Gettin' in the Game
Lexington gets a football franchise
by Jeff Zurcher

This, Lexington, is going to be delicious. Thisis going to be too much fun.

This is going to be 12,600 square feet of commotion on carpet, complete with 4-point dropkicks and 3-man (simultaneous) offensive backfield motion.

This is going to be your shiny, new NIFL team, the Lexington Horsemen.

Yeah, okay, technically it is going to be Ron Borkowski's-and other local investors'-team. According to Byers Watt, Horsemen Sports Information Director, Lexington landed an NIFL franchise after the league approached Ron Borkowski, who helped establish the Thoroughblades hockey franchise here. Prior to that, the league had conducted market research that indicated Lexington would be a prime spot for indoor football-based on market size, facilities, etc.

Upon being approached, Borkowski, who oversees all Horsemen operations as President and CEO of Lexington Sports Ventures, LLC, rounded up a group of investors (all of whom are locally based), and the team was born.

As of now, there are fewer than 150 shopping days left before the Horsemen open up against Louisiana's Lake Charles (where's that?) team on March 29. So you need to know your NIFL. Right now.

Bring the beef

NIFL stands for 24-team National Indoor Football League, and the "I" could also stand for "independent," as the league has no affiliations with the NFL or the Arena Football League. Carolyn Shiver is the Louisiana-based league's president, and the 2003 season will be its fourth (and, of course, Lexington's first). Other league newbie franchises are Evansville (IN), Fort Wayne (IN), Myrtle Beach (SC), and Salt Lake City; gone this year are the Winston-Salem (NC) and Biloxi (MS) teams.

Conferences are Atlantic and Pacific; divisions are East and South (Atlantic), and West and North (Pacific). Team nicknames are varied and vivacious, great-like those of minor league baseball teams-for ball caps and regional pride (with some questionable exceptions). Some of the most interesting are the Oklahoma (Enid) Crude (as in oil, not gestures); the La Crosse (WI) Night Train; the Show Me (St. Louis) Believers (if you don't get that one, drive near Missouri); the Tupelo (MS) Fire Ants.

And what has to be the best-tasting nickname in all of sport, the Omaha (NE) Beef.

Coach Tony Franklin - photo by Byers Watt

The franchise's first head coach is Tony Franklin, whose previous, and most notable, coaching gig was as UK's offensive coordinator in 2000. That team gained a mountain of yards, and Franklin says he plans to utilize that same system with the Horsemen. (And maybe utilize some of the same players.)

Explaining that system's huge success, he stated simply: "We just take what the defense gives us and try to match speed against non-speed and height versus short guys."

Talent, stuff you can't coach like speed and size, should be readily available to the Horsemen. Unlike some other NIFL teams, the Lexington franchise shares grazing land with a major college football program. And what's more, just up and down the road a few furlongs are Georgetown College and Eastern Kentucky University, both of which are known for their football prowess.

But wherever the players come from, know that they will be Franklin's.

"It was very important to me that if I was going to coach the team that I would definitely be the one to pick the players; that part of it is exciting for mebuilding from scratch," he said. "I've already talked to several guys and will be talking to several more, especially guys who just got out of playing and have tried to get attention in the NFL camps and still have that dream. There are also a lot of guys 28-, 29-, 30-, 35-years old that are in great shape and think they can still compete."

But man does not live by football skills alone.

"I think in this league, the best team has the best overall camaraderie. One thing in selecting the team will be having some players who may not be as talented, but fit roles, are team guys. I promise you to make nine hour bus trips-as far away as Myrtle Beach-I'm going to take people who want to be involved, who are happy to be there, and who want to have fun and do the right thing for everybody."

That's right all you prospective players. He said nine hours-and that's if there's no traffic on New Circle Road. This is literally a working man's game.

As in being bi-vocational.

"Contracts are strictly on a per-game basis: $200 per game. If you dress for the game, you get paid. Needless to say, our players will have to have 'day jobs,' and the team and our investors will do our best to help players find other employment here if they need it," said Horsemen Sports Information Director, Byers Watt.

"It's tough," said Brian Johnson, who kicked for UK from 1995-97 and later in the NIFL for the (now defunct) River City Locomotives in Huntington, WV in 2001. "Many players, like myself, worked full-time and had wives or families and other things begin to take precedence over football."

Still, Johnson persevered, even though "the travel's not good and the money's not good" because he "wanted that feeling that only comes with putting a uniform on again."

And that (plus scoring a bazzillion points per game) will be what makes the Horsemen so refreshing: The players play to play-whether for fun or to keep career aspirations afloat. That's not like high school, when many players play for popularity, parents, and maybe even girlfriend or two; not like college when many play for tuition; and certainly not like the NFL when all play for more clams per quarter than NIFLers will make all season.

But this, then, is not supposed to be like the NFL...with its unbearable ticket prices and unbridled ego-both factors that appall, not attract.

"We are all about getting the fans involved as much as possible," said Watt.

Fans will certainly have their chances. Unlike the Arena League, there is no netting around the field, so any footballs that fly into the stands become instant souvenirs.

"The league has told us to expect to lose about 20 to 30 balls a game. Therefore, we have included the expense of roughly 200 game balls in our budget. Sure, it will cost the team some, but it's one of the unique aspects of our league that we think makes it attractive to people," Watt continued. "Look at it this way: If you're a fan who buys a season ticket in the end zone for 56 bucks, and you catch a kick that sails wide, the cost of the ball has almost paid for your season ticket right there."

Kickers may pay for several season tickets, actually. According Johnson, "if you can kick 50 percent in the NIFL, it's good. I wasn't used to that low of a percentage, so it was frustrating for me."

But if you don't want to park near the end zone/souvenir stand, you can still sit, Watt said, "near midfield, five rows up, for 15 bucks a game."

Or is that mid-court?

That's right, the Horsemen will share Rupp Arena with the basketball Wildcats in spring 2003.

"I think people are always going to think basketball when they think Rupp. I know that's what I think," admitted Franklin. "But it will be quite an experience, to coach in Rupp Arena-football! My goal is to win every game. What I want people to think is that they can come to a wonderful facility and watch an exciting new product-at a reasonable price-that they only can watch seven times a year. And if I can see the lower arena filled and then, eventually, have games where the upper arena is filled-that would be just phenomenal."

But it may be difficult. The Horsemen will likely face competition-not for fans' interest but simply for a slot in fans' personal schedules-from their roommate, UK basketball. Another competitor could be the Lexington Legends. Finally, and somewhat ironically, Keeneland's spring meet could reduce Horsemen attendance on the one Saturday night in April when the team plays at home.

"It took a while for football in the spring to catch on in Huntington," said Johnson, speaking from experience. "But, we were terrible-we only won one game, so that didn't help much," he added with a grin.

"Plus Lexington should succeed where Huntington failed because it has a fan base twice as large, and I think Coach Franklin will represent the team well."

Franklin, for his part, is honored and optimistic. "I'm glad to be able to coach and stay in a community that I've always lovedand to be a part of something new that I think will be incredibly successful and leave a legacy for this area.

"I just can't wait for that opening game."

Which will be against the aforementioned Lake Charles team, the LandSharks. Followed by home contests against the Crude, the Stingrays, the Freedom, the Greyhounds, the RiverHawks, and the Bluecats.

What a wonderfully unfamiliar menagerie.

The Game

The field is 50 yards long by 28 wide. End zones are a minimum 52/3 yards deep, and may be rounded due to hockey configuration-thereby geometrically eliminating the beloved "corner" pass route. Goal posts are 10 feet high and same (perilously narrow) feet in width between the uprights.

Eight players may be on the field at once, and 25 per roster-with 18 dressing for games. The game is divided into four 15-minute quarters, and the clock stops only for incomplete passes and out-of-bounds during the final two minutes of the second and fourth quarters.

Scoring is just like college ball: six points for a touchdown; three for field goal; two for run or pass conversion; two for defensive conversion following touchdowns; two for safety; and one for after-touchdown kick. Unlike college ball, though, if the team receiving the kickoff does not attempt to advance the ball out of the end zone, the kicking team will receive one point. Also unlike college, dropkicked field goals are four points.

Only one player can blitz at a time-no fun. Said player must raise his hand for the referee (and the quarterback's mom) to see, and he can only blitz inside the tackles and center. However, three players can go in motion at once in the offensive backfield. Unfair advantage? Sure. But the offense always gets that.

Points put butts in the seats.

And the Horsemen should be stamping about the end zone so much that one could assume there are bales of oats and bullion buried there.

Former Wildcat Chris Gayton (safety/linebacker, 1997-2001) headed the team that created the logo. "The Horsemen name was unique and had a lot of strong, masculine imagery potential," he said. "Initially, we designed something thinking many fans would be a cross between the football and professional wrestling crowds-and they probably will be younger, rowdier, and like extreme sports. But that logo was too scary and we decided to tone down the apocalyptic feel [see the four horsemen of the apocalypse in the Biblical book of Revelation] to make the logo more family-friendly. In the final stages, the rider came to look somewhat like a knight."

A knight who knows the proper way to hold a football, no less.



March 15 - Bye -

March 22 - Bye -

March 29 - Lake Charles - RUPP

April 5 - Bye -

April 12 - Myrtle Beach - Myrtle Beach

April 19 - Oklahoma - RUPP

April 26 - Tennessee - Knoxville

May 3 - Myrtle Beach - RUPP

May 10 - Ft. Wayne - RUPP

May 17 - Beaumont - Beaumont, TX

May 24 - Ohio Valley - RUPP

May 31 - Tupelo - Tupelo, MS

June 7 - Evansville - Evansville, IN

June 14 - Tennessee - RUPP

June 21 - Ohio Valley - Wheeling, WV

June 28 - Evansville - RUPP

July 5 - Ft. Wayne - Ft. Wayne, IN