Photos: Ned Dishman
Photos: Ned Dishman

The Washington Valor: DC’s Arena Football Team Makes Debut

Football-crazed Washington sports fans are in luck. We no longer have to wait until September to get our local fix of high-octane touchdowns and bone-crunching hits.

That’s because there’s a new arena league team in town – the Washington Valor. If you haven’t experienced arena football, get ready for fast and furious action, affordable tickets, and ample opportunities to talk football with Valor players and coaches.

The inaugural Valor team takes the field for its home opener at Verizon Center on April 7. Seats start at just $10. Former Washington Redskins wide receiver Santana Moss – a fan favorite who spent a decade with the team before retiring in 2015 – will provide color commentary for the Valor, owned by Ted Leonsis and his Monumental Sports Network.

“Arena football is a lot quicker,” said Everett Dawkins, a Valor player and former Florida State tackle now in his third season in the arena league. “Everything happens faster than in an NFL game. Everything is a little bit looser. It’s fun, it’s energizing and the fans love it.”

For the uninitiated, here are a few basics about the arena game compared to the traditional American version of the sport.

The arena league field size, at 50 yards long, is smaller and narrower than the traditional 100-yard field. The team plays a 14-game schedule compared with the NFL’s 16-game schedule. The rosters are also scaled down. Arena league teams dress just 21 players on game day compared to 53 players who suit up for NFL teams. And while college and NFL teams field 11 players on offense and defense, arena teams have just eight players on each side.

“It’s eight guys on offense, eight on defense, a backup quarterback and a kicker,” Valor Head Coach Dean Cokinos told On Tap. “You don’t have a lot of depth, and a lot of guys have to play multiple positions.”

One other big difference: the arena field is surrounded by netting, and the ball stays live if an errant throw or kick bounces off. This wildcard factor sparks some of the arena league’s most thrilling plays.

“If the ball hits the net or the wall up in the air, it’s live and you can play it – intercept it off the net or recover a kickoff off the net,” Cokinos explained. “The nets are really a huge part of our game.”

Cokinos also said the arena league puts a major emphasis on regular interaction between players and coaches and ticketholders.

“Our game is very fan-friendly,” he said. “The fans have great access to our players and to the coaches before the game, and after the game you can come down on the field and you’re out there with the players and coaches. We’re required to come back out after our locker room meeting after the game and spend 20 minutes on the field signing autographs and talking with the fans. There’s a lot of interaction.”

While the very best college football players typically end up in the NFL, the arena league boasts plenty of formidable talent.

“Most of our guys have played in the NFL or CFL [Canadian Football League], or on those practice squads, or went to pro camp,” Cokinos said. “They’re pro-level players, but they don’t have the same name recognition.”

Well, actually some of them do – or at least did. Kurt Warner, who won a Super Bowl as quarterback for the St. Louis Rams, got his pro start in the arena league. And let’s not forget that Washington Redskins Head Coach Jay Gruden was among the most prolific players in Arena Football League history, winning four league titles as quarterback of the Tampa Bay Storm before becoming an NFL coach.

Washington-area Valor fans may recognize players on the field at Verizon Center right away because some of them hail from the area. Among them is Tracy Belton, the 2016 Arena Football Defensive Player of the Year, who has signed with the team. Belton, a former Largo High School (in Largo, Md.) star before playing college football at the University of Massachusetts, is now a six-year arena league veteran who led the league in interceptions last year.

Belton, acquired by the Valor from the Philadelphia Jazz in the off-season, told On Tap he’s thrilled to be home.

“I’m very excited to play in my hometown,” Belton said, adding that it will be extra motivating knowing that his friends and family will be in the stands.

“People are going to have a great time,” Belton said. “The family and kids have never witnessed anything like this. You’re going to enjoy the game, and you will be back. It’s in the Verizon Center, so you know it’s gonna be poppin’ in there!”

Learn more about the Washington Valor’s first season at www.washingtonvalor.com.