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NFL dreams fuel D.C.'s latest arena football adventure

Sean Brackett was the third-string quarterback for the WashingtonValor, and believe me, there is no more third string than being the third-string quarterback for the WashingtonValor in the Arena Football League.

Still, for Brackett, it was better than last year. At least he didn’t need a translator in practice.

Brackett, 25, a former quarterback at Columbia University, was the backup quarterback last season for the Qingdao Clipper in the Chinese Arena Football League — a league operated by a group of Philadelphia businessmen including former Eagles quarterback Ron Jaworski.

“China was awesome, “Brackett said after Saturday afternoon’s 48-47 loss to the Philadelphia Soul at the Verizon Center. “It was a completely different world. The language was the big barrier. There were four Americans and four Chinese on the field at all times. We would have to tell the protections and the plays in English, and someone would have to translate into Chinese.

“The first couple of weeks was wild,” he said. “But they picked it up quick, and by the championship game it was working OK. We played in the championship game against the Beijing Lions, and they beat us by a field goal in the last second.

“The fans didn’t really know what was going on.” Brackett said. “But they loved kicking. Field goals and kickoffs, they loved those. The rest of it was just a dance on the field. It was all new to them. They would get good crowds, pack with place with maybe 10,000 or 12,000.”

That would make Arena Football a little more popular in China than it appears to be in Washington, D.C.

I don’t know why everyone is out at Redskins Park listening to Jay Gruden — former Arena League football legend — talk about how impressive the ghost of Josh Doctson is.

This is where the stories are — in the Valor locker room, with guys like Brackett with backgrounds and experiences far more interesting than anything Josh Norman and his Genghis Khan character. This is a team of dreamers, all hoping for a shot at the NFL. “Everyone who plays this game is trying to get to the NFL,” Brackett said. “I’m no different.”

The head coach, for instance — Dean Cokinos. Look at his professional resume — the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Pioneers, San Angelo Stampede, Nashville Kats, Tennessee Valley Vipers, Alabama Vipers, New Orleans VooDoo, Georgia Force, Alabama Hammers, Tampa Bay Storm and now the WashingtonValor.

If those playbooks could talk.

The best part of heading to the Valor locker room for the stories to be told is you won’t have to put up with large crowds to get there. But you better move soon. They have just three home game left — including Saturday night against Cleveland — and I’d be surprised if there is a 2018 season.

They reported the crowd for Saturday afternoon’s game at 9,837 — a figure that would have made Susan O’Malley blush. I don’t know where they came up with that number, but I doubt if there were more than 2,000 people at the Verizon Center Saturday afternoon. Granted it was a day game on Memorial Day weekend. But it was empty enough to hear the anger of the Valor players after their special teams blew not one, but two extra points, and a chance to defeat the unbeaten Soul.

Owner Ted Leonsis told WTOP radio in November that, “As an entrepreneur, I like buying things and committing to things when they’re on the way down.”

It’s down, all right. But we are not talking about a new venture. Arena Football has been around — and struggling, in one form or another — since 1987, when the Washington Commandos played in the inaugural Arena League season at the Capital Centre. That team didn’t play the following season, then returned as the Maryland Commandos in 1989 and then the Washington Commandos again in 1990.

Since then, the AFL has gone through various stages of growth and near demise, even with the backing of the NFL as a partner for several seasons, and, shortly after Leonsis announced the launch of the Valor, appeared to be on the brink of folding, losing five teams this past off season. With only four teams left, Leonsis quickly added a team in Baltimore, the Brigade, if, for no other reason to at least have some sort of semblance of a league to compete in.

There have been other indoor football teams in other lesser-known leagues that have come and gone in the area, some so quickly they were barely noticed. The Chesapeake Tide played at the Show Place Arena in Upper Marlboro, Md., in 2007 and 2008 in the Continental Indoor Football League. The Maryland Maniacs played at the Show Place Arena and Cole Field House in the Indoor Football League in 2009 and 2010. And the D.C. Armor played in the American Indoor Football Association in 2009 at the D.C. Armory.

But none have had any lasting power, which I find curious. It’s often an entertaining product in an area where football is king. Saturday’s Valor game was fun to watch. Brackett nearly led the 1-5 Valor to victory, completing 26 of 44 passes for 231 yards — on a 50-yard field — and five touchdowns.

“He (Brackett) played under pressure and didn’t crack,” Cokinos said. “That’s the biggest thing. It was a really good effort from him the first game.”

It was Brackett’s first game because the Valor lost their first two quarterbacks — Erik Meyer, somewhat of an Arena Football legend with 312 career touchdown passes in seven seasons, including 112 in 2013 for Spokane, with a hamstring injury, and backup Bernard Morris, suspended last week (I don’t think I want to know what gets you suspended in the Arena Football League).

Brackett’s backup? Josh Portis. Yes, that Josh Portis — the former Florida, Maryland and California, Pa., college dual-threat star quarterback and the cousin of Redskins running back great Clinton Portis.

But that’s another story. Better tell it soon.

(Correction: An earlier version misstated the number of remaining home games and listed Florida State instead of Florida among schools where Josh Portis played.)

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