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Proving Ground

On a chilly Saturday in November, 405 men try out for the New Orleans VooDoo Arena Football League team. Frank Etheridge follows Kevin Brooks, one player hoping to make the cut.

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"Nervous?" Kevin Brooks says, two days before his tryout with the New Orleans VooDoo. "About football? About something I love? Nah ...."

Brooks is standing on the edge of the Lyons Center football field, at the corner of Louisiana Avenue and Tchoupitoulas Street. Here, as a 10-year-old boy growing up in the St. Thomas projects, Brooks learned to love the game.

"Football kept me from trouble," says Brooks, now 19. He says he was "a bad kid" in the days before his father, Kevin Marcel, pushed him to both private school and the football field, where he learned a sense of discipline that still hasn't failed him. He first played in a youth league at Lyons, but didn't play for another team until his sophomore year at Walter L. Cohen High School. He returns often to the Lyons Center, as do many of his neighborhood friends. He never sees any former teammates from his elementary school days. They didn't stick with the game. Most of them, he says, are "in jail, on drugs or dead."

Brooks asks around for Major Tyler, the volunteer coach who's been a fixture at the Lyons Center for the past 13 years. A former Cohen star at linebacker, Tyler is the man "who taught me everything I know about football," Brooks says.

"Major ain't here yet," comes from a group of elementary-school boys awaiting evening practice. They gather around him in a circle of awe, peppering him with questions about his past, present and future football days. The kids jostle about in competition for Brooks' attention, begging him to throw a pass.

In time, Brooks leaves them to circle the field in a long, loping stride. The evening sun casts him in long shadows. There's the smell of freshly mowed grass and the dissonant sounds of shouting and traffic from nearby Tchoupitoulas Street. Without Tyler, who's helped Brooks train in the weeks leading up to the tryout, the self-imposed drills are solitary.

It gets dark and Brooks sets out to hook up with his friends. He stops by a house four blocks from the Lyons Center, where one friend's mother directs him to a cement basketball court on Eighth Street. It's a pickup game of three on three. Greeting Brooks, the game stops and soon they're taking turns on slam dunks. They ask "KB" about the high-top shoes he changes into, all-black Reeboks he bought earlier in the day during his lunch break, along with a pair of black Nike gloves. After draining a few shots in a row from three-point distance, Brooks is on the receiving end of several alley-oops. Both elbows extend above the 10-foot-high rim in a seemingly effortless flight to catch the ball and slam it through. The dunk has enough force to spin the goal on its metal frame.

Brooks doesn't fancy himself a basketball player, no matter his ability to play above the rim. "Football's my game," he says. He trains daily after his job -- he works in the downtown warehouse of Emeril's Homebase, a promotion he received recently after years at Emeril's as a dishwasher. Playing for the VooDoo would put him in a league that pays between $20,000 and $75,000 annually, with an average around $30,000.

With the tryout just two days away, Brooks recruits his crew to leave the basketball court and head to Harrell Stadium off Claiborne Avenue, to practice running pass routes. Their ride breaks down en route. They push the car, its engine smoking, a few blocks to rest in front of an abandoned house. Harrell, with its regulation-sized field and nice surrounding track, is no longer an option. So it's back to the Lyons Center. The group makes the short walk down familiar streets.

"Kevin's a good player; he's got a good chance of making it," says "Speedy," a former classmate and teammate who, though a year older than Brooks, calls him "my motivation, my inspiration."

Speedy earned his nickname by dominating the 100-meter dash during his track days at Cohen. His shot at a state title was ruined by a charley horse, which he fought through to a third-place finish. The subject is still a hot topic among these friends. Brooks hoped Speedy would try out with him, but "a lack of funds keeps me home," Speedy says of the required $50 -- cash only and up front -- registration fee.

Brooks, Speedy and the others take turns running pass routes under the bright lights at the Lyons Center. Long routes take Brooks down the sideline in smooth sprints. He makes some impressive catches alongside some inexplicable drops. The lack of a game atmosphere, where competitive juices flow and the will to win consumes, is distracting. There's no defender, no man to beat.

"Just like in track practice," Brooks says. "They always told me, 'Run for a time.' I can't run for time. I grew up in the hood. I run to win."

Brooks also ran track at Cohen, qualifying for the state championship meet in both the long jump and the 400-meter relay. But he was the star on the football field. He went from a 95-pound linebacker in his sophomore year -- "always getting knocked over, but always making the tackle" -- to being named the team's Most Valuable Player in his senior year. That same year, he was selected to the all-district team in a competitive, citywide 4A league.

He never lost his defensive mentality, boasting, "I love to hit." He started at strong safety, but his talents and size were best suited for wide receiver, the position at which he earned all-district honors. It's the position he continued to play after school on the semi-pro Louisiana Blazin' Bulldogs, which won the state championship in October, and the one he's working to become for the VooDoo, when the Arena League team kicks off its first game here in February.

Brooks models his playing style after Joe Horn. He's always worn Horn's number 87 in homage. Brooks developed a rapport with Horn after chatting with him from the Superdome stands after Saints games. During the Hornets' opening night game this season, Brooks had tickets just a few rows from Horn and other Saints. When Brooks spotted Horn he raised both arms high, and Horn motioned for him and his friend to sit with them. Brooks told the story of the Bulldogs' championship and his quest to play for the VooDoo. "Joe told me, 'Keep up the hard work,'" Brooks recalls.

Also encouraging Brooks is former Cohen coach James Warren. "In terms of his heart, his mind and his potential, there's nothing that should keep Kevin from being with the best," says Warren, who starred at Cohen before going on to University of Illinois and 12 years in the NFL. "But Kevin needs some seasoning. His biggest faults are that he's undersized, and he lacks experience."

Warren regrets he was unable to work more with Brooks, who often had to miss after-school practice because of work. Warren also says he couldn't convince Brooks to take the ACT. Passing the college-entrance exam is prerequisite to serious interest from most schools, says Warren, who faults the school system for not emphasizing the tests and failing to "pave the way for these kids' future." But the team's biggest problem was recruiting and keeping players. It was hard to convince boys to participate. Plus, he says, "we were losing guys because they got shot."

Current Saints wide receiver Talman Gardner is the only player on the team who came from New Orleans public schools; he played for the McDonogh 35 Roneagles before attending Florida State University. "Some of the best players in the city and state are in Orleans Parish schools," Gardner says. "But they lack the support. Most Orleans Parish schools don't have the facilities, the coaches or the programs, like they do in the Catholic League."

Warren was fired from Cohen in April after a dispute with the principal. The dismissal "tore the man's heart out," Brooks says. Brooks also believes the firing also hurt his scholarship chances. Recruiting for college programs is tied closely to the schools' networks with high school coaches, and Warren's connections, many through former NFL teammates, are considerable. Brooks says he had gained attention from Southern University in Baton Rouge and Alcorn State in Mississippi. The interest left at the same time as his coach. "I don't know what happened," Brooks says.

But Brooks had his share of highlights at Cohen, Warren recalls. "There were a few moves, a few hits, where I was just like, 'Damn!' He's a helluva kid, a helluva player. You may knock him down, but you ain't gonna keep him down. Whoever winds up with Kevin is gonna have one helluva athlete on his hands."

One of the fall's first chilly winds greets the hundreds gathered before 8 a.m. Saturday outside the Saints' offices and practice facility on Airline Drive. The NFL Saints launched the local Arena Football League (AFL) franchise, which will eventually have its own facilities within the Saints' complex -- but not yet. Today's tryout will be held on the Saints' indoor practice field.

In arena football, which debuted in 1987, players don't earn multi-million dollar salaries, but they do play a fast-paced game in which final scores typically reach 70, 80 and even 90 points. Speed is the ultimate weapon, as teams favor the pass and players with an athleticism to match. Nets surround a field of play smaller than the NFL's gridiron, keeping the ball always in play and creating a Mad Max sense of chaos.

"I'm ready, ya heard me?" Brooks says from his spot in line. His face is stern, focused. His hair, previously in thick, loose braids, is now styled in tight cornrows. He quietly sips from an enormous cup of The Hulk, the drink that Smoothie King promotes for gaining weight and boosting energy. He's wearing his green Cohen lettermen jacket over a black jersey with 87 in white on the front and back.

Around him, it's a stream of trademark-flashing gear, a commercial medley of gym bags, spandex, mesh, plastic flip-flops, sweat suits and wristbands. Although the athletes come from all corners of the country, the group is almost uniformly young, black men. Some are standing with their agents. Almost all are older and bigger than Brooks.

"There's no formula for how many guys from here we're going to keep; it all depends on the talent we see," says Mike Feder, executive director of the VooDoo. Feder speaks from a registration table that will eventually process 405 participants in the tryout, each forking over $50 to a Jefferson Parish sheriff, who interrupts his cell phone conversations to gather a mix of one-, five-, 10- and 20-dollar bills.

"If they're good enough," Feder says of the players, "we'll sign 'em up and invite them to training camp. If nobody's good enough, then we'll keep no one."

There are just a few open positions remaining. Arena Football League squads only carry 24 players, and free-agent signings by the VooDoo already total 16, including several with experience in the NFL and at big college programs. An old Brooks rival, wide receiver Lynaris Elpheage, who starred at Carver High School (in Cohen's district) and then Tulane University, has already earned a roster spot. A total of 37 players will be invited to training camp in January.

Brooks makes his way to Feder's table. A coach waits with a notebook, spitting tobacco juice into a Starbucks cup. Handing over his cash, Brooks takes the number 69 to pin on the back of his jersey. Next, he's measured and recorded at 5 feet 11 1/2 inches and 161 lbs. Before entering the building, Brooks, like everyone else, is tossed a VooDoo T-shirt. Along with a free ticket to an upcoming VooDoo game, it's a consolation prize to sugarcoat the $50 fee.

Once inside, he surveys his surroundings. Rows of florescent lights are suspended from metal brackets at dizzying heights. It's eerily quiet, with just the sounds of coaches clapping, men stretching and a constant buzzing of lights. An assistant coach instructs the players to wait on the sideline until they're called up in groups of 25.

It's another hour before Brooks' group is called. "Thank you all for coming out today," says Kevin Porter, the VooDoo's defensive coordinator. "Go out there and do the best you can, and let the chips fall where the may. Do not get discouraged by what happens today. There are plenty of opportunities to make it in football. You guys are young enough to keep trying. So remember that -- keep trying."

"I'm gonna bust this 40 out," Brooks says of the first drill, a timed 40-yard run. A 40-time is one of the first things you hear about a player's talent -- especially a wide receiver, where speed is everything.

Orange cones form a path roughly 5 yards wide, set up in increments of 10 yards starting at the goal line. Each player is given two chances. After running it in 4.6 seconds, Brooks is given advice on his stance and take-off by Darien Chestnut, a wide receiver currently playing for the Houma Bayou Bucks, a team in the National Indoor Football League (NIFL). Chestnut says Brooks is kicking too high in his first few steps, a wasteful range of motion in a race where tenths of seconds are make-or-break fractions. Brooks practices a new stance while the others are timed; during his second run, he's clocked at 4.7. "If I had somebody checking me, somebody to beat, I would've run a 4-flat," Brooks says.

Next up is the "pro shuttle" agility drill. The players line up between a series of orange cones, run 5 yards to the left and touch the yard line, then 10 yards to the right and touch the yard line, before returning to the middle. Players grunt and swear under the drill's strains. Brooks' first run is 4.55 seconds. "Damn, that was pretty good," the assistant coach timing the drill remarks to another coach. Brooks' next attempt is 4.62.

The first round of cuts is made after the first two drills. If your number is called, stay. If not, head home. The players await anxiously.

Standing in the middle of the field is Charles Puleri, a decade older than the rest of the men here. He's a quarterback, a seven-year veteran of the AFL with an agent and the assurance that he'll be brought to training camp. "These open tryouts are a pretty common thing for expansion teams," Puleri says. "It's like a regular job interview. They send the message out about the open tryouts, several hundred guys show up, and the ones with fast times, a 4.3 or 4.4, are invited to camp. They're looking for speed. That's the key in this game. It brings out the guys that still have the dream," Puleri adds while surveying the group.

The coaches bring the players in to huddle around them as the numbers are called. "We're looking for speed and quickness," one coach says. "If you're not selected, keep your chin up and still pursue your dream."

Brooks' 69 is called; he survived the first round along with six guys from his group of 25. He checks with his ride -- Kevin Sheppard, who works at a local nonprofit not far from Emeril's Homebase. Sheppard didn't make the cut. "Good luck, Kevin," he says, exiting the building.

The minutes drag by while all the players are evaluated. "I got to stay loose, I don't want to be all tight if they call us," Brooks says while he stretches and jogs on the sideline.

Brooks is disappointed with his 40 time -- he's been clocked at 4.5 before. He's also frustrated by the methods used in the tryout. "Man, we need to get a football out here," he says. "We need to play. I gotta prove myself. I can play football, but I can't prove myself like this."

Also on the sideline is a teammate and friend from the Bulldogs, Reggie Ford, a Ninth Ward native and 1997 graduate of Frederick A. Douglass Senior High School. The pair roomed together on the Bulldogs' road trips to towns like Ruston, Lake Charles and Baton Rouge. "Kevin's cool," says Ford, who plans to paint abstract art "until I die" but is still trying to play pro football. If the AFL doesn't work out, he says, he might head to the Canadian teams. "Kevin needs to work out more, gain some weight, but he's got what it takes. He's going pro."

Brooks and Ford sit with Elliot Collins, who boasts he can "hook you up with the best car detailing in Oxford, Alabama." Collins made the six-hour drive "to get my shot at the American dream, like Michael Lewis," he says, referencing the fabled story of local hero Lewis, a Grace King High School graduate who only played prep football before his blazing 4.3 speed earned him a spot on the Saints. Lewis' nickname, "Bud Man," is a nod to his old job as a delivery driver for Budweiser. In his second season, Lewis set a NFL record for return yards and was selected to the Pro Bowl.

"That's why they're doing these tryouts, to find themselves the next Michael Lewis," Collins says.

"I know Michael Lewis," pipes up Ronald Crockem, a Kenner resident sitting with the group. "We ran track against each other. I went to Bonnabel."

"I saw Michael in the mall the other day, told him about these tryouts. I said, 'You're the Bud Man.' And I'm the Tire Man,'" laughs Crockem, who has a job with Goodyear Tires.

The players are divided into four groups and sent to the corners of the field. It's passing drills, with each player running routes to catch balls thrown by a quarterback. "I don't have a lot of time to evaluate you," coach Tres Sullivan warns Brooks' group. "If you drop a ball, that's the fastest way to get shown the door."

After a few warm-up tosses, the players line up to run routes: a 5-yard hitch, a 10-yard hitch, and then a slant. Brooks drops his first pass, shaking both fists in the air above him in frustration. He catches the next two, but Sullivan barely notices. Squatting between the two rows of players, the coach scans the group for the numbers he likes and jots down observations on a note card.

Sullivan then gathers the group, reading aloud numbers and doling out fate, inviting some to stay and sending others home. Brooks' number isn't called. He seems stunned as he stands in a group protesting Sullivan's cuts. "What about me?" several ask. Brooks looks at the card, but doesn't say anything. Sullivan keeps one of the protestors, but the rest are asked to leave.

"Man, that was whack," Brooks says while heading to the parking lot. He repeats the phrase three more times, then calls his mom on his cell phone.

"I didn't even have a chance to prove myself," he says. "I told my mom that if I'd only had a chance to prove myself, that I would. That coach wasn't even looking. What was he doing?"

But Brooks already acts like he's ready to put the tryout -- which he calls a "hustle," a quick take of his $50 -- behind him. "I ain't worried about them, me," he says about the VooDoo coaches. "I'm going to school. I'm calling Coach Warren and I'm going to school."

Before returning home, Brooks wants some fast food. While in the Rally's drive-thru, he spots Major Tyler riding his motorcycle down Louisiana Avenue. He's the coach Brooks had been looking for two days ago at the Lyons Center, the man who taught him the game. "Major's gonna want to hear about the tryout," Brooks says. He goes a few blocks to catch up with Tyler, who's filling up his motorcycle at a gas station.

Brooks tells his story. "What? What happened?" asks Tyler. Pausing at the pump, the two men are silent for a few seconds. "That's bullshit," Tyler concludes.

"You need to try for college," Tyler tells Brooks. "Join the Reserves; have them pay your way. It's just two days a month and two weeks a year, and they'll pay your way. Plus, boot camp will do you some good. It'll give you some discipline, help you gain some weight, some muscle."

"If Kevin does what I'm telling him to do, it'll help him," Tyler adds later. "I'm giving him something that'll help."

Riding home, Brooks has his own ideas for the future. "I ain't joining no Reserves," he says. "I didn't even register to vote, 'cause I ain't getting pulled in no draft." Turning onto Annunciation Street, just a few blocks from home, Brooks munches on a few fries. A smile has replaced the cold shock felt while leaving the tryout.

"Major thought I was gonna quit on him," Brooks remembers. "Before him, I wasn't like I am now. I was wild, a bad kid. You wouldn't even recognize me.

"But I didn't quit, not on Major and not on football," he adds, gathering his food and athletic gear before heading inside. "I'm not done yet."

The tryout brings 405 players to the Saints' offices, - looking to fill just a few available positions on the - team. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • The tryout brings 405 players to the Saints' offices, looking to fill just a few available positions on the team.
Players sign in outside the Saints' practice facility - on Airline Drive. The New Orleans VooDoo kicks off - its first game next spring. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Players sign in outside the Saints' practice facility on Airline Drive. The New Orleans VooDoo kicks off its first game next spring.
Charles Puleri, a seven-year veteran of the AFL, - pins on Brooks' number. "It's like a regular job - interview," Puleri says. "The ones with fast times are - invited to camp." - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Charles Puleri, a seven-year veteran of the AFL, pins on Brooks' number. "It's like a regular job interview," Puleri says. "The ones with fast times are invited to camp."
Brooks stays loose between trials. It's quiet in the - facility, with just the sounds of coaches clapping, - men stretching and a constant buzzing of lights. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Brooks stays loose between trials. It's quiet in the facility, with just the sounds of coaches clapping, men stretching and a constant buzzing of lights.
Brooks tries to better his time. In Arena football, - speed is the ultimate weapon. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Brooks tries to better his time. In Arena football, speed is the ultimate weapon.
Players watch to see who made the cut. "If you're - not selected, keep your chin up and still pursue - your dream," says one coach. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Players watch to see who made the cut. "If you're not selected, keep your chin up and still pursue your dream," says one coach.

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