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Published Saturday, May 12, 2001

A good idea ... on paper

Arena founder drew plans on envelope

Looking at the advertising boards that surround the field, the indoor facility, the fact that many of its owners also own minor league hockey teams, one might quickly surmise that arena football spawned from hockey.

However, founder Jim Foster admits his idea came from another sport.

"I was watching an indoor soccer game at Madison Square Garden and I was looking at the turf and figured, if they can play soccer indoors, why not football," said Foster, who owns the Iowa Barnstormers and Quad City Steamwheelers in arenafootball2.

"I went into my briefcase and grabbed a 9x12 envelope and started jotting down my ideas. I drew up what looked like a hockey rink and some notes and most of what we see today came off that envelope."

What is seen today is a sport -- the only professional sport to hold a patent -- that continues to blossom from its original conception in 1981.

While Foster scribbled ideas down about his new sport, it wasn't something he could turn into reality overnight. He admits he wasn't wealthy at the time and didn't have the resources needed for such a project.

He took his idea to the NFL, where he was employed at the time as a promotions manager.

"I mentioned it to some friends of mine around the office and there were some people that thought it was a really good idea. I was kind of surprised at some of the enthusiasm and encouragement it received," Foster said.

The Iowa native put together a business plan of his idea, got an artist to sketch his concept and printed up a rulebook he thought would work. Foster then went to the television networks and managed to work an agreement with NBC on a "test game."

Three months after the agreement with NBC was reached in 1982, however, the USFL was born and both parties agreed arena football would not be practical at that point.

Foster joined the USFL, first as an assistant general manager with the Arizona Wranglers, then as executive vice president of the Chicago Blitz.

"I knew if I wanted my idea to happen I needed to get to a major market like Chicago or New York," Foster said.

Once in Chicago in 1983, Foster spent countless hours trying to turn his idea into a reality while still running the Blitz. Two years later, Foster spent all his time on arena football and on April 26, 1986, managed to receive enough support, enough money and players from local colleges to stage a "test game" in Rockford, Illinois.

Foster said the cost of the test game was around $3,000 to $4,000. But a year later, with the idea quickly catching force, arena football held a "showcase game" on Feb, 26 at the Rosemont Horizon in Chicago, with a $20,000 budget.

"We invited ESPN and they sent a crew and put it on SportsCenter," Foster said. "We had sponsors, we managed to get players and coaches from the local colleges with the understanding that if this thing took off, they would receive a tryout with the league. And some of the players did try out later and actually ended up playing in arena football."

The league was born in June 19, 1987 with four teams -- the Chicago Bruisers, the Denver Dynamite, the Pittsburgh Gladiators and the Washington Commandos.

Current Detroit Lions head coach Marty Mornhinweg was a quarterback for the Dynamite that year. Florida wide receiver Dwayne Dixon was a member of the Washington franchise in its inaugural season before playing in Detroit from 1988-91. University of Oklahoma co-defensive coordinator Mike Stoops was a wide receiver for the Gladiators in the first AFL season. Of course, the most notable player to come out of arena football is St. Louis Rams quarterback Kurt Warner, who spent time with Foster's Barnstormers from 1995-97.

The AFL has since expanded to 19 teams -- including one in Toronto. Arena football has also received ample support from the NFL, which bought 49.9% of the AFL in 1999.

A second league, af2, began last year in 15 cities. That league has expanded to 28 teams this season and talk of even more growth continues.

Despite begin the founder of a new sport, Foster said he doesn't like comparisons with those that founded football, baseball or basketball.

"Some people like to say I'm the George Halas, Abner Doubleday or James Naismith of arena football," Foster said. "It's nice, but I don't think I'm old enough yet to be in that group. The greatest thing for me is when a player comes up to me and thanks me for the opportunity to continue playing football. That's what means something to me and where I get the benefit of feeling good about what I did."

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