Itching for the XFL

By Matt Stacionis

Leshon Johnson has taken on cancer, played in one of the toughest divisions in all of sports and run over opponents at NIU.

After all that, the XFL’s no-fair-catch rule should be no problem.

“It’s going to make it very interesting,” said the Chicago Enforcers running back about the differences between the NFL and the XFL, which debuts this weekend. “The defensive backs can jam you at the line. It’s going to bring a lot of fun to the game.”

Johnson, who overcame lymphoma three years ago and led the Huskies’ offense with record-breaking performances in the early 1990s, played for the Green Bay Packers, Arizona Cardinals and New York Giants in the NFL before retiring after the 1999 season. He then got the traditional unexpected phone call from the XFL asking him if he was interested in playing again — and decided his gridiron days aren’t done just yet. After being picked up by Chicago, Johnson was on his way.

Joining Johnson on the Enforcers will be quarterback Tim Lester. Lester, who played for the Mid-American Conference’s Western Michigan, hails from the Wheaton area and was a perfect fit for the Chicago team. He and Johnson roomed together during the XFL’s training camp in Orlando, and both decided they could make this offense something special.

“We’re going to run the ball first,” Lester said. “We’re going to set up the pass by using John and Leshon. If we can get our running game going, we can win.”

The Enforcers have been picked as early favorites for the league’s inaugural title because of the depth of offensive talent they possess. Alongside Lester and Johnson will be former Miami Dolphins running back John Avery, who had a big season for the Dolphins in 1999.

Johnson agreed that a deep arsenal of running backs will help the Enforcers become one of the league’s perennial offensive powers.

“We feel like we can make plays with all the running backs,” he said. “We’re all capable of making the big plays. [Avery] can make a lot of people miss. I’m more of a north-and-south runner.”

With an eight-team league and many other players still unknown, picking an early XFL favorite may be difficult. Players like former Denver Broncos’ first-round choice Marcus Nash give the fans something to relate to, but not everyone is as renowned.

Furthermore, because professional wrestling mogul Vince McMahon owns all eight teams, gambling caps have been placed on league games. Las Vegas will only allow a single bet of $1,000 per game this weekend.

Fans and players aren’t the only ones ready for XFL action to start. Johnson and Lester both relayed their enthusiasm about league owner McMahon.

“He spoke with us yesterday and he’s very excited about this league coming together,” Johnson said. “When they see the talent, they’re going to start singing it. There’s so much talent in the XFL. It’s going to be crazy. [Between] 60 and 70 percent of the players have been in the league [NFL]. The people who aren’t are looking for an opportunity to play. I really think it’s going to blow up.”

The first XFL game will be played in front of a nationally televised audience Saturday on NBC. A key reason for the timing is to allow fans to maintain their football rush the week after the Super Bowl. It’s also not an accident that a Wheaton native like Lester and a former NIU standout like Johnson are located on teams regionally. McMahon thinks they will help draw a bigger audience.

“Vince got us on TV,” Johnson said. “A lot of people are going to want to see us. If we go to Chicago and win, we will get a lot of support. I think the only thing that is going to help us is to win.”

Lester compared the foreseen success for the XFL to that of “Survivor” on CBS. He said the games are more virtual then any other sports league, and they should play right into the reality-TV frenzy sweeping network airwaves.

“People like the real TV kick that’s going on,” Lester said. “This is the first-ever real game. The other games were made up. There’s going to be real cameras on us, people will see it from where we see it. It will be exciting for the players as well as the fans to see what it looks like. This won’t be your common, everyday football game.