Oliver Luck, commissioner of the XFL, thinks the league, a reboot of the late-90’s league, is well planned and financed, and in position to succeed.
SPRINGFIELD, Va. — Philip Nelson felt he’d thrown his last meaningful spiral after the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the Canadian Football League released the quarterback before training camp started in May 2018.
Nelson, who played college football at Minnesota and East Carolina and was booted from Rutgers after a bar fight, estimated he went three to four months without throwing another pass.
So Nelson picked up odd jobs after he was released from the CFL: serving, modeling, acting and personal training. Perhaps there was a future in coaching too, he thought, allowing him to stay close to the sport he loved if playing it wasn’t in the cards.
But early this year Nelson and many others got a chance with the Alliance of American Football, a new spring league that lasted a few months.
And at an XFL Summer Showcase on June 15, a training camp for players looking for another chance in another start-up spring league, Nelson reflected on the grueling journey for players as they search for playing time — and a paycheck — wherever they can.
“Sometimes I took it for granted, going out there on the field,” Nelson said. “When all of a sudden it’s kind of like, ‘Wow, my career might actually be over,’ it makes you [appreciate] every single opportunity you get. That’s why I wanted to come here, you know? Even though I had some film from the Alliance, I just wanted to be out here for the love of the game.”
There are hundreds of players like Nelson across the country hoping for another shot to push off fallback options and Plan Bs, relishing the prospect of another football league that could convert dreams into NFL realities. The XFL, a reincarnation of a defunct league by the same name whose sole season came in 2001, is the latest on a long list of professional leagues.
The NFL runs the show. But only so many players fit on those 32 teams; 1.6 percent of college football players end up being drafted, according to the NCAA. That leaves others, such as Nelson, to go where the game is. On June 15, at The St. James Complex in Springfield, Virginia, he and a hundred others — some of whom have played in the NFL — worked out in the hope to make an XFL roster when the season starts in 2020.
“I’m trying to keep my football options open,” said Dexter McDougle, a former third-round pick by the New York Jets in 2014 who bounced around the league before joining the AAF. “Just want to keep playing ball. Not ready to hang my cleats up yet.”
Bernard Pierce, who ran for 1,334 yards and five touchdowns with the Baltimore Ravens between 2012-14, worked out at the D.C. showcase. Former Washington Redskins tight end Fred Davis, former Chicago Bears defensive tackle Will Sutton and former New York Giants wideout Hakeem Nicks each attended showcases for the XFL, too.
The majority of the draft pool for the XFL’s return season will come after the NFL cuts down its rosters in early September. Oliver Luck, the CEO and commissioner of the XFL, said at the D.C. showcase about 250 of the roughly 800 players who participated in showcases nationwide will be included in the draft pool.
Still, when the XFL contacted former Delaware wide receiver Vinny Papale to see if he was interested in attending a showcase, he jumped at the offer. Papale went to rookie minicamps with the Oakland Raiders and the Redskins, but he left both without a deal.
“Just to sort of have another opportunity, to have someone reach out to me to play football, was awesome,” Papale said. “Just sort of a jolt of life again.”
While the AAF folded before its first season concluded — leaving its players suddenly without a team once more — Nelson cherishes the game time he got, even though a broken collarbone shortened his campaign.
Some of Nelson’s friends who were on NFL practice squads told him they were jealous he was getting full-speed action, and Nelson took to heart when he saw a slew of San Antonio Commanders players picked up by NFL teams. He finished 17-for-25 for 193 yards, two touchdowns and an interception in his second matchup against the Commanders.
Since his four-game AAF stint, Nelson’s had an offer from a league in Japan — one he turned down — as well as a workout with the Dallas Cowboys. He doesn’t know how things will pan out. But for Nelson, participating at the XFL showcase just gives him another chance to find a fit.
And it’s those chances — for Nelson and countless others — that keep a professional football dream alive.
“A couple opportunities and all of a sudden you’re there,” Nelson said. “It’s been a crazy ride, for sure. But the love of the game just keeps me coming back.”