Matt Duda: A Dashing Debut



A Dashing Debut
by Matt Duda

February 9, 2001

Jamel Williams launched his body headfirst toward the loose ball resting on Sam Boyd Stadium’s 50-yard line. But the leather squirted through his outstretched arms as Donnie Caldwell’s 190-lb frame tumbled over him. Williams sprang off the turf and surged towards the still-rolling ball. After reeling it into his grasp, he slammed the ball off the crimson X emblazoned on midfield.

In just a few exhilarating seconds, the XFL officially christened one of its most innovative contributions to football: the opening Scramble.

“In the past, all football games got started with a coin toss,” growled the great Dick Butkus a moment prior. “No way Jose. Here we are in the XFL, we’re going to compete for the right to choose who possesses the ball at the start of the game.”

Some fans viewing the game from Sam Boyd Stadium’s seats Feb. 3 in Las Vegas booed when Butkus uttered “coin toss.” But all 30,000 roared as Williams - a Las Vegas defensive back - took possession away from NY/NJ’s Caldwell.

The Scramble condenses all the attributes that make football the greatest of America’s sports into four testosterone-filled seconds. Each opposing head coach chooses a player who then lines up at the 30 yard line while the XFL’s distinctive black and red striped ball rests at midfield. At the referee’s whistle, lightning speed, beastly power and pissed-off attitudes merge to propel each competitor toward the prize.

Besides giving the option to kickoff or receive the ball to start the game - and overtime if needed - the pre-game scrum seemingly instills a false sense of confidence in the winner’s team before the opening whistle blows. Three of the four teams that won the Scramble last weekend walked into the locker room after the final gun with a loss. While winning the opening race would seem to provide a mental edge to the winner, it actually creates too much hype on the winning sideline. The losers responded to the second-place finish by storming onto the field after the kickoff and slapping the excitement out of the Scramble winners.

But the new process surely has its opponents. Orlando, who fell short in the Scramble but came away with a 33-29 win over Chicago, lost Hassan Shamsid-Deen for several weeks after the defensive back sustained a separated shoulder fighting for the ball with the Enforcers’ Troy Saunders.

Rage staff adamantly voiced their displeasure of the Scramble after Shamsid-Deen's injury knocked the Rage down to 37 players before the opening kickoff, but Chicago’s John Avery disagrees. “It was unfortunate that somebody got hurt,” Avery said. “I never rejoice in another man’s misfortune, but at the same time, it is exciting to see two guys race for the ball. I think everybody got into that. It was unfortunate, but at the same time I think it’s just an added twist that I think the XFL does to get people watching. There’s excitement even before the game starts. “

Besides being the most invigorating way to resolve the ball’s possession, it’s also the fairest. It avoids possible debacles like the one that struck the NFL Nov. 26, 1998. As a quarter flipped through the air, television microphones clearly recorded Pittsburgh Steelers captain Jerome Bettis call tails before overtime against Detroit. The coin landed in Bettis’ favor, but referee Phil Luckett claimed he heard Bettis call heads. The Lions received the ball and eventually trotted off with a 19-16 win on Thanksgiving Day.

Steelers coach Bill Cowher stormed after Luckett when the game was over, shouting, “That game was decided by you, and not the players on the field. That was (expletive) awful.”

The NFL showed that day that even the most mind-numbing, simplest of tasks easily gets botched. So even though XFL refs are sure to have much better listening and judgment skills than NFL officials, only athleticism, guts and determination will determine possession of the ball. Maybe at some point, the coaches themselves will elect to line up to charge after the pigskin. Who knows. There seems to be little the league could do to improve the race. That’s unless, of course, the cheerleaders are allowed to participate.

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