I thought of Bob Colon this week. Bob is the late Oklahoman sports editor who hired me back in 1991. He had quirky interests. Vermont. Cycling. And the XFL. Colon was fascinated by the XFL, the start-up football league that opened in 2001 to much hype on NBC.
The XFL died quickly, of course, but it lives on in this Super Bowl. Denver Broncos linebacker Paris Lenon is an XFL veteran. Hard to believe, but Lenon played in the XFL for the Memphis Maniax.
Lenon’s XFL days have been a hot topic this Super Bowl week: “I’ve been hearing a lot of that. I think it’s a cool story, but other than that, I don’t really think about it that much.”
The XFL was started by World Wrestling Federation owner Vince McMahon. NBC and the WWF were business partners. It was billed as a league with no penalties for roughness — you who wish fondly for old-school pro football should have embraced the XFL — and was basically football with a wrestling promotion. Players and coaches were microphoned, cameras were in the huddle and locker rooms, public address announcers trash talked and cheerleaders were encouraged to be risqué.
Among the team names were the Memphis Maniax, the Orlando Rage, the Los Angeles Xtreme, the San Francisco Demons, the Chicago Enforcers (mob enforcers), the New York/New Jersey Hitmen, Las Vegas Outlaws and the Birmingham Blast. Birmingham outrage — time has not diminished the horror of the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that killed four young girls — prompted a name change to Thunderbolts.
“Yeah, the league was different as far as the days would go (and) kind of structured, but I enjoyed my time there,” Lenon said. “I learned a lot and I’m happy to be where I am right now.”
Lenon grew up in Lynchburg, Va., attended the University of Richmond and signed as a free agent with the Carolina Panthers in 2000. But he was cut in June of that year.
“I heard about a new league,” Lenon said. “I had just gotten out of school and had been released. I heard about this league. At the time, I had the opportunity to go to NFL Europe and I heard about this league in the U.S. (the XFL). I prefer to stay at home. I don’t like flying far. So I thought it was a good opportunity.”
The XFL folded after that first season.
Among the XFL rules were a two-player scramble to recover the football at midfield, determining opening possession. Orlando’s Hassan Shamsid-Deen suffered a separated shoulder in the Rage’s season opener, trying to recover the opening scramble. He missed the entire season.
The XFL also scrapped the extra point, forcing offenses to convert from the 2-yard line to get a point. Mid-season, the rule was changed to allow teams to go for two and three, depending on from where they wanted to snap the ball.
The XFL allowed defensive backs to ride receivers any time before the pass. But a lack of offense prompted the league to adopt the NFL policy.
No fair catches were allowed, 10-yard penalties were assessed for punts going out of bounds and a variety of other differences that only served to confuse fans.
Among the television announcers were Jim Ross, of wrestling announcing and OU fan fame; Brian Bosworth; and Jesse Ventura.
Among the XFL veterans were Joe Aska of UCO; Jeff Brohm, now the head coach at Western Kentucky; Tommy Maddox, who had a two-year run as the Pittsburgh Steelers’ quarterback, after starring in the XFL; Corey Ivy of Moore and OU; and LeShon Johnson of Haskell, Okla.
Other XFL veterans who made a Super Bowl are Kelly Herndon of the 2006 Seahawks, Ivy of the 2002 Buccaneers, Maddox of the 2005 Steelers (backing up Ben Roethlisberger), Yo Murphy of the 2001 Rams and Rod Smart of the 2003 Panthers.