFL season with the New York Jets and parts of the 2016 season with the Kansas City Chiefs. Although he didn’t play the past two seasons, he remained heavily active in football, training constantly and coaching at his alma mater Northeast High School in Philadelphia.
The outside linebacker was more than thrilled when his agent contacted him about an opportunity to try out for the AAF and later become a member of the San Antonio Commanders.
“Once he told me about all the great people involved in the league and how it could be an opportunity to get back to the NFL, I said, ‘You know what, sign me up.’ Whatever I have to do, I’m ready for it,” Barnes said.
One of the big things Barnes learned from his experience in the NFL was how to better shape his mindset to achieve his goals.
“Give 1000 percent at all times, don’t get too high on yourself, don’t get too low either, keep your head down and work on getting 1 percent better each day, and remember to just be grateful that you’re blessed to be able to wake up and do what you love and get paid for it,” Barnes said.
Chavis, a defensive lineman who spent this past offseason with Saquon Barkley and Grant Haley’s New York Giants, jumped at the opportunity to join the Orlando Apollos and learn from legendary coach Steve Spurrier, who’s coming out of a four-year coaching hiatus to work with the Apollos.
“It’s definitely amazing, just seeing a great like (Spurrier) in the building every day. Just seeing how a great football mind works up close is so interesting and an unbelievable opportunity,” Chavis said.
One way the AAF is differentiating itself from other football leagues is by changing certain rules of the game. The league is aiming for faster-paced football games for its inaugural season, featuring no television timeouts as well as 60 percent fewer commercials than the NFL. The league will also use a 30 second play clock — 10 seconds less than the NFL.
The role of the kicker in the AAF will be strictly reduced to field goals, as there will be no kickoffs or extra points. Teams must attempt a two-point conversion after every touchdown, and drives will begin on the offense’s own 25-yard line. Instead of onside kicks, a team can attempt to regain possession of the ball by running an offensive play from its own 35-yard line and gaining 10 yards.
“From the first couple practices, you saw certain things that were different [from the NFL] and then adjusted,” Barnes said. “It’s definitely more fast paced. There are a lot more hurry up packages from what I’ve seen. There are certain rules for blitzes too. You can’t blitz from 3 yards outside the box.”
Chavis believes the AAF is special because unlike the NFL, where some players have long, established careers while others are young and inexperienced, everybody is new to the AAF.
“It’s just a combination of players from a bunch of different places,” Chavis said. “It’s new and different for everyone involved. It’ll be a learning experience for all of us at the same time. It will be fun to see how the teams around the league start off [adjusting to the AAF], but I think it will be a great time.”
Penn State offensive lineman Andrew Nelson was on a training camp roster, but parted ways with the Arizona Hotshots last week. Penn State Beaver and Greater Allegheny basketball player-turned-Arena Football player Darius Prince is also featured on the Commanders.
The season for each of the eight teams will last 10 weeks, with one game each week broadcast on CBS Sports and the rest streamed for free on the AAF app. Four teams make the playoffs and the championship game will be the weekend of April 26-28 in Las Vegas.
“I would like for the Penn State fans to show their support while we’re out there,” Barnes said. “This is hopefully an opportunity for us to do something great.”
Please choose an option below.