UFL gives players second shot

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The Nighthawks line up against the Florida Tuskers during their final game of the season, Nov. 19.

Story and photos by Jared Hanner, NewsNetNebraska

For as long as most people can remember, when it came to football in Nebraska, the Huskers have reigned supreme.

But that could change in the next few years. The Omaha Nighthawks, the new Nebraska arm of the United Football League, is hoping to give Big Red a run for its money. Already, the team is packing the house at Rosenblatt Stadium, with 23,000 fans a game.

The Nighthawks debuted this year in the two-year-old UFL. The league now boasts five teams, the Florida Tuskers, the Hartford Colonials, the Las Vegas Locomotives, the Omaha Nighthawks and the Sacramento Mountain Lions. The league is adding a sixth team, the Virginia Destroyers, to its lineup for next season.

Athletically, the Nighthawks didn’t quite light up the scoreboard this year. The team ended its season with a three and five record, which disqualified them from the championship game that was held in Omaha November 27. Still, the team has made real gains in building a fan base.

Jeff Sheldon was a stringer for the Nighthawks and said that the following the team generated had a lot to do with Omaha’s mindset.

“It’s kind of the culture of Omaha. There’s Omaha and there is the rest of Nebraska and the Nighthawks weren’t a team Omaha had to share with the rest of the state,” Sheldon said.

“In terms of fan support and public awareness and excitement it was off the charts from anything the UFL had put out there before. Every game was sold out. The community embraced it to a degree that even surprised the league.”

The strong attendance at Rosenblatt Stadium has even caused the UFL to rethink its next moves as far as franchises are concerned. Sheldon said that for future teams, the UFL would be looking at markets like Omaha; Midwestern cities that didn’t have a connection to professional football.

That could be a good idea. Nate Pohlen, the Nighthawks press assistant, said that at one time, the Nighthawks were more popular than the UFL itself on Facebook. According to Pohlen, the Nighthawks have more than 15,000 fans. The League has about 18,000.

Photo The Nighthawks suited up in camouflage uniforms in support of the Armed Forces during their last game of the season.

“People in this state just love football. This is the first professional outdoor football team Nebraska has had in a long, long time,” Pohlen said. “There are a lot of people up in Omaha that want to cheer for someone other than the Huskers.”

Ted Sundquist is the Nighthawks director of player personnel and had spent 16 years working in the NFL for the Denver Broncos before he joined the Nighthawks.

Sundquist said that the experience for the players has been fairly close to the NFL. There are a few differences however.

“There are some things that are different,” Sundquist said. “A lot was written and said about riding to practice on school buses and things like that but the guys have been pretty good and I think, reacted well to some of the things that we can’t solve by just throwing money at the problem, which is what you’d normally do in the NFL. You kind of have to put your ingenuity and resources to work to solve some of the problems we face in the UFL.”

Some of those problems have included finding a place to practice. The team originally had held practice at the Kroc Center in Omaha but eventually had to find other practice fields.

“The practice field at the Kroc was to their credit, in fantastic shape for youth soccer but when you’ve got professional athletes running around on the field, to try to get that up to what they were used to in the NFL was difficult,” Sundquist said.

“You don’t have the resources available just to fix it right away which caused us to kind of have to be journeymen when it comes to practice. We’ve been to a number of high schools around the area and some city parks and things like that.”

PhotoJeff Garcia throws a pass to Ahman Green during the first quarter of the Nighthawks final game against the Florida Tuskers

Whatever can be said about the practice fields and the player’s transportation, the Nighthawks are not to be taken lightly. Steven Sipple, a sports writer for the Lincoln Journal Star, followed the team in its preseason and was surprised by the sort of players the Nighthawks were able to draw.

“I remember very clearly, flying to Washington and looking at the World Herald and looking at their roster. I was amazed by some of the guys I saw. I followed the preseason camp and thought “Oh my God,” Sipple said.

Sipple said there’s also something unique about the team and the people who come to watch their games.

“Maybe those fans are something like me, they see that roster and they’re intrigued. I don’t know, I just recognized guys from way back,” he said. “Those guys are elite level players and for a variety of reasons they have faded out of the NFL. That doesn’t mean that they’re not NFL caliber though.”

Many of the Nighthawks players are in their late 20’s, and the average age of a Nighthawk player is 28 years old. Sundquist says that Nighthawks are a little older than the other teams in the UFL but because of that they also tend to have more professional experience. According to Sundquist, the average UFL player that spent time in the NFL played for between one and three years.

“Our guys by and large have more NFL experience. They probably have, in their NFL experience, started more games. There’s probably a few more accolades from that standpoint,” he said.

The Nighthawks played their last game of the season in Omaha on Nov. 19 against the Florida Tuskers. They lost that game 27 to 10, ending the hope that they would end their season with a .500 average.

Despite their showing this year, the Nighthawks and the UFL look to be around for a while longer. The UFL’s successes this year could mean it will establish itself as a recruiting ground for the NFL. Sipple said that he hopes this is the case.

“I’m a sucker for these startup leagues,” the writer said. “I hope they can survive for a few years and maybe the NFL, in a formal fashion, makes them like a feeder league.”

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