If you are a football junkie – for me that term would be an understatement – 2023 will go down as the year where the offseason last only five days.
The XFL kicked off Saturday with four games over the first weekend. The football fan in me was completely stoked to turn on the games and check out the new league. The collector in me made me do a deep dive into the league and back to the 2001 season when I was an executive in the trading card industry. I was the VP Marketing at Pacific when the XFL started. Full disclosure, I seem to remember telling Peter Sawkins of Topps at the 2001 Kit Young Conference in Hawaii how absolutely jealous I was that they got the XFL license. As a product development specialist, I saw that license as a blank slate that just invited some outside-the-box creativity and a chance to do something where you weren’t handcuffed by parameters.
The XFL itself is a little bit polarizing for both fans and collectors. I watched the ESPN program Pardon the Interruption Monday and listened to Michael Wilborn bash the league and everything it stood for. He then bashed his co-host, Tony Kornheiser, for watching “five minutes of it over two days.”
Their take on the XFL reminds me of why I dislike shows like that, where arrogant guys who have never played at any serious level criticize anything and everything and focus on negativity. I think football needs the XFL and USFL. When I was cut from my pro tryouts (CFL, USFL and NFL), my only option to keep playing was to drive 100 miles and across the border to Watertown, NY or Lockport, NY three nights a week for practice and then ride a bus to somewhere like Syracuse, Scranton, Toledo, Racine (WI) or Frederick (MD) to keep playing. With no minor league football or development system in place, semi-pro football was and has been the only way to keep playing, whether it’s to keep the dream alive or just for the love of the game. Sure, there were a few beer leaguers who never played beyond being high school stars filling out the line-ups, but there were also NFL draft picks and training camp cuts, some name players, a lot of former big and small college players, and a lot of guys I recognized from Street and Smith’s College Football Annual.
There were a lot of good football players wanting to play after college. My USFL tryout was after the 1985 season. The 1986 season never happened. A lot of the guys I met were guys that I would end up playing against down the road. Many ended up as NFL replacements in 1987.
I never realized it at the time I was playing, but I should have been keeping track of the guys who were in Classic and Signature Rookies football sets I was playing against in the 1990s.
So for Wilborn and Kornheiser, turning your nose up at the XFL is identical to turning your nose up at Double-A or Triple-A baseball because the players playing are not big leaguers. Or maybe it’s the same as disregarding the AHL, which is the developmental stepping stone for almost every player in the NHL.
It must have made Wilborn, a longtime Washington football reporter, cringe to see former XFL back-up Taylor Heinicke leading his beloved Commanders.
Back To 2001
Three words sum up the XFL from 2001.
Rod Smart, who wore that nickname on the back of his Las Vegas Outlaws jersey, became the most iconic player of the league in its one-and-done season. There were a couple of variations as to how Smart got the famous nickname. The first story I had heard was that while he was a college player at Western Kentucky, he stood up during a game film session and started pointing at all of the opposition players. As he pointed at each one, he said, “He hate me, he hate me, he hate me,” and so on.
In the brief media scrum I was involved in with him in Edmonton after he signed with the CFL Eskimos (now Elks), he talked about how his nickname turned him into a star. He simply said that his opponents were going to hate playing against him. He said he planned on using a different nickname every game, but that He Hate Me became so popular that he had no choice but to stick with it.
In 2004, he talked about the name to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.
“Basically, my opponent is going to hate me. After I win, he’s gonna hate me. It is what it is. It’s a saying I was saying when I’d feel something wasn’t going my way. For example, (when) I was on the squad in Vegas and coach was putting other guys in, (if) I felt I’m better than them, you know, hey, ‘he hate me.’ See what I’m saying? Give me a chance. That’s all I ask. It came from the heart. Within. The way I felt. I feel as if everyone hates me, from my mom to my dad and even my brothers and sisters everyone ‘Hates Me’. My buddy Greg Kates always used to use it, so I took it from him.”
While the XFL name on the jersey was another gimmick, consider that Major League Baseball adopted the practice during their annual players’ weekend. And yes, in my closet on my rack of unusual sports jerseys, I have a while New York Mets “Polar Bear” jersey, right between my Tim Tebow Mets jersey and my Tom Brady Expos jersey.
He Hate Me was not the only great XFL nickname. Los Angeles Xtreme players Jamal Duff, Errick Herrin and Rashan Shehee were “Deathblow”, “E-Rupt” and “The Truth.” Smart’s teammate Chrys Chukwuma was “Chuckwagon.” The San Francisco Demons had “Hit Squad” (Otis Floyd) and “Super C” (Craig Powell). The Memphis Maniax had “Big Cat” (Antonio Anderson). Memphis quarterback Jim Druckenmiller had “Druck” on the back of his jersey. Druckenmiller had the misfortune of being a first round draft pick of the San Francisco 49ers, but he was behind Steve Young and Jeff Garcia on the depth chart and never really got a chance. He had a huge arm and he was athletic and did very well in the XFL. He was also very personable and had a toe dipped in the hobby, as he had a very good relationship with Collector’s Edge in his rookie year. I never got to meet him, but Alan Lewis spoke about frequently and was always very complimentary and talked about what a great guy he was.
While players came up with their own nicknames, Rod Smart inspired others around the league. One game, “He Hate Me” had to lineup and swap paint against “I Hate He” and “I Hate He Too.”
Once He Hate Me became a household nickname, fans and collectors started to wonder about his background and his football past. He was undrafted in 2000 and signed with the San Diego Chargers, but he was cut before the season started.
I was with Collector’s Edge when that draft took place. At the time, it wasn’t a draft that helped football card presales, as the majority of the top players were defensive. DE Courtney Brown was picked first by Cleveland, and his Penn State teammate, LaVar Arrington, went second to Washington. We always produced the first football card set of the year so that Shop At Home could sell it leading up to the NFL Draft. A player had to sign his marketing agreement with the NFLPA’s licensing arm, Player’s Inc. Had Smart signed that agreement in time, he probably would have had NFL rookie cards. I put a longshot QB in that first set. We had heard that Michigan quarterback Tom Brady was going to be cut and then cross over and become a catcher with the Montreal Expos, who had drafted him out of high school. Being a huge Expos fan, I jumped on the chance to add a player touted to be an MLB all-star in our football set. Tom Brady did not help us sell one pack of cards that year, but within a decade, finding unopened boxes of 2000 Collector’s Edge Supreme was like finding a treasure.
I landed at Pacific later that year, and they had hit a massive home run with the Kurt Warner rookie card that he shared with Tony Horne. Had Rod Smart signed his Player’s Inc. deal in time, there is no doubt that Pacific would have had a Rod Smart rookie card as well (eventually he did make the NFL and appeared on cards).
Although I only rubbed elbows with Smart for a five minute scrum, you can learn a lot about someone very quickly. He smiled, made eye contact, spoke eloquently, and was very engaging. He singlehandedly put the XFL on the map. Had the XFL kept playing, he would have been a marketing cornerstone.
This year, the XFL is filled with players looking to keep their football dreams alive with a few dozen players wanting another chance. Quarterback Paxton Lynch is among them
When the XFL returned for a half season or so in 2020 before COVID-19 wiped it out, Topps once again produced cards for the league. While there has been no formal announcement about XFL cards for 2023, there will undoubtedly be some stars who will emerge and get a shot at the NFL.
And, just for the record, had I ever made it to the XFL back in the day, I had my nickname all ready to go.
“He Collect Me.”