Opportunity knocks

Former Buckeyes embrace chance to play in new pro league

Shawn Mitchell For The Columbus Dispatch

SAN ANTONIO, Texas — Former Ohio State cornerback Doran Grant has played all of three meaningful football games since his college career ended and his professional career began in 2015.

Grant expects to match and surpass that total in a matter of weeks when he and several other former Buckeyes begin play in the inaugural season of the Alliance of American Football, a startup spring league that intends to serve as a developmental alternative to the NFL.

“I jumped on this,” Grant said after an Atlanta Legends practice last month in San Antonio, where all eight of the league’s teams gathered for training camp. “And when I got here and saw all those players that I knew from my former NFL teams, I knew this was going to be something good.”

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Grant spent the past three NFL seasons bouncing around the league’s practice squads after appearing in three regular-season games for the Pittsburgh Steelers, who drafted him in the fourth round in 2015. He has only played in preseason games since 2016.

“Missing out on an actual season and not getting to compete on a week-to-week basis, it’s tough,” Grant said. “I was overjoyed to be able to do this. It’s going to be good, professional football, and I’m proud to be a part of it.”

Former Buckeyes receiver and punt returner Jalin Marshall described the AAF as heaven-sent.

“It’s a blessing from God,” said Marshall, who will try to rekindle his career with the Orlando Apollos. “This league came out of nowhere. I was just sitting on a couch when I got the call. Now, I couldn’t be happier.”

Without the AAF, Marshall and Grant might have been done with pro football.

Marshall, waived by the New York Jets in April 2018, played semi-pro football for a team in Dayton last summer.

Grant had exhausted his NFL practice squad eligibility, as had former OSU safety Christian Bryant, who was in camp with the Birmingham Iron before being cut last week.

Three other ex-Buckeyes — guard Chase Farris (Atlanta), defensive tackle Tracy Sprinkle (Atlanta) and tight end Marcus Baugh (San Diego Fleet) — made regular-season AAF rosters after varying stints in NFL training camps and on practice squads.

“Going through all that is humbling, but it’s all part of the process,” said Marshall, who played 10 games for the Jets in 2016 before a suspension for a banned substance in 2017 helped derail his career in New York.

“Only a few players go into the NFL and right away become a household name, so you have to take every opportunity you can get,” he said.

The majority of players in “The Alliance” have spent time in NFL training camps, but there are few household names. The AAF is a single-entity league that will play a 10-week regular season and hold its championship game in Las Vegas during the weekend of the NFL draft in April.

The league will differentiate itself from its defunct predecessors (the United States Football League, the World League of American Football, the XFL, etc.) by offering all of its players uniform, nonguaranteed contracts ($250,000 spread over three years) that allow them to pursue NFL opportunities once the AAF season ends.

The league also will provide tuition assistance, housing, health care and retirement packages and offer bonuses for performance and marketing participation.

By contrast, the minimum NFL salary last season was $480,000, and the minimum for a practice-squad player in 2019 will be $8,000 per week, or $136,000 for a full season.

AAF players are allocated to their teams based on regional ties to colleges and previous pro teams. Former Buckeyes and other Big Ten players are distributed throughout the league because the AAF includes no teams in the Midwest or even in the northern U.S.

The league, founded by longtime NFL executive Bill Polian and television producer Charlie Ebersol, will also feature several rule changes, including no kickoffs or extra-point tries and a 30-second play clock. Several games will be broadcast nationally by CBS, CBS Sports Network, TNT and the NFL Network.

“There are no prima donnas here,” said Orlando coach Steve Spurrier, 73, lured back to the sideline after ending a long USFL, NFL and college coaching career in 2015.

“There’s nobody making $5, $6 or $7 million,” Spurrier said. “In the Alliance, we all make the same thing. These players are just trying to compete. Most of them have hopes of returning to the NFL or maybe going there for the first time. That’s what the Alliance is all about, opportunities for players and coaches.”

Marshall and Grant, in particular, had standout camps.

“The (AAF) provides great exposure in real, live games, and if guys like that can get back to the (NFL), that’s great,” said agent Michael Perret, who represents Bryant and Grant.

“But at the very least, they’re working and making some money playing the game they love. All of my clients that got (AAF) offers chose to play. We really didn’t see much of a downside.”

Perret said the AAF, and a revived XFL slated to begin next year, have a better chance of succeeding than their predecessors.

“With the way the NFL schedule is structured now with the draft and everything, I think fans are conditioned to (follow) football year-round,” Perret said. “I think that makes it easier for fans to watch football in the spring. Time will tell, but I’m encouraged.”

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