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Former Gladiator Hohensee carves niche in Arena League

Thursday, November 06, 2003

By Shelly Anderson, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Go ahead. Call him Mr. Arena League Football.

Mike Hohensee in his Gladiator days of the late 1980s. (Post-Gazette)

Mike Hohensee doesn't mind.

"I'm still having a blast," he said yesterday from the offices of the AFL's Chicago Rush, a team he has coached since its inception in 2001.

In 1987, Hohensee became the first player selected in the first AFL draft and joined the Pittsburgh Gladiators as their starting quarterback. He threw the first touchdown pass in the first game in league history at what was then known as the Civic Arena.

Hohensee, 42, has been in the league as a player or coach ever since and has a 68-64 record with seven playoff appearances in 10 seasons as a head coach.

He is returning to town this weekend on a talent search. The Rush is having a tryout Saturday afternoon at the Robert Morris University Island Sports Complex on Neville Island.

"It's a talent hotbed," Hohensee said of Western Pennsylvania. "We're bringing our full staff there. We're not just coming out there to make $50 [the registration fee] on everyone who shows up."

By now, Hohensee ought to know what to look for in prospects for the Arena League, the indoor game played in hockey arenas where everyone but the quarterback plays both ways and balls that bounce off the end zone nets are live.

Mike Alzamora, spokesman for the Rush, who has researched the league, believes fewer than 10, and perhaps fewer than five people have been with an AFL team every year since the league's inception.

"This is football to me," Hohensee said. "This is my NFL."

Over the years, the league has become a step to the NFL for several players, including Antonio Chatman, who was signed by the Rush out of a tryout in California. He spent two seasons with Chicago and set an Arena League record with 3,678 all-purpose yards. He is the primary return man for the Green Bay Packers after signing with them as a free agent this summer.

"In the early days, no one wanted anything to do with us," Hohensee said. "Now, we have NFL teams sending us boxes of tapes to make sure we get them copies of our games."

NBC took interest, too, and began televising league games in 2003.

The Rush was 8-8 this year and advanced to the playoffs. The 2004 season starts in February.

Hohensee, a native of California, was Minnesota's MVP as a college quarterback in 1981 and '82. He then had stints in the USFL and CFL before he heard about the fledgling indoor league.

"We were told we were going to be the pioneers in something great," said Hohensee, who in his two seasons with the Gladiators led the league in passing efficiency.

In that first AFL game (June 19, 1987), he took the first snap in the Gladiators' history and threw for a 42-yard touchdown to Russell Hairston. Another receiver on that team was Mike Stoops, now an assistant coach for top-ranked Oklahoma.

The Gladiators left Pittsburgh after 1988, and Hohensee thought his future was in the NFL. He had played for the replacement Chicago Bears during the 1987 NFL players' strike, and the Bears traded Doug Flutie in favor of Hohensee.

Then a knee injury, followed by a neck injury, ended Hohensee's playing career.

He immediately jumped into coaching, becoming an assistant in 1989 with the Chicago Bruisers of the Arena League. In 1990, he became the youngest head coach in the league's history with Washington.

The tryout begins at 2 p.m. for kickers, 4 p.m. for all others. To register, call Jeff Henderson at 1-847-590-8430.

Zimmerman signs

Quarterback Tony Zimmerman, a former All-American at Duquesne University who was the offensive player of the year in arena football2, signed a contract with the Indiana Firebirds of arenafootball.

"Tony is a pure thrower with natural quarterback instincts," said Indiana Coach Steve DeBerg.

Zimmerman, who starred in high school at Penn-Trafford, spent two seasons at Pitt before transferring to Division I-AA mid-major Duquesne.


Shelly Anderson can be reached at shanderson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1721. Sports writer Phil Axelrod contributed to this report.

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