Power players juggle life, work and play in Arena football

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Around 10 p.m. on a sleepy Monday in Indiana, Pa., two middle-aged men saunter through the front door of The Coney, a local bar. To their right, a brawny man in a tight-fitting black shirt sits alone in the nearly empty building.

For many who come here, this is just the bouncer, the nameless, faceless figure who becomes a background prop.

But these two men know about Kirby Griffin and the more glamorous side of his double life -- one as a professional football player and starting fullback for the Pittsburgh Power of the Arena Football League.

"What's up, Kirb?" one of them asks. "I was watching you on the football game."

Two nights earlier, the Power was dealt a humiliating, 78-20 loss by the San Jose Sabercats, a game broadcast on national television.

Scouting report

  • Game:

    Power (4-13) vs. Spokane Shock (13-4), 10 p.m. today, Veterans Memorial Arena, Spokane, Wash.

  • TV, Radio, Internet:


  • Power:

    Coming off a 48-37 victory July 20 at Tampa Bay that snapped a seven-game losing streak. ... QB Shane Austin completed 18 of 32 passes for 249 yards and four touchdowns. ... With a win against Spokane, the Power would match its win total from the 2012 season. ... Still top-ranked total defense in the AFL, giving up 255.5 yards per game.

  • Shock:

    Coming off 77-30 victory July 19 vs. San Antonio, its fourth in a row and eighth in its past nine games. ... Averages a league-high 66.9 points per game. ... QB Erik Meyer has thrown for 4,417 yards this season with 106 touchdowns to nine interceptions. ... Has already clinched a spot in the playoffs.

"It was a bad show," Griffin says, shaking his head. "It was terrible."

While that contest was a widely viewed drubbing, this night brings a welcome dose of anonymity in a college bar devoid of its usual clientele.

Every so often, a bored Griffin taps salt and pepper shakers together in cadence, but, otherwise, he goes about his work. He checks IDs of younger patrons and hauls in tables and chairs from outside. In the bar's spacious back room, he recounts stories of co-eds throwing their bras at the deer and moose heads on a red brick wall, hoping they get caught on the antlers.

It's a job Griffin has done for the better part of four years, partially out of necessity.

Though they are technically pro football players, Griffin and other members of the Power are a far cry from the stock character of the multimillionaire athlete.

Yes, they get paid to play a sport, but not enough to make a year-round living, forcing some of them to work other jobs in-season.

For Griffin, that means manning the bar's front door until 2 a.m. In the past, it has entailed tasks like working at A.C. Miller Concrete Products in Blairsville, Pa.

With his wife, a first-grade teacher, and 15-month-old son at home, and another child due in January, the work continues for Griffin far away from the lights of Consol Energy Center.

"It's enough to pay the bills, but everybody needs money," he said. "Having an extra dollar in your pocket never hurts."

As Gary Butler speaks, fatigue lingers in his voice.

A football career can cause irreparable physical damage and, at age 28, it's a reality the Power linebacker firmly grasps.

"The toll my body takes, you can't even imagine," he said.

Even as the bruises, aches and pains from a game persist, Butler musters up enough energy to work another physically taxing job.

For the past 3 1/2 years, he has worked for Franklin Interiors, a local furniture distributor. The company handles deliveries for UPMC and, in order to get the waiting-room couches, office chairs and countertops into buildings, it enlists the help of people like Butler.

During the season, he works a 24-hour-per-week schedule that can be irregular and unorthodox.

After the Power's season ends tonight with a game at Spokane, Wash., he will travel to Chicago where he is a linebackers coach for the football team at North Park University.

While the idea of a pro athlete working multiple jobs might seem bizarre, it is a reality borne of economic necessity for men like Griffin and Butler, former college roommates at California University of Pa.

Under the AFL's collective bargaining agreement, players make $830 per game, meaning members of the Power earn $14,940, before taxes, in an 18-game regular season that spans four months. They also have the option to rent a subsidized apartment for $150 a month, an amenity that used to be free.

"It's nice to get it every week, to not be broke," Butler said of the money. "It's not luxury, but it's a choice you make. You've got to be grateful."

The pay is a significant upgrade from the previous $400-per-game rate, which led to a contentious strike that resulted in the entire Power team getting fired at an Orlando-area Olive Garden hours before its 2012 season opener. Replacement players faced the Orlando Predators.

When the AFL declared bankruptcy in 2009, the league minimum was $31,000 and the average salary was $80,000, with some players hauling in six-figure contracts.

On the surface, the financial situation for players is tenuous. But according to Power owner Matt Shaner, who was once unable to sign players at $400 a game because they opted for more lucrative careers as factory workers or truck drivers, it's a much-improved one for players and ownership alike.

"The pay has attracted a lot of guys that maybe had to take care of their families or were making a lot more money at something else," Shaner said. "It's brought them back to the field, and that's been good."

As a soothing John Mayer melody plays over the loudspeakers in a Sarver shopping center, Beau Elliott raises a half-hearted protest.

"It's putting me to sleep," the Power offensive lineman jokingly complains to a co-worker, who changes the music back to a catalog of top-40 songs.

It's just after 10 a.m., and South Pike 24-Hour Fitness is inhabited by a group of people who can be counted on one hand.

The facility opened in January, and Elliot has worked there since February as a personal trainer.

Today, he spends an hour working with Jason Sebak, a sophomore on the Carnegie Mellon basketball team who Elliott has trained the past five years.

From there, Elliott makes the short drive to Freeport High School, where he does speed and agility drills with one of the school's basketball players as the whirling sounds of a Sheetz car wash reverberate in the background.

With a film session and practice still to come, Elliott powers through any fatigue, a routine that has become a way of life for him and those players who juggle multiple jobs during the season.

After waking at 6 a.m., Elliott works for much of the day before heading to the UPMC Sports Performance Complex on the South Side for the team's 6 p.m. practice.

"It's not a matter of having to choose to have one or the other -- it's that you have to," he said of his jobs.

For his teammate Butler, a typical Tuesday or Wednesday begins with moving furniture at 6:30 a.m. Aside from a brief break, his workday will not end until he leaves practice at 8:15 p.m.

Free time is precious and rare for Griffin, too. His three-hour round-trip commute from Clymer often lasts longer than practice and, like many parents with an infant, his sleep schedule is anything but ordinary.

"I just wish I could sit down and relax sometimes," he said.

While he's hunched over, muscling a 75-pound metal push sled across 20 yards of carpet, Chris LeFlore delicately holds on to a dream.

Like some of his teammates, the Power defensive back hopes to make it to a higher level of football, one where the game can be his sole livelihood.

For now, though, the grind continues.

Not even 30 minutes after a Wednesday film session, LeFlore begins a workout at Wright's Gym, an unadorned training facility on the lower level of a Crafton strip mall.

Unlike Griffin, Butler and Elliot, LeFlore is not a Pittsburgh native and does not live in the area in the offseason, making it difficult to find part-time work.

So with much of the free time he gets, he trains. On this day, his workout regimen includes jumping onto a 3-foot black box and repeatedly flipping over a Goodyear tire that seems best-equipped for a monster truck.

LeFlore, 28, has held an assortment of offseason jobs that ranged from a stint as a juvenile detention officer to working as a door-to-door milkman in his native Nebraska.

But during the season, his time is devoted to pursuing an ambition, however fleeting it might seem -- earning a tryout and, ideally, a contract from an NFL team.

Though the AFL notably produced former NFL MVP quarterback Kurt Warner, very few players from the league make an NFL roster, with the Canadian Football League a more attainable goal.

Still, LeFlore believes.

"My main goal is to do whatever it takes to get to the NFL," LeFlore said. "Whatever that is, I've got to do it. I've got to get there some way, somehow."

The allure of the NFL is what motivates LeFlore, but, for him and other Power players, it's the game itself that keeps them going almost like a form of unconditional love.

Football can bring chaos into their lives, raise questions and cast doubts. Yet, as difficult as their situation might be, they come back for more.

At some point in the not-too-distant future, football will no longer be there for them, leaving only the sameness of a 9-to-5 existence. For all that comes with it, life in the AFL remains a labor of love, one that is ultimately worth it.

"A week away from football, or three or four days, it makes you remember how much you love it," Butler said.

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Craig Meyer: cmeyer@post-gazette.com and Twitter @CraigMeyerPG. First Published July 26, 2013 4:00 AM


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