Blackjacks Soul Football

Atlantic City Blackjacks offensive coordinator Shane Stafford gives plays to quarterback Warren Smith, a Lacey Township High School graduate, during a 50-45 loss to the Philadelphia Soul in July 2019 at Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall.

Ron James wasn’t expecting to be unemployed.

James, head coach of the Atlantic City Blackjacks of the Arena Football League, spent Thanksgiving morning updating his resume after learning the Blackjacks and the rest of the AFL were ceasing operations.

“Happy Thanksgiving,” he tweeted Thursday. “Does anyone want a coach with 30-plus years of experience at the college, AFL And CFL levels? I am suddenly available due to league shutdown.”

James and the rest of the coaches and players in the six-team league probably had an inkling they would be looking for new jobs after the AFL announced last month it was ceasing local operations for every team due to financial constraints.

Yet it didn’t ease the pain.

“Sad day for players, coaches and staff that’s been with (the Arena League) for a long time and the people that just came on the past year,” Blackjacks defensive line coach Caesar Rayford tweeted. “The AFL helped me get to the NFL (with the Dallas Cowboys in 2013-14) and it (stinks) that it’s gone. (Shaking my head) this hurts.”

According to AFL commissioner Randall Boe, the league was hit with a multi-million dollar lawsuit by a Pittsburgh-based insurance carrier that provided workers compensation coverage the league between 2009 and 2012, before current league officials were involved.

The league had been considering various scenarios to try to keep the league afloat. One proposal involved turning it into a traveling league in which teams would practice at a central location, then play games in Las Vegas and Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall.

FYI, that never would have worked in Atlantic City. While the Blackjacks drew decent crowds in their first season, fans wouldn’t give up a beach day or casino night to watch random teams that had no ties to the community.

Ultimately, they came to the decision that it couldn’t be salvaged, thus putting the Blackjacks, 2019 champion Albany Empire, Baltimore Brigade, Columbus Destroyers, Philadelphia Soul and Washington Valor on the street.

The AFL helped quite a few players reach the top levels of the sport during its 32-year run.

Most famously, an unheralded quarterback named Kurt Warner spent three seasons with the Iowa Barnstormers in 1995-97. After leading the Barnstormers to back-to-back ArenaBowl appearances, the St. Louis Rams came calling.

Before he flopped as Washington Redskins coach, Jay Gruden was AFL MVP in 1992 and led the Tampa Bay Storm to four ArenaBowl titles as their quarterback.

The league also featured a few famous owners. KISS owned the Los Angeles franchise of the same name, but they kissed the league goodbye after three seasons (2014-16). Motley Crue lead singer Vince Neil owned the Las Vegas Outlaws in 2015 when it played a game against the Soul in 2015. It was supposed to be an annual rivalry between Vegas and Atlantic City but lasted just one year.

I hope no one got caught “Smokin’ In the Boys Room” at Boardwalk Hall.

Atlantic City became arguably the most popular stop in the league. Visiting teams and game officials were treated to first-class treatment at Ocean Casino Hotel. Boardwalk Hall, former home of the Miss America Pageant, the Boardwalk Bowl and Mike Tyson fights, was a legendary venue.

Sadly, the artificial turf has been rolled up, never to return. The Blackjacks’ Facebook page has been disabled. Their website, which a month ago was offering “Trick or Treat” season ticket packages, now only features Boe’s statement about the league shutting down. The kiosks at the Hall that were selling Blackjacks’ swag are gone.

Upon hearing of the Arena League’s demise, someone reached out to me on Twitter inquiring where they could get hold of some Blackjacks merchandise, which will now become collector’s items.

The cool jerseys with the No. 21 on the back are probably in a storage shed somewhere, along with the Atlantic City Surf caps with waves on the front, the Boardwalk Bullies shirts with the skating bulldog logo and the Seagulls tank tops that featured the unofficial state bird and a basketball.

Such a shame.

David Weinberg’s Extra Points column appears Tuesday and Wednesdays online and Wednesdays and Sundays in The Press.

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