BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Saturday nights in Birmingham, Alabama just got a little more lit.
No, we’re not talking about the bars on 7th Ave.
Protective Stadium, home of the brand-new United States Football League for its inaugural 2022 season was en fuego last night, literally.
The Birmingham Stallions, led by head coach Skip Holtz faced off against the New Jersey Generals captained by Mike Riley in the league’s very first game and the hometown heroes emerged victorious in a 28-24 nail-biting finish.
Both head coaches and Stallions quarterback J’mar Smith and cornerback Tae Hayes met with the media after to discuss this new wave of professional football. Their excitement was contagious, their enthusiasm refreshing. At the end of the day, this is a group of men who thought they had seen their last snap.
“I wasn’t sure I was going to get to coach again,” said Riley. “And then I got the phone call about this and was real excited about it. More excited as I heard about the plans for Birmingham for the first year. I’m just really thankful to be here.”
Smith echoed that sentiment.
“For me, it’s just a great opportunity to play football again,” said the Louisiana Tech product. “There’s a lot of guys on this team that just wanted the opportunity and I’m of them.”
The guys in the USFL are getting something most people only dream of – a second chance. And the league is giving it to them in a unique way with updated rules, maximized exposure and exponential amounts of fun.
A football fourth wall has been erected, giving fans access to players and coaches without disrupting the game, making them part of the team through live sideline reporting, helmet cams and drone footage. It’s an exciting, welcome change.
“I felt like I was coaching in an all-star game,” joked Holtz. “I mean I had a reporter right behind me asking me coach what are you thinking next. The access and just how open it was, I think it’s awesome.”
Holtz was encouraged by the opening night’s success and believes this is the way of the future for football.
“I think there’s some things going on in this league right now that are going to stay with football for a long time,” expressed Holtz. “Like some of the special rules that are going on. We didn’t get to experience the overtime tonight, the new overtime rules but I think that kick off moving back is a world of difference. All of a sudden offense are starting on the 35, 40-yard line.”
Riley was less enthused about the new kick-offs, which takes place from the 25-yard line, mainly because of who the Generals were kicking off to.
“I was thinking and then I was hoping that we were going to go into overtime so we could have tried that new overtime deal,” said Riley. “I think there are some subtle changes – I mean that kick-off return, did you guys see the field position that people had after kick off? That’s a scary play. We’ve got to figure out something to limit that. You know I coached Victor Bouldin, I recruited him and coached him and I could only watch him return those kicks like this (hands over eyes). It was tough.”
Bouldin finished the night for the Stallions with four catches for 45 yards, five kick-off returns for 28.5 yards and one carry for one yard.
Audio is another big way the USFL is giving fans an inside look, with players mic’ed up during games and coaches audio being used as game audio. Riley was asked if he knew his audio was being fed to fans during a third-quarter drive.
“That’s scary –no I did not know that, how did it go?” Riley jokingly inquired.
But with former Dallas Cowboys fullback Daryl Johnston leading the way, fear isn’t an emotion the USFL is familiar with. They are too focused on the future and planting optimism in the hearts of jaded professional football fans everywhere. Sure, it isn’t always going to be pretty, but it will definitely be worth it.
“We are coaching football and watching film – I love doing that,” exclaimed Riley. “I love being with the staff, being with team and if we can help these guys, develop them a little bit and give them another shot that’s a great deal.”
The historic Saturday night simulcast on Fox and NBC delivered a projected 3 million viewers across the networks and their streaming platforms, peaking at 10:45 E.T. with nearly 3.5 million viewers.
Written by Emily Van Buskirk