SAN FRANCISCO — Deathblow has big dreams.
"I see it all for me--movies, posters, everything," said Jamal Duff, a defensive end for the XFL's Los Angeles Xtreme who goes by Deathblow, his favorite comic-book character. "This is what it's all about, fans and marketing. People's personalities are coming out."
For the moment, so are fans. Thousands showed up at Pacific Bell Park on Sunday to watch the San Francisco Demons and the Xtreme play their inaugural game. Although there were large blocks of empty seats in the corners of the stadium, the game was announced as a sellout of 38,000 by the league. Just about everyone stayed to see San Francisco's Mike Panasuk kick a 33-yard field goal as time expired to clinch a 15-13 victory for the Demons.
Thousands of people hooted, howled, booed and gave the impression they genuinely cared about the Demons and the XFL, the fledgling football league owned by the World Wrestling Federation and NBC.
"It's a great game," said Mike Mitchell, 33, of Stockton. "It's affordable, it's fun, it's fast-paced. . . ."
"Yeah," interrupted his father, Craig, "and we'll definitely come back if it stays around next year."
That's the problem with these upstart leagues, of course. They're around one day, gone the next. Not surprisingly, many XFL players are convinced things will be different this time.
"I've been shocked with the way people have responded to this league," said Xtreme quarterback Tommy Maddox, the former UCLA standout who dropped off the map after spending 1992 through '96 as an NFL reserve. "I've had Xtreme fans come up to me and talk to me like they've been season-ticket holders for 10 years. It's kind of strange."
In the XFL, strange is good. Strange is the only thing that will keep this league alive. And this league fills the bill, from players wearing their nickname on their jersey--Ox, The Truth, Big Daddy, Lil Buddy, Dirty Durden--to their incessant trash talking on the giant video board, to the teams sharing a sideline, to on-field cameramen who dash into position at any hint of a scuffle.
With the XFL, an in-your-face attitude is the order of the day.
"If you haven't bought your season tickets to the Demons yet, why the hell not?" screamed the public-address announcer. Later, when fans started a vulgar chant after a questionable call, the announcer encouraged them with: "I can't hear you!"
The music blared and videotaped messages from WWF stars were played to rile the crowd. "Stone Cold" Steve Austin ripped into NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue for dismissing the XFL as a "non-issue." The Rock threatened to throw the league's skeptics off the Golden Gate Bridge. Chris Jericho, who goes by "Y2J," said the XFL "is here to save the game of football, to save it from boredom."
Hype, hype, hooray!
In the first half, the action on the field was only moderately effective at captivating the crowd. By the second quarter, many fans were paying more attention to the ballyhooed XFL cheerleaders--no racier than the Oakland Raiderettes--and to which unwitting spectator would be the next to get skewered in the back of the head by a paper airplane.
But there were flashes of real football, especially late in the game. Midway through the fourth quarter, Demon quarterback Mike Pawlawski threw a crisp, 32-yard touchdown pass to Calvin Schexnayder for a 12-10 lead. The crowd broke into a brief, but heartfelt, chant of "Beat L.A."
The place got even louder at the end of the game when Panasuk made his kick.
"It's a blast to be out there," said Panasuk, who gave up football to teach drama at an Indiana high school before the Demons called him Thursday and signed him. "It's still football. The bottom line is, we're strapping it up every week. This is like living a dream."
For the players, a handful of whom spent time on NFL rosters, the XFL beats the heck out of a 9-to-5 job. Most of them are paid $4,500 a week, although quarterbacks get $5,000 and kickers get $3,500. Each member of the winning team gets a $2,500 bonus.
"The way [WWF owner] Vince McMahon has marketed this league has really created a mystique," said Pat Barnes, the Demon backup quarterback. "The fans are really going to enjoy those interviews while the game's going on and things like that. They're going to get an inside look at what football's really like."
No need to convince Demon fan Chris Williams. At 16, he fits in the XFL's target audience. And he already dresses the part, from his gruesome rubber Devil mask to his red shirt, and black cape and gloves. Red and black are the Demons' colors.
"I'm a Raider fan," Williams said. "I wanted to bring some of the liveliness of the Black Hole to the San Francisco side."
Williams wants to be the Demons' No. 1 fan, and he's well on his way. There's only one problem: As of kickoff Sunday, he couldn't name a single player on the roster.