Ex-AAF players hope experiences translate into jobs with Steelers
Winston Craig was between practice reps on a warm early April afternoon in San Antonio.
Suddenly, he and his teammates noticed something peculiar. Media videographers were trickling onto the field.
The San Antonio Commanders, a member of the fledgling Alliance of American Football, typically would have welcomed the coverage — any coverage — even two days after a loss.
Moments later, practice was halted, and it quickly became apparent this wasn’t a normal interruption.
“Our GM (Daryl Johnston) came in and told us to stop practicing,” Craig said last month at a Pittsburgh Steelers minicamp session. “We were like, ‘Yes … OK. What’s this?’
“That’s how we found out.”
Two days after Week 8 of what was to be a 10-week regular season, the league halted everything.
By Craig and Steelers teammate Casey Sayles — also a defensive lineman — calculations, there were 416 players on AAF active rosters when the league folded. A fraction benefited from the league, though, signing with NFL teams in the days and weeks that followed.
“It didn’t end the way anyone wanted or expected,” Sayles said, “but (the AAF) did what it was supposed to do.”
The league’s better players got to showcase their talents in games, and that valuable film helped translate into the jobs for dozens heading into NFL training camps this month.
The Steelers signed a league-high six AAF alums to their 91-man offseason roster: defensive linemen Craig, Sayles and Greg Gilmore, center J.C. Hassenauer, outside linebacker J.T. Jones and defensive back Kameron Kelly.
“It’s like any job except that you can’t have a resume if you ain’t got no film,” said Gilmore, who also spent last year’s training camp with the Steelers. “Without film, it’s hard to evaluate your talent level. In the NFL (as a practice squad-level player), you show what you show in the preseason, and that’s all anyone (outside the building) sees.”
Overall, the former AAF players with the Steelers are grateful. After all, each parlayed their time in the league into another shot at their NFL dreams.
Many others weren’t so lucky, as there are sad tales of players being stranded in the lobbies of team hotels, having health insurance dropped or not knowing how to get home to their families.
“I really feel for some of the guys who it was hard for them to leave so suddenly,” said Hassenhauer, who played for the Birmingham Iron. “I was able to just drive home the next morning, but you feel for some who had family or kids that were living in the team hotel. A lot of people didn’t know what to do.”
A positive of the league closing early is it might have helped some players hook on with NFL teams. The Steelers signed five players within six days of the league shutting down, and that’s important timing because Phase 1 of their offseason workout program began a week after that.
If the AAF played its entire season, players on teams that made its postseason would have been playing catch-up compared to other first-year players. Maybe NFL teams would have bypassed them altogether.
“I know everyone thinks the league is a failure,” Hassenauer said, “but it really helped me get more film out there. I learned a lot from those (coaches and teammates), made some friends and some connections, and overall, I felt it was a success as far as on-field stuff.”
Time will tell if any of the six stick with the Steelers. Kelly got first-team reps at safety during organized team activities. Hassenhauer, a former top recruit who played at Alabama, would seem to be in the running to make the practice squad, as are Gilmore, Craig and Sayles. Perhaps one of them shows enough to crack the 53-man roster.
But at least they were part of something that likely will become a “30 For 30” documentary and always have a cult following.
“My friends kind of joke about that,” Sayles said, “We’ll be those dads at 50, talking about this league that lasted eight weeks.
“At the end of the day, through it all, it was still a fun time, and I met a lot of good guys.”
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .