AFL tryout not as easy as it sounds

PHOENIX -- I was clearly out of my league.

The idea of trying out for an Arena Football League team seemed like a no-brainer. I survived being a walk-on at Florida six years ago, so how different could this be, right?

I work out daily for hours and the thought of doing the 225-pound bench press multiple times or doing a one-rep max wasn't scary. In fact, the strength tests would be my strength. I could even hold my own in the agility tests, 40-yard dash and vertical.

Unfortunately, none of that mattered one little bit that mid-November day in the US Airways Center taking part in the Arizona Rattlers' open tryout.

"They weren't interested in how fast or strong you were," said Jesse Smith, a 24-year-old defensive back. "They were really looking for football players."

That was a problem for me. See, I hadn't played since being a member of the Gators practice squad. Even then I was a linebacker and here I was trying out for quarterback. Plus, I made the mistake of thinking the experience was going to be mainly about having fun.

"No one is out there joking around or playing around," Smith said. "I thought it would be a bunch of guys who played high school ball that were still chasing that dream. I was shocked. Some of the guys were former NFL players.

"This is about playing football for a living."

Thing is, Smith already does that. The former Fresno State track star (he didn't play football because coach Pat Hill doesn't permit players to play more than one sport) caught on with the AF2's Central Valley Coyotes last year. Now, he's trying to take it to the next level and with good reason. The average AFL player's salary is $85,000 and the top players make up to $200,000.

We live the movie 'Invincible' every year. You never know when one will catch that next dream and become the next star.

--AFL commissioner David Baker

This was Smith's second tryout this year. He tried out for the Los Angeles Avengers just over two weeks earlier, but was unprepared. Like he said, he never expected the competition to be so fierce. So he got in better shape for the Rattlers tryout and it paid off. He was invited back for a second look and now awaits word if he'll be invited to training camp.

"The pressure, you can't really explain it to someone who hasn't experienced it," Smith said. "You might get one look, and if you mess up on that one play, you probably won't get that call back."

Smith was one of 70 guys out of nearly 200 from the Rattlers' open tryout to get called back for a second look. Of that group, just a couple can expect an invite to training camp. Of the 37 players who will participate in the Rattlers' open camp in February, 24 will make the final active roster.

But it's not out of the ordinary for a roster to have someone who made the team from an open tryout. The Rattlers have two players -- Erik Arevalo and Trandon Harvey -- who made the team from last year's open tryout. In fact, Harvey led the team in receiving last season with 1,412 yards and 34 TDs.

The open tryouts are just part of the AFL's fabric. Every team has one at some point. In fact, New Orleans held one the day before ArenaBowl XXI. Players pay $60 (or $75 on the day of the tryout) for the chance to live a dream. Some wear their college gear. Some the latest UnderArmour they just bought at Sports Authority trying to look the part. Others just come in baggy shorts and shirts or whatever they had in their closet.

"We live the movie 'Invincible' every year," said AFL commissioner David Baker. "Every aspiring player out there can take comfort in knowing that Michael Lewis made the New Jersey Red Dogs at an open tryout and then went on to play in the Pro Bowl for the New Orleans Saints. Sean Scott made the Philadelphia Soul and recently signed a lucrative free-agent contract with the Cleveland Gladiators. We've all heard the stories about Kurt Warner bagging groceries at the Hy-Vee before he got his shot with the Iowa Barnstomers.

"You never know when one will catch that next dream and become the next star."

That's what former Arizona State wideout Matt Miller is hoping to do.

"The NFL is my goal," said Miller, who was projected as a fourth- or fifth-round pick in the 2006 NFL draft until he tore his ACL at a Pro Day. Now he hopes an AFL career will help get him some showcase film that will rekindle the NFL's interest in him.

But first, he has to make the team.

"You have to set yourself apart from all the people there," Miller said. "I felt the best way to do that was to dive over a wall in the end zone and crash into a chair."

And he did. Twice. It left him with stitches, a scar above his eye and an invitation to the Rattlers' training camp.

"I'm really excited," said Miller, who had 563 receiving yards and seven TDs his senior season at ASU. "I just want to be able to go to camp and compete and run against guys. I just need to get a little more used to the [tighter AFL] dimensions before then. That wall kind of limits my ability."

While the 25-year-old Miller looked at the tryout and saw an NFL opportunity, others saw an opportunity to challenge themselves.

Take 38-year-old mortgage planning specialist Shawn Burke, for example. Burke never played organized football in his life. Not pee-wee football. Not junior high. Not high school. Nothing.

But Burke just wanted to test himself. He worked out with former Dallas Cowboys trainer Mack Newton, who lives in Phoenix and trained athletes like Bo Jackson, Sammy Sosa and Olympic decathlete Dan O'Brien, to prepare.

It didn't help.

"I thought I was in good shape," Burke said. "It made me realize how good they are and how not good I am."

I paired with Burke for warm up drills, but after we broke out of those first drills to throw to receivers, he was gone.

"When I was officially cut from the quarterback squad and the coach came over and said 'I think you need to try something else,' I went over with the receivers," Burke said. "After watching them for about 20 seconds, I realized I was out of my league."

Despite a career that never got past the first round of drills, Burke, who is married and a father of four, has no regrets about trying out.

"It was about pushing myself," Burke said. "You have all these people in the world that just want to stay with the status quo, in their comfort zone, and are afraid to try something that really challenges them.

"I realized that I'm nowhere near these guys, and that's fine. It didn't make me feel bad about myself. I did something that not many people can say they did, and can tell my kids about it."

Needless to say, I fell closer toward Burke than Miller or Smith in the coaches' eyes.

"I love the variety that exists. There are always a few hopefuls who show up that even I could beat in the 40," said Baker, who is 6-foot-9 and 400 pounds. "Sometimes the players hit the tryout on the way in from going out the night before."

I made it through tryouts, but I didn't get a call back. I didn't even get a sniff from the AF2 coaches who were scouting the tryout and usually find a player or two to sign. Instead, the coaches gently let me know that if I tryout again, I may want to stick with linebacker.

But even that may not be enough.

"AFL rosters are filled with world-class athletes," Baker said. "In order to make a team, you truly need to be a top-flight football prospect."

Like I said, I was clearly out my league.

Cody Swann manages product development for ESPN Community. You can contact him at cody.swann@espn3.com.