EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The New York Guardians are running late. The digital clock on their locker room wall at MetLife Stadium says it's time to get on the field, but this opening-day moment deserves extra time.
Coach Kevin Gilbride, standing in the middle of the room, gives the pregame pep talk he had been waiting 22 years to deliver. In a 90-second speech, he ignites the players with well-crafted words that focus on teamwork, toughness and opportunity. The late Herb Brooks, of U.S. Olympic hockey fame, would've been proud.
Before they break, former NFL quarterback Matt McGloin, 30, the oldest and most accomplished player on the Guardians, provides the encore.
"Every single one of us, we all come from different backgrounds, different places," a fired-up McGloin tells his teammates. "We've all had a different journey and a different career to get to this f---ing point. And s---, man, if this isn't the most important game we've ever played ...
"This s--- doesn't get any better than this."
The room erupts with a roar and a few expletives as players head for the locker room exit. Welcome to the world, Guardians.
Salty but heartfelt, McGloin's impromptu speech captures the mood of the team and the entire XFL, for that matter. It should be the soundtrack for the new professional league -- comprising eight teams and a few hundred football stories -- which opened its 10-week regular season with four games over the weekend.
The Guardians are led by Gilbride, 68, who left a comfortable retirement in Rhode Island to coach in his old haunt. He won two Super Bowl rings as offensive coordinator of the New York Giants, but there's something that pulled him back.
Maybe it's the same something that fuels his players, an eclectic group of journeymen willing to live in a hotel and ride buses to keep their forever love of football alive. On Sunday, they would celebrate a 23-3 win over the Tampa Bay Vipers, culminating months of organizing, planning and practicing.
During the run-up to the opener, ESPN was granted access to player-coach meetings, team meals and practices. Here's a behind-the-scenes look at how the Guardians prepared for their debut:
8:30 a.m. (53½ hours to kickoff)
The early-morning chatter in the Guardians' team room dissipates as Gilbride enters and walks to the front, past a side wall that features a motivational quote from one of his mentors, Tom Coughlin.
"No toughness, no championship."
On this day, it serves as Gilbride's message to the team.
Fifty-two players and 11 coaches are gathered on the 11th floor of the Sheraton Mahwah, near the New Jersey-New York border, 30 minutes north of MetLife Stadium. The players, seated in black leather desk chairs, are separated by seven rows of tables.
The hotel is their home base for the season, creating the odd juxtaposition of millennial pro athletes and everyday 9-to-5ers. While the Guardians have their own space on the 11th floor -- 17,000 square feet of offices, meeting rooms and a makeshift locker room -- the floor also houses corporate offices for an insurance agency and a media company, among other businesses. It makes for interesting elevator rides. (Psst, the hotel's WiFi password is Guardians2020.)
"Good morning," Gilbride says to his team.
Before he dives into the business of football, Gilbride focuses on the business of the XFL, noting how league founder Vince McMahon -- ever the promoter -- wants players and coaches to embrace the spotlight. Unlike the buttoned-up NFL, the XFL emphasizes transparency.
On that note, Gilbride yields the floor to the two-person public relations staff, which delivers a 10-minute presentation that covers everything from media relations tips (show personality but stay positive) to pregame marching orders.
For instance: The players are instructed not to wear their helmets when they leave the tunnel for introductions. The league's goal is name-face recognition for TV viewers. This is unlike anything they've experienced before. Cameras and microphones are everywhere -- the sideline, halftime locker room, etc. It's not just football; it's a show.
Before adjourning, Gilbride punches up a message on the screen: "Pillars of mental toughness." This is a constant theme for Gilbride, who knows his audience. The room is filled with castoffs, players told by the NFL they're not good enough.
"The thing that has jumped out to me is they're more fragile than I'm used to," Gilbride says later in a quiet moment. "Most of them have been in the NFL and have been let go, so they're questioning themselves. They're more easily bruised when things don't go well or when a coach gets after them."
So he stresses mind over matter. Standing in front of the team, he quotes ancient Chinese general Sun Tzu, who wrote "The Art of War," and a contemporary commander under whom he served. He recites the Coughlin quote from the wall and punctuates it by tapping his heart.
He wants a team of fighters.
"Look at the [Kansas City] Chiefs," Gilbride tells the players. "Every freakin' game, they came back."
McGloin writes in a spiral notebook as he reviews practice tape in the cramped office of quarterbacks coach G.A. Mangus. They're joined by backups Marquise Williams and Luis Perez. McGloin takes copious notes, perhaps too copious.
"Maybe I'm overpreparing at this point," he says later. "It's been a while."
McGloin hasn't played a game in two years, not since he started a game for the Oakland Raiders in 2016. His football journey, a story about overcoming long odds, has lasted longer than anyone could've predicted. He wants to keep it alive, but not for the reason you might think.
Wide receivers coach Mike Miller wants no distractions, so he makes sure the eight receivers in his meeting room leave their cellphones at his desk for the duration.
Like the rest of the position groups, they focus this day on plays inside the opponents' 20-yard line. In 99.9% of the football-speaking world, it's known as the red zone. In the Gilbride/Coughlin world, it's the green zone.
Green as in "go."
When the meeting is over, Joe Horn stops by Miller's desk. Once upon a time, his father, former Pro Bowl receiver Joe Horn Sr., famously celebrated a touchdown by pulling out a cellphone. The younger Horn, who joined the team late because of a trade, has bigger concerns than his phone. Still learning the offense, he stays later than the rest to have Miller explain a specific play.
The offense conducts an impromptu walk-through in the middle of the Guardians' main office. McGloin is barking signals as the linemen and running backs carry out their assignments. The limited space makes it look like a crowded dance floor at a wedding. McGloin can't drop back more than a few feet because there are desks along the back wall. It lasts less than five minutes.
Gilbride, seated at his desk, is speaking via cellphone to the Fox Sports broadcasting tandem, play-by-play man Kevin Burkhardt and analyst Greg Olsen. This is a production meeting, something NFL coaches do every week during the season.
They discuss the roster, the depth chart and the game plan. Gilbride notes that Vipers defensive coordinator Jerry Glanville, 78, gave him his first NFL job, hiring him as the Houston Oilers quarterbacks coach in 1989. He also reveals he won't be calling the plays, which surprises Burkhardt and Olsen.
"This is my chance to keep my big mouth shut," Gilbride tells the Fox crew.
Gilbride, who has entrusted the playcalling to his quarterback coach, Mangus, prefers to be a CEO-type coach as he begins the second act of his career. Seven years removed from his final NFL season, an awkward departure from the Giants, he seems at peace with his new gig.
In many ways, it's the ideal job. The XFL calendar affords him the chance to spend time with his five grandchildren, and it allows him to satisfy a two-decade pang.
"I always wanted another chance at a head job," says Gilbride, who was fired by the San Diego Chargers after a 6-16 record in 1997 and '98.
That was a low point. So was getting punched in the face by fellow Oilers assistant Buddy Ryan during a sideline altercation in 1993. But most of Gilbride's history is rich with success, and there's a piece of it on the bookshelf in his office -- a white binder that contains the actual game plan from the Giants' upset of the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI on Feb. 5, 2012.
He was about to toss it in the garbage but was stopped by Coughlin, who suggested that Giants fans would be willing to pay big bucks for the treasure. Gilbride will take his advice. He's planning to donate it to a charity auction.
Lunch is served in the hotel restaurant, a place called Illusions -- the Guardians' private dining area. The XFL's anti-gambling video is being looped on a big screen in the back of the room. The players don't seem to be paying attention. They're more concerned with eating chicken (grilled) than winning it via illegal betting.
Dressed for practice, the players board two Academy buses at the hotel and make the 10-minute trip to the outdoor field at the Joseph T. St. Lawrence Community Center in Hillburn, New York. Players say this is the only inconvenience of the entire operation. (Well, that and not having a cold tub for post-practice treatment.)
These players have been banged around for years, some of them competing in their third or fourth professional league.
Look closely and you can see the dents from their NFL disappointments. Running back Tim Cook has a Jacksonville Jaguars ID tag on his backpack. Defensive tackle T.J. Barnes dons a Kansas City Chiefs ski mask on this cold day. Linebacker Ben Heeney wears an Oakland Raiders hoodie. All told, 50 of the 52 players have spent time on NFL preseason and offseason rosters.
Discarded, yes. Demoralized, no.
"This is definitely a second chance," says Heeney, a 2015 fifth-round pick of the Raiders whose NFL career was derailed by injuries. "My goal is to get back to the NFL. That's why I'm here, to play football and to prove I still have what it takes to be on a roster in the NFL."
Darius Victor, still wearing a sweaty T-shirt from practice, is channel surfing in his hotel room. He comes across ESPN and a commercial for the XFL's opening weekend.
"Yeah!" he shouts.
Victor has the kind of personality that makes everybody around him feel good -- remarkable, considering his backstory.
He was born in a refugee camp in Ivory Coast, where his family lived after fleeing worn-torn Liberia. He was 5 years old when his family made it to the United States, eventually settling in Hyattsville, Maryland. When he was in high school, his older brother, Kevin, was shot and killed during a robbery attempt on the way home from a basketball game. So no, Victor doesn't mind the bus rides. He doesn't mind sharing a hotel room with a teammate for three months. He considers the XFL a blessing.
"So many people, family members, didn't make it out," he says of his early childhood in Africa. "Every day, I get to wake up and have food to eat and clean water to drink. It's an eye opener because I know people that don't have that opportunity."
Victor, a 5-foot-7, 227-pound running back, failed to make the New Orleans Saints after an impressive 2017 preseason, but he can tell people he was in the same huddle as Drew Brees. ("It was surreal," he says.) He grew up a Giants fan and suspects he might get emotional when he takes the field on Sunday. He desperately wants another shot at the NFL.
His roommate, tight end EJ Bibbs, is grateful to still be playing.
"I don't know where I'd be without this," says Bibbs, who played seven games with the Cleveland Browns in 2015. "I'd probably be working 9 to 5 right now."
The two roommates became fast friends and don't mind the hotel life. Their only complaint: Not enough hangers in the closet.
7:30 a.m. (30½ hours to kickoff)
McGloin lives 15 minutes away with his wife and young son -- no hotel life for him -- but he's one of the first players to arrive for the team breakfast in the Illusions restaurant. There's no video presentation for this meal, just the basics -- omelet station, egg-and-cheese sandwiches, waffles, fruit, yogurt, coffee and juices.
"There's something fun and exciting about not knowing what to expect," he says, looking forward to Sunday. "Playing at Penn State and playing in the NFL, you've seen how much of a business it is. To be honest with you, this just feels different. I feel like it's going to be fun. It's just football again, which is cool."
McGloin, who went from walk-on to starter at Penn State and undrafted rookie to starter with the Oakland Raiders, experienced the cutthroat business of the NFL in 2018. He survived the Chiefs' final preseason cut only to be released two days later.
That crushed him; it changed his perspective. No longer obsessed with the NFL, he says he's here "for the love of football" -- which happens to be the XFL's slogan.
P.S.: His Kansas City experience wasn't fruitless. McGloin made such an impression on Andy Reid that the Chiefs coach offered a glowing recommendation to Guardians brass.
If the players are sleepy, they get a wake-up call from special-teams coach Jeff McInerney, who is loud and proud. His voice sounds like a collision between bass drums.
There's no small talk from McInerney; he jumps right into field goal-block and field goal-protection schemes. Every few sentences, he asks the group, "You got that?" He talks so fast there's no time for anyone to respond.
"We are the heart and soul of this team," he bellows to the crowded room. "We are the peasants."
You got that?
The offensive linemen are discussing golf club sales and the previous night's sushi dinner as they wait for their coach, Ronnie Vinklarek, to get started. This is a lively and inquisitive group, with a steady give-and-take between the players and Vinklarek.
They review defensive fronts and protection schemes from Friday's practice, using code words and numbers that sound like a foreign language. Vinklarek is a character. Born in a small Texas town, his twang adds color to everything he says. The players love his down-home expressions.
"You ought to be smiling like a cat in a sardine factory," he tells them, explaining how they can control the defense on a specific play.
"Where do you come up with those?" one player asks.
Vinklarek, all business, simply moves on to the next play.
After a 60-minute walk-through in chilly conditions, Gilbride gathers the players at midfield and advises them how to spend the rest of the day: Relax, stay off your feet as much as possible and review your assignments. Oh yeah, one more thing: Don't forget to bring your player IDs to the stadium. They won't let you in without it.
Back on the bus, back to the hotel.
In the team room, McInerney is barking again. This time, it's special-teams roll call.
"Kickoff coverage, up!" he yells.
Eleven players, scattered across the room, jump to their feet. Defensive backs coach Cris Dishman, the former Oilers star, counts to make sure it's 11.
"We're good," he shouts to McInerney.
They go through each kicking unit in rapid-fire succession. There are no screwups. They're good.
Mangus, the quarterbacks coach, gives last-minute instructions to the offense in the team room. They review the play sheet, formations and how to counter certain fronts. It's technical stuff, but he pivots quickly to an inspirational message.
He tells the players he learned from his father and grandfather -- both military men -- that's it's important to keep marching when adversity hits.
"Keep marching, keep playing," Mangus says.
The meeting lasts six minutes. The game prep is complete.
9:30 a.m. (4½ hours to kickoff)
Players start to trickle into the dining area for the pregame brunch, which features pancakes and pasta. The Guardians are carbo-loading. The popular topic of conversation is the XFL's debut doubleheader from Saturday. Several players say they watched both games. They're impressed with the quality of play.
Every player is dressed in athletic sweats except for linebacker Ryan Mueller, who shows up in a blue business suit with a red tie. At Kansas State, where he played for the legendary Bill Snyder, players were required to dress their best on game day. Old habits die hard.
Before boarding the bus to the stadium, Mueller meets his parents in the lobby. Steve and Valerie Mueller flew in from Kansas City. This is their son's third pro league -- previously, the NFL (preseason) and the CFL -- and they never miss a game.
"The one thing I'm noticing from the players," Valerie says, "is a genuine happiness to get out there again."
The early bus leaves for the stadium via police escort. The game begins at 2:06. By 5, the team is back in the locker room, celebrating a victory.
McGloin, who passed for one touchdown and ran for another, tells reporters this was the most fun he has had in a football game in a long time. Heeney, no longer slowed by injuries, shows why he was once a Raiders draft pick.
Playing middle linebacker and calling the defensive signals, he ties for the team lead with nine tackles.
Mueller, he of the blue business suit, makes his parents proud. He comes off the bench to contribute two tackles on defense. Horn is playing catch-up because of his late arrival but manages two receptions.
Victor's numbers are modest (32 rushing yards and three catches), but he flashes a 100-yard smile as he sits in front of his locker. His first childhood dream was to survive the refugee camp in Ivory Coast; his second dream was to play in this stadium for the Giants. At least he's in the building.
"When I ran out there on the field, I had to wipe away some tears, man," he says. "This was a long time coming."
For a lot of people.