XFL, It’s Smash Mouth Football

Los Angeles XFL Wildcats Football. Photo Credit: XFL Wildcats
Los Angeles XFL Wildcats Football. Photo Credit: XFL Wildcats

Hello, my name is Chauncey Telese and I primarily write about the LA Rams and have a fun podcast you should all subscribe to called LA PODFIDENTIAL.

I’m here because the XFL reboot is in full swing and it’s funny to me how different it is than the original XFL season. I was twelve years old when Vincent Kennedy McMahon tried to do what his friend and future WWE Hall of Famer/President tried decades earlier, and take on the NFL.

Vince was the embodiment of the famous line about Alexander the Great “When Alexander saw the breadth of his domain he wept for there were no more worlds to conquer”. He defeated his rivals in ECW and WCW, The Rock was the first true crossover movie star, and MMA was still being derided as human cockfighting. Like Mr. Burns before him, he saw that his only real enemy was the sun, or in Vince’s case, the NFL.

He saw an NFL that had a star vacuum without John Elway and while Brett Favre was the man, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady hadn’t fully emerged yet. He created the XFL and it became one of the most spectacular failures of all time.

So what are my XFL credentials? Well, as a twelve-year-old boy my blood type was WWF and while I was a Ram fan by that point, my love of the NFL, wasn’t where it is now. When the XFL debuted I was super excited because two of my favorite things football and wrestling were coming together. Vince marketed it as a return to (as Jesse Ventura would say in the ads) “Smashmouth football” and leaned on the idea that this was a league for real men.

The hits would be HARD, there wouldn’t be any divas, the cheerleaders would be scantily clad, the championship game would come with a trophy and a million dollars, and the players could be as brash as they wanted. He seemed to take a cue from the 2000 Keanu ReevesGene Hackman comedy The Replacements.

The core thesis of that movie hasn’t aged well in that it described the striking players as “bitchy millionaires” and the owners are treated as guys that just want to give the people football and long for a day when players did it for the love of the game.

While that sentiment sounds nice it obviously skirts the real issue surrounding player wages. That’s another conversation. Anyway, with the XFL one of the key things was it said that players wouldn’t make any money unless they won (not really true) which sucked if you were the Birmingham Bolts who went 2-8. Vince took his WWF Attitude era showmanship and realized that the joke about the NFL standing for “No Fun League”  could work to his advantage. He encouraged endzone celebrations and players to give themselves nicknames, the most famous of which was Rod “He Hate Me” Smart of the Las Vegas Outlaws.

He also understood one of his greatest assets, Jim Ross, was awesome calling Monday Night Raw and Wrestlemania and should’ve been calling football games. He was paired with Jerry “the King” Lawler and Vince also brought in the former wrestler and former governor of Minnesota, Jesse “The Body” Ventura, as well.

The XFL was a co-production with NBC with games airing on NBC as well as WWF channels TNN (which would eventually become Spike and now The Paramount Network) and UPN (now the CW). The league folded after a year because no one watched (besides me) and while Vince tried to sell it elsewhere it did so poorly he had to actually admit that he lost.

My experience with the original XFL season was one of great joy. I had an LA Xtreme jersey plus an Xtreme pendant in my room and for some reason an Orlando Rage one as well. I had the XFL ball and probably spent 10 bucks in quarters getting all the stickers from the machine at Vincenzo’s Pizza in my hometown of Saugus, CA.

For my birthday my parents took me to the LA Xtreme home opener at the LA Coliseum. Look, I’ve been to an SC game there (vomit) and a Rams game (fun) but neither experience had ANYTHING on an LA Xtreme game. The crowd was a mix of Raiders fans who were starved for professional football in LA and the crowd that started going to golf games when Happy Gilmore made the pro tour.

It was a rainy night and yet fans were HAMMERED. They were throwing industrial rolls of toilet paper, women flashed and avoided expulsion because fans kept them hidden, and there were actual fights. The game itself was awesome. A double OT game (more on that in a second) where Tommy Maddox (more on him too) along with Jose “the barefoot kicker” Cortez, led the Xtreme to their first win over the New York/New Jersey Hitmen. I left that game the way any twelve-year-old boy would leave it and be nuts about it. I gave a Toastmasters speech about how it was better than the NFL, I had multiple XFL shirts and actually dreamed of playing in the league (my prior dream was to be a pro wrestler by the way).

So what happened to the XFL? Well, Vince made the mistake the USFL made before him and flew too close to the sun. Instead of doing what he’s doing now and just trying to exist within the NFL universe, he tried to come after them. His league ran in the spring as well but it was clear he wanted to take them on. His brashness while fun at the moment didn’t do him any favors.

Sure, NBC Sports (more on them in a second) would provide them with a legit platform to cover their games. Fred Roggin would cover the games for NBC 4 LA and do so like he would the Rams or Chargers now. The problem was the head of NBC Sports Dick Ebersol didn’t consider them his number one priority. That meant that if a game went into overtime (like the LA home opener) and interfered with Saturday Night Live, NBC was NOT COOL with that. The ratings were never good enough to justify it.

The product itself just wasn’t very good. In the moment it was cool but their championship game, which LA won, was a tough hang even for me. Aside from He Hate Me, they didn’t have any stars which is a problem, and because sports internet was still primitive there weren’t any podcasts or good (if any) writing about the league. Granted, if I had any clue as to where the world, or I, was going I’d have been the Bill Barnwell of the XFL, but that’s life.

Now, the XFL did have some influence on the NFL. The league stole the special spider cam that Vince had. That’s the camera that films from behind the quarterback. That was revolutionary and allowed for the way offenses were seen and studied to fundamentally change.

The NFL also brought in some of the players, XFL MVP and MVP of the Championship game Tommy Maddox played for the Steelers. He even won a playoff game before getting hurt in week two against the Raiders where he lost his starting job to rookie Ben Roethlisberger. Maddox would get a ring out of it so yay! He Hate Me also was the kick returner for the Carolina Panthers and got to play in the Super Bowl against the Pats.

It’s been funny seeing this XFL reboot and seeing just how much Vince’s vision had changed. He didn’t want it to be the return to a time when men were men and players were, to quote Joseph ‘Coop’ Cooper, “indentured servants”. Instead, he wanted it to be for families and people who were exhausted with discussions about concussions, arrests, and politics.

He didn’t allow for owners to buy into the team and instead owns all of it (weird choice), and he seems to be better at being friendly with the networks. He also should benefit from social media, gambling, and our current drive for content. It’s clear this league is probably better suited to be an NFL compliment than the AAF or whatever the hell that was because it has a better infrastructure, but time will tell.

Anyway, while I wish all of you well in rooting for the LA Wildcats I still wish the LA Xtreme had a chance to defend their title, and yet its both cool and sad that they’re the last LA team to win a professional football title. Thank you for traveling down memory lane with me and reliving one of the weirdest experiments in 21st century sports.