SAN ANTONIO — To borrow from the late, great Yogi Berra, hearing the news Tuesday that AAF controlling investor Tom Dundon had shut down the fledgling league before the end of its first season was like déjà vu all over again for me.
Not surprisingly, Dundon’s decision was met with groans, consternation and anger by fans of the Commanders, the city’s franchise in the Alliance of American Football. The Commanders easily had the most loyal fans in the league.
“We have great fans,” head coach Mike Riley said time and again.
It’s too bad those fans didn’t have the chance to cheer on the Commanders one more time Saturday in what would have been their regular-season home finale at the Alamodome.
The Commanders were scheduled to play Memphis at 11 a.m. in a nationally televised game broadcast by CBS. Instead, the Alamodome sat empty as I wrote this dispatch.
“We didn’t get to finish what we started and that’s unfortunate,” said running back Aaron Green, a 2011 Madison High School graduate and the only native San Antonian on the Commanders’ roster. “That hurts and I feel for the fans because they were passionate about supporting us. They had the Alamodome rocking on gameday.”
San Antonio led the AAF in home attendance with an average of 27,721 fans in four games. A crowd of 30,345 watched the Commanders beat the Salt Lake Stallions two weeks ago.
San Antonio, which was 5-3 when the AAF folded, was scheduled to end the regular season next Friday on the road against Salt Lake. The Commanders needed one more victory in their last two games to clinch a playoff spot.
But it was not to be. Once again, San Antonio fans were left holding the bag after the collapse of another failed football league. Fans invested in the Commanders emotionally, only to have the proverbial rug pulled out from under their feet. That the team didn’t get the opportunity to finish the season stinks to high heaven. In a nutshell, San Antonio deserved better than this. And so did Commanders players.
“I feel that’s the best part of football, the bonds and the relationships that you build,” said Green, a standout at TCU before signing with the Los Angeles Rams as an undrafted free agent in 2017. “Of course, you miss that. We came together over the last three months and we developed a bond, came together as a team. It just sucks that we didn’t get to finish it off.”
As I mentioned, I’ve been down this road before. In another life, I was a sportswriter with the Express-News for nearly 30 years and covered the San Antonio Gunslingers during their two seasons (1984-85) in the United States Football League.
Faced with mounting debt and unable to meet the team’s payroll, controversial owner Clinton Manges threw in the towel after the Gunslingers completed their second season. As things turned out, the Gunslingers wouldn’t have had a league to play in if they had survived their financial problems.
The USFL never played another game after completing its third season in 1985, folding in 1986 before the league had an opportunity to play in the fall for the first time. Pushed by New Jersey Generals majority owner Donald Trump, the USFL voted in 1985 to move from a spring to a fall schedule in 1986 to compete directly with the NFL. But the league folded long before the start of the 1986 season.
While the circumstances of the USFL’s collapse and the demise of the AAF are different, their failure comes down to the same thing. In the end, it’s always about the money. Neither league had the financial muscle needed to survive on the country’s sports landscape.
As was the case in 1985, when the Gunslingers folded, I feel for the Commanders’ players, coaches and all other employees of the organization. I’m sorry that they have lost their jobs. Journalists are expected to remain detached when they cover a beat, lest their objectivity becomes blurred. But we’re all linked by our humanity, and we hurt when we see other people going through hard times.
Before closing, I have to say something about Riley, Commanders general manager Daryl Johnston and John Peterson, the franchise’s director of football operations, for the job they did in putting together a team that had high standards on and off the field. Riley, one of the most decent and affable people in coaching at any level, Johnston and Peterson set the tone for the franchise with their professionalism.
Riley’s coaching staff, including cornerbacks coach Bill Bradley, who coached the Gunslingers’ secondary in 1984 and 1985, also did a bang-up job. They always were professional and set a good example for the men they coached.
Most of all, my heart goes out to the fans who invested in the Commanders and embraced the team from the get-go. They bought game tickets, Commanders merchandise and bought into the AAF, even if the league was destined for failure.
Again, San Antonio deserved better. The Commanders deserved better.
Thanks for the memories, guys.