I'm at an athletic field on the South Hill, five minutes before Spokane's first-year semi-pro football team, the Nightmare, is supposed to begin practice, yet only a few players are milling around. I question a guy (who turns out to be a wide receiver) about the start time, and he responds: "I'm not even sure if we are having practice tonight. There's Coach over there in the van." The head coach? "I don't know. He's just Coach to me."
I ask an offensive lineman about blocking schemes. "Well," he says, "we just basically have pass block and run block. That's all you really need to know."
I'm not getting a Vince Lombardi kind of vibe here. But then I meet Tim Bainter.
Originally from Spokane, Bainter went to Texas a couple of years ago "for work, but I ended up playing football" for the Fort Worth Texans of the NAFL (North American Football League). With its bewildering array of semi-pro football divisions and conferences, the NAFL has more than 110 teams spread all across the country. "We could have this in Spokane," thought Bainter. Next thing he knew, he'd made himself owner and CEO of the Spokane Nightmare.
At 6'2", 255 lbs., Bainter also plays blocking back and tight end on the team. But it's the owner part that's bothering him right now. "Our division was supposed to be six teams," he shrugs. But teams have rescheduled, merged, begged off, simply failed to show up. And folded: "We're in just a two-team division, us and Renton. So I have to fill my schedule with off-league games. And teams will say, we don't want to play you guys, we don't want our guys getting hurt. Every time a team cancels on us," he complains, "and we've had five teams cancel on us, I gotta find another team and practically bribe 'em to come here. I pay their bus, their hotel, all their expenses. And so this year, all the money is going out instead of coming in." So much for the players' profit-sharing deal.
I ask the new owner about the Aug. 10 game, which originally had the Nightmare facing a team from Douglas County, Ore. "Well," says Bainter, "just say it's going to be the Oregon Panthers. But that's tentative." So tentative that the game will now be played on Aug. 31 -- against the Ogden (Utah) Rhino Raiders.
In the NAFL, a lot of things are tentative.
Still, Bainter is a purposeful and methodical kind of guy -- with market research, football operations, scheduling, even with the selection of the team's nickname. "I came up with about 50 [possible] names," he recalls. "I wanted it to be unique. I didn't want any of the NFL or college nicknames, or any of the pro sports. And I wanted it to sound powerful and scary. I wanted to have it so teams would be scared of us even before they played us. So I'm talkin' to a friend of mine, and he says, 'You want a team that's like everybody's worst nightmare.' "
Logistically, to be sure, the inaugural season has lived down to the team's moniker. On the bright side, however, it looks to be a pleasant summer evening for tonight's contest at West Valley High. The Nightmare was supposed to face the Portland Enforcers -- like the Douglas County Outlaws and the Calgary Thunder before them -- and then the Salt Lake Owls were supposed to show up, but they couldn't muster enough troops, so two teams decided to combine forces. Turns out the Nightmare will be facing a group calling themselves the Utah Football League All-Stars.
An hour before gametime, both teams are out on the field, with pregame drills underway. The Utah quarterback appears to be a balding middle-aged guy with a potbelly. He's deft at handoffs, though the effort seems to leave him winded. The UFL team, 37 strong, doesn't feature any matching pregame outfits. There seems to be an attempt at red pants and white jerseys, but I can't really be sure. Nobody's wearing pads. The center, shirtless, has a bright yellow baseball cap on backwards. They're running plays against a defensive "team" of just six guys. Three different quarterbacks handle the snap and run an identical off-tackle play three times in a row. I guess the Nightmare won't see that one coming.
It's 40 minutes before the announced game time; seventeen fans are in the stands. The cheerleaders, known as the Dream Team (of the Spokane Nightmare, get it?) are off practicing. They manage an anemic "Let's go, let's fight, let's win!" as Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" blares from the loudspeakers. I ask them how this gig is different from their cheerful days in high school and college. "It's harder to get the crowd involved," they all agree. "But the crowds are starting to get bigger."
Up to 57 spectators now, 20 minutes before game time. The Utahns are standing in a circle. The balding guy, not content with just quarterbacking, is doing a lot of coaching. He seems to be going over the basics, like cadences and blocking assignments. His teammates are pulling on shoulder pads and 37 different-color helmets, squinting into the sun, when the Spokane loudspeaker guy roars into his act, stretching out his syllables as he commands a welcome for "yourrr Spokannnnne Niiightmarrrrre!" He just announced a delay: A ticketing fiasco has pushed back kickoff by half an hour.
Yet despite all the scheduling snafus, broken plays and undermanned practice sessions, the Nightmare have strung together some successes. After going undefeated in the preseason and squeaking out wins over Renton and San Jose, the Nightmare suffered their only losses in games played at Salt Lake City and Seattle. Since then, the Nightmare has put together a four-game home winning streak: 47-16 over Renton, and then -- improbably -- back-to-back victories by the identical score of 63-0, first over the Great Falls (Mont.) Gladiators, then over the Davis County Vipers (of Ogden, Utah). Bainter chuckles as he recalls the end of the second game: "We're ahead 57-0, and there's only 13 seconds left, and they have the ball, so I think to myself, 'Well, I guess we're not going to get to 63-0 this week.' And dang if we don't intercept the ball and run it back for a touchdown."
The team also has some some undeniably talented (and large) players. Keith Cosslboom, 6'8" and 330 pounds, played offensive tackle at Idaho State. The quarterback, Jeff Olson, has a good arm and is articulate about reading defenses. (His daughter has a T-shirt that reads, "Daddy's Little Nightmare.") The youngest of the black-and-red, Mike Moeser, just two years out of Rogers High, picked a long ball the week before and returned it 70 yards for a touchdown. Dustin Spangle is small for a defensive end at only 200 pounds, and he hasn't played in 11 years, but his biceps testify that he's "been working out a lot." Jeff Baxter, formerly a Whitworth linebacker, would snare his fifth interception of the season later that night. At a rangy 6'5" and 220 pounds, August Parker knows that he resembles an NFL receiver: "Defensive back is the hardest position to play in football," he says, "especially when you're up against receivers like Rich [Naccarato] and me." And then there's Rob Martin, locally famous as the guy who went into cardiac arrest during a Hoopfest game back in 1993. Martin has a defibrillator implanted in his chest, but he bursts with enthusiasm. He bangs himself hard on the front of his shoulder pads. "I have a special shield, right here," he says.
Given tonight's turnover rate, the entire team appears to need a special fumble protector. Snaps sail over quarterbacks' heads. Busted coverages leave receivers wide open. Behemoth linemen react slowly as lost balls skitter around their feet. In its two opening drives, Utah manages a negative four yards, a line-drive punt and a fumble. Spokane coughs up five fumbles in the first half alone, losing two. The highlight is a leaping touchdown catch by Naccarato, wresting the ball from a much shorter but feisty Utah cornerback. Somehow, after all the miscues, the Nightmare go up by two touchdowns, eventually winning 14-7.
Just before halftime, on second and goal from the three, Bainter lines up as a blocking back -- except that this time, as the first guy into the hole, he actually gets the handoff and rumbles into paydirt, untouched. He pauses a moment, as if not quite believing his good fortune. Only then, after all the pregame arrangements and all the logistical nightmares, does the Daddy of Spokane's own big Nightmare finally, wearily, raise his fists in triumph.