Overnight Express: How the Fall of the AAF Devastated So Many in Memphis
For every beginning there is an end. At least that’s the conventional wisdom. In this case the end came in a swift and loud manner. On April 2, 2019 owner and league chairman Tom Dondun ceased operations on the league just 8 weeks into the inaugural season. This left hundreds of people suddenly without a job, many stranded in cities far from their families. It was ugly.
If you were thinking this was going to be another story about the AAF and the Memphis Express, how they started and how they ended, well it’s not. If you want that, go and read the excellent story by Ben Kercheval on CBS Sports website. The interesting part was about the possible merger of the AAF and XFL. No this story will be much grittier, and in my opinion sadder. See everyone tells the story of the players who were looking for a chance at NFL glory, or the coaches looking for either a chance or redemption. That’s not this story either.
This story begins 4 years ago. For those who don’t know, I have another media life. I have a podcast devoted to Tiger Football that we’ve been doing for almost 6 years now. The reason I mention this is that one year we didn’t produce the show ourselves. During this year I met a relatively young guy who was working in Memphis Radio. We’ll call him “Jerry”. Jerry and I became friends. Now I could have used his real name, he wasn’t opposed to it, but I decided not to because I didn’t want this story to be about him or the other individual I will mention. Mostly because after speaking to both of them I realized how many people have been totally devastated by the collapse of the AAF.
I think most people know this, but maybe some don’t. Sports and radio media is a tough business. So tough in fact that a lot of the people that “work” in it do so for very little pay. Most work multiple jobs just to make ends meet, and many spend years as an “intern”. This is the business moniker for someone who is a gopher. This is how you network and meet people with the hopes that you’ll land a paying gig. Preferably one that will allow you to work one job. Jerry was one of those guys. He was in his early 30’s and had worked many many many jobs in Memphis radio. So many in fact he couldn’t remember them all.
Once a couple of years ago Jerry had a health scare. It was at this point he confided in me an awful truth. None of the jobs he’d ever had included benefits like health insurance. He had being going to the free health clinic. This was a man who had been working for at least 12 years and had never had health insurance from his employer. Which made the call I received last May so much sweeter.
Jerry called me and left a message. All it said was, “I think I’ve finally made it”. I called him back and he relayed the news. He’d been hired in the media relations department of the new AAF team that was going be playing in Memphis. The job was full time, payed almost as much as all his other jobs combined and…included benefits like health insurance. I’m not ashamed to say I actually cried a little for him. He told me he’d been dreaming of this opportunity. He’d been told the league was funded for at least three seasons and the team had been promised they’d stay for that long. He said even if it only made it a couple of seasons he hoped he’d be able to network and meet enough people to help him land his next job.
Sometime in the summer I received an email from Jerry from his @aafexpress business email. He was so proud and he had a title too. Assistant Media Relations Coordinator or something like that. I told him I’d take him to lunch to celebrate. We went to Central BBQ and he brought a friend from work with him. We’ll call him Glenn. Glenn was in charge of team logistics. He set up travel for the team and the equipment, and he was in charge of arranging travel for the AAF referees, TV and radio media, and various other members of the Express personnel.
Glenn told me he had worked at FedEx for almost 7 years before he quit to work for the Express. He had always wanted to work in sports and this was his chance. He had taken a small pay cut, but he said he was living his dream. Both told me that the this time of year was their down time, and that camps would start in late November and the first games would be in February. Jerry had a countdown timer on his phone that showed the months, weeks, hours and minutes until the first Express game. Even though I was much older and wouldn’t give up my career, I was a bit jealous. Both of them were living out a dream.
I was so proud of my friend, and sort of as a sign of support, I bought two season tickets to the new Memphis Express. I got the exact same seats I sit in for the Tigers’ games. My wife and I love going to football games together. We both like football, and with 2 teenage daughters in the house a noisy football game is actually peaceful. We call them our date nights. Anyway, I was excited. Not just for the football, but also for my friends.
The Super Bowl was very anti-climatic this year. During the game I texted Jerry and told him I hoped their games would be better. The next week, on February 10, 2019 the Memphis Express played their first game in Birmingham. Jerry was there. He sent me a picture from the press box. Memphis lost, badly but he didn’t care that much. He loved his job. By the following Tuesday word began to spread that game checks had not been payed. I texted Jerry and he told me that he got payed twice a month, the 15th and the last day. He said he’d had no problems. Later that same day the Tom Dondun news broke.
Perhaps I just wanted to believe that all the rumors of unpaid bills and angry vendors was just that, rumors. Nobody wanted to believe that people with the reputations of Mr. Polian and Mr. Ebersol were anything but honest. So the players, coaches and support personnel pressed on. The season did not go as planned. Low attendance was not the biggest concern, poor play was. Then IT happened. Following a defeat in Salt Lake City, which started with the loss of starting QB Zach Mettenberger on the first play, former Heisman Trophy winner and walking football billboard Johnny Manziel had signed with the AAF and had been assigned to the Express. Jerry confided in me they had received interview requests from almost every major sport network and media from at least 5 countries (he couldn’t remember them all).
Prior to the first game Johnny Football would play, current AAF chairman Tom Dundon began saying some ominous things. He said he wanted the NFLPA to allow practice squad players to play in the AAF. If not he didn’t see how the league could survive. WHAT? Later that week I spoke to Jerry and to Glenn. Both of them stated they had been assured this was just part of the negotiations going on between the AAF and the NFL to become a feeder league. Nobody believed Tom Dundon would actually shut down the league.
That brings us to April 2, 2019. Jerry had been on the job less than a year, and Glenn had been at his position less than 9 months. I called Jerry that afternoon, but he didn’t answer. Later that night he did call. He was sullen, withdrawn, and ashamed. I was sad. Sad for my friend. Sad that his job was gone, but more sad that his dream had been taken away. I honestly didn’t know what to say and I simply closed with “you’ll get through it.” Gone was his job, his health insurance, and his hopes for the future. Oh did I forget to mention he had moved out of his tiny apartment and signed a one year lease on a townhouse in midtown in December. Yeah…tough times indeed.
Glenn isn’t much better. He said he could go back to FedEx but he had just given up almost 7 years of seniority, a vested 401K and the 3 weeks vacation you get at your 5th anniversary to take the Express job. Glenn said his wife had told him she just wanted to leave Memphis, and he said that’s probably what they’d do.
So yeah the AAF was a clown show. Laugh it up, and tell your jokes. Make fun of the league that couldn’t even make it one season. What a bunch of losers. They should just be out flipping burgers anyway. Except that many of them were actually very courageous. They risked it all for their dream. To those who are telling those jokes, I think it’s just because you are too cowardly to chase your dream. You settled for the cautious and easy way out. Like me, I settled. Even though it failed, and my friends got hurt I’m still jealous that they had the courage to try. Just like all those player and coaches. They’re not losers, they tried and for that I’ll always be so proud of them.