LAKEWOOD RANCH, Fla. — A voice comes over the speaker phone.
“Hello, this is Dave Campo.”
Former All-Pro wide receiver Wes Chandler, sitting with his laptop open on a broad table in an office boardroom, warmly greets the onetime Dallas Cowboys head coach.
“Camp, how you doin’? It’s a historic day for Major League Football.”
With that, Chandler invites Campo to begin the draft for a fledgling pro football league. It’s a moment seven years in the making, and the coaches and general managers of MLFB’s eight franchises are on a conference call to begin assembling teams that have yet to be officially named. After tryouts across the country last year, nearly 2,000 players are under contract for the selection process.
Then Campo announces the first pick in MLFB history: “Today, it’s my pleasure to announce the franchise selection for Team Campo: Joe Adams, wide receiver/kick returner, University of Arkansas.”
Chandler, the president of MLFB, swivels his chair to the left and watches a staffer write the pick on a whiteboard. He raises his eyebrows, intrigued by the choice of the former Razorback and Carolina Panther and perhaps surprised Campo didn’t draft a quarterback.
One by one, representatives from the other seven teams make their opening picks. Five teams use their first selections on quarterbacks, including former college standouts Stephen Garcia of South Carolina, Darron Thomas of Oregon and Dan LeFevour of Central Michigan.
After the initial “franchise” round of the draft, each team adds 40 territorial picks and 29 national selections over three days. It’s not unlike a fantasy draft — right down to utilizing a “snake” order for the national picks — except that actual hopes and dreams hang in the balance. Chandler runs the draft with a steady hand, flawlessly directing traffic, clarifying procedure and debugging potential conflicts along the way. As MLFB media chief Nick Athan uses an orange marker to cross the names of drafted players off lists arranged by position, Chandler keeps the trains running on time.
“If you’re not making a pick, mute your line.” … “Galen Hall, you’re on the clock.” … “Nothing negative. That’s not what we’re trying to do here.”
MLFB wants to bridge the gap in player development that exists between college football and the NFL. Players looking for an opportunity to be seen by NFL scouts are keenly aware Kurt Warner, James Harrison, Cameron Wake, Adam Vinatieri and countless others had to hone their skills in secondary leagues before achieving NFL success.
Said Campo, “I think you’re going to see a number of guys [in MLFB] who have a chance to go to the NFL.”
Chandler insists he isn’t whistling past the pro football graveyard.
He sees the tombstones of the WFL, USFL, NFL Europe, XFL and UFL. But Chandler, 59, contends that MLFB has learned from the mistakes of those defunct forerunners, and he speaks from decades of knowledge. The College Football Hall of Fame ring on his left hand points to his days as a University of Florida star. He was selected No. 3 overall in the 1978 NFL draft and named to four Pro Bowls during his time with the New Orleans Saints and San Diego Chargers. Following his playing career, he spent two decades coaching in the college and pro ranks, including a stint as head coach of the Berlin Thunder in NFL Europe and three seasons as the Cowboys’ wide receivers coach under Campo.
“We know we have to walk through the ashes of the leagues that have come before us,” Chandler said. “This has taken years of planning. We didn’t want to rush to just put a product out on the field or to launch a league. … I’ve been a part of three startups: the WLAF, NFL Europe as well as UFL. I’ve seen the good and bad, including the USFL, and the XFL, the FXFL — all that have gone before us.”
MLFB doesn’t have individual team owners. Instead, the league is publicly traded, and investors and shareholders own a proportionate interest in each team.
Last week, the league suffered a financial blow when an expected $20 million investment failed to materialize, news the league is obligated to disclose as a public company. Chandler admits the loss is “unfortunate” but said MLFB is exploring several other viable funding options.
“I feel outstanding about our future and the state of Major League Football moving forward,” Chandler said. “If you think any new company won’t have bumps in the road, you’re mistaken. We’re going to do right by these players, agents and coaches.”
Said Athan, “There’s no chance we’re not going to play. We’re playing ball this year.”
MLFB has yet to announce the home bases of its eight franchises, but it has been in negotiations for stadium leases for some time. Markets such as Akron, Ohio; Birmingham, Alabama; Eugene, Oregon; Little Rock, Arkansas; and Orlando, Florida, have been earmarked as possible destinations. A 10-game schedule is planned to run from April to July and conclude before NFL training camps commence. Game schedules have yet to be determined.
In addition to Garcia, Thomas and LeFevour, notable players include former Baylor running back Lache Seastrunk, former TCU quarterback Casey Pachall, one-time Houston Texans receiver Lestar Jean and Nate Boyer, a former Green Beret who went to training camp with the Seattle Seahawks last year.
The list of MLFB head coaches includes Campo, former University of Florida head coach Hall, longtime NFL defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell and veteran NFL quarterback Chris Miller. Although MLFB is willing to give second chances to players who have made mistakes off the field, Chandler said the league places a premium on character and maintains zero tolerance for domestic violence.
“It’s one strike, and you’re out,” Chandler said. “You don’t get a second chance to hit your girlfriend — not in this league.”
Diversity is also a point of emphasis in MLFB. Four head coaches and three general managers are African-American.
MLFB has a two-year agreement to televise games via the syndicated American Sports Network, and its games will be officiated in similar fashion to NFL rules, with a few notable exceptions:
The ground can cause a fumble.
A 30-second play clock will be used, as opposed to the 40-second clock in the NFL.
A single 10-minute period will be used for overtime. If the score remains tied, there will be alternating possessions from the 10-yard line.
Field goals of 50-plus yards will be worth four points.
Extra points will be scrimmaged from the 2-yard line but kicked from the hashmark on the side of the field where the touchdown was scored, making the angle more severe.
Garcia, 27, is symbolic of many players looking to MLFB as a last chance to impress NFL scouts. He was dismissed from the University of South Carolina team as a senior in 2011 after a series of missteps off the field. But it’s worth noting that none of those incidents was violent, and he earned a degree in sociology. He briefly spent time in the CFL and Arena Football League and worked as a quarterbacking coach.
“Obviously, everybody’s endgame [in MLFB] is to play in the NFL,” said Garcia. “That’s my goal. I’m going to give it hell one more time and try to latch on with somebody. I feel like I’m in the best shape that I’ve been — even before college. I’m a lot faster, a lot leaner. I think that just comes from training quarterbacks. My mechanics are light-years ahead of what they used to be.”
Garcia impressed MLFB talent evaluators during a workout last year at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. When Hall and general manager Gerald Loper drafted him sixth overall, he appreciated that old mistakes weren’t being held against him. Garcia said he is determined to reward their trust, and just days after the draft, he was learning the team’s playbook and practicing informally with fellow draftees.
“I think it shows a lot that those guys have the faith in me,” Garcia said. “I told [Hall and Loper], ‘You guys will not regret this. I will not disappoint you.’ … There was a very dark point of my life after that whole thing went down back in 2011. I spent a lot of time blaming everyone else and pointing the finger. I figured out that I was really just a dumb kid and very hardheaded.”
Said Hall, “We’ve checked on him. He’s had his up and downs. Stephen wants this opportunity. He’s a very mature man right now. He has straightened his life out. We think he’ll be a very good leader.”
Campo, 68, said he is focusing on teaching players and putting them in position to fulfill their goal of reaching the NFL. He considers it an opportunity to give back to a sport that has provided him with a long career.
“I’m very excited about this,” Campo said. “I started at Central Connecticut State University, a small school. So I’ve always prided myself on [the belief that] everyone deserves an opportunity. It’s going to give a lot of guys a chance to live a dream.”
In Campo’s estimation, the caliber of play in MLFB will be comparable to that of the very best teams in college football. He said he deliberately avoided drafting a quarterback with the No. 1 overall choice because he doesn’t want any player to believe he’s the face of a franchise.
“Joe Adams will definitely make our team,” Campo said of the team’s top pick. “But I want four quarterbacks who believe they have a chance to start. It doesn’t matter in this league whether you get drafted No. 1 or No. 70.”
Both Campo and Chandler are steadfast in the belief that player development will make MLFB relevant. Every year, thousands of former college players hope to catch on with an NFL team. A number of those spend time in NFL camps but aren’t able to stick. Many have never been told which skills they need to improve, let alone been taught how to fix those deficiencies.
As long as spread offenses proliferate in college football, the NFL can benefit from a feeder league such as MLFB, according to Campo. He points out that college coaches are paid to win — not cultivate players for the NFL. So while spread offenses tend to impede the growth of players on both sides of the ball, they’re not going anywhere as long as programs that use them are winning.
“College football is basically seven-on-seven on turf,” Campo said. “The basis of those spread offenses is to get the ball to a guy in space. The quarterbacks aren’t learning anything. They’re really not reading anything. The fundamentals aren’t there. … Defensive linemen aren’t learning how to get off the ball. They’re just trying to survive [the pace].”
While MLFB executives are fully aware that some observers will judge the league based on the failings of predecessors, Chandler and his associates are confident that patience, planning, dedication and extensive scouting will pay off and allow MLFB to survive and grow.
Said MLFB senior executive vice president Frank Murtha, a longtime sports lawyer and player agent, “This wasn’t a few guys who decided to start a league over a cigar and a beer.”