It's a warm March evening as the players and coaches of the Cincinnati Marshals indoor football team make their way into U.S. Bank Arena for practice. They're preparing for a contest against the Dayton Bulldogs, their division rivals in the National Indoor Football League (NIFL).
It's the second season in Cincinnati for the Marshals since moving from Waco, Tex., in the spring of 2005. They're the eighth pro football team to call the city home and have quickly built a small but faithful following. Most of the players are from the area, including star running back Ray Jackson who played at University of Cincinnati (UC) and then spent part of a season with the Bengals before going to the Tennessee Titans.
"(I) went to NFL Europe," he says. "I broke my foot about a year and a half ago. Now I'm just getting back into it."
"I think there are two types of players in the league," explains head coach Steve Carpenter. "There are guys that just can't give it up, 'I've got to continue to play,' and this is an opportunity for them."
The Marshals' roster includes several players with local ties, including a number of UC grads: quarterback Deontey Kenner, receiver George Murray, defensive back Anthony Thomas and offensive linemen Jon Perron and Matt Mercer. Former Bengals star Ickey Woods is the running back coach, and the team just signed kicker Dan Breech, son of former Bengals' kicker Jim Breech.
Though his goal is to return to outdoor football, Jackson sees the NIFL as a way to sharpen his skills.
"It helps a running back, in my position, (develop) more receiving skills," he says. "You have to catch the ball a lot, block, you've got to pick up the linebackers. It's a whole bunch of stuff that does help your game. You have to be real quick on your feet, because it's (a) smaller area. You have to be more agile."
The other local players likely would never be traded, creating a feeling that they truly are your Cincinnati Marshals.
"I think we're housing six (players), so 19 of the 25 guys are local," Carpenter says. "They don't make enough to quit their day jobs. They need to be here, they've got a home, a wife, a job and so typically they're loyal to the team."
Marshals' Media Relations Director John Cummings also notes that the team is interested in becoming involved within the community by helping with everything from charity work to participating in the Reds' Opening Day Parade.
"We have an ownership that is committed to keeping the team in Cincinnati and eventually moving up to the Arena One level," Cummings says.
Four thousand and sixty-eight fans attended the home opener, and apparently a few dozen Dayton fans made the trip down I-75 to support their team. Sitting behind the visitor's bench, they had little to cheer about, as the Marshals scored five times before Dayton could muster a response.
As enthusiastic as the crowd was on this particular Saturday night, one can't help but recall the other teams that have called this building home. That list includes not only two football teams but also hockey, basketball and soccer franchises as well.
"We have a blueprint of what hasn't worked in the past," says Cummings.
Indeed, the focus does seem to be predominantly on the game of football itself. There are few distractions. Cheerleaders, known as the Diamond Deputies, dance just outside of either end zone. During the time-outs "Marshalman," dressed simply in a black, blue and silver Marshals jumpsuit, goes through the crowd asking trivia questions and awarding prizes like free pizza. During the two-minute warning, T-shirts are tossed into the crowd.
Other than that, the focus is primarily on football. The only real difference between this and an outdoor game — besides the smaller field — is the occasional explanation of rules from the P.A. announcer.
"This is more aggressive than what I thought it would be," says Timothy Grice of Miamisburg, who attended the game with pal Evan Griffin.
An enthusiastic Joanne Barnett of Elsmere gets something different from the experience. "I go for anything that's got cute buns," she laughs, adding she'll be back for the next home game.
The Marshals play their next home game 7:30 p.m. Saturday at U.S. Bank Arena downtown.