With strong NFL flavor, UFL ‘model’ franchise Omaha Nighthawks open before record crowd

By Eric Olson, AP
Saturday, September 25, 2010

UFL ‘model’ team in Omaha packs house for debut

OMAHA, Neb. — With a roster full of NFL veterans such as Jeff Garcia and Ahman Green and an intriguing prospect named Maurice Clarett, the expansion Omaha Nighthawks played the Hartford Colonials on Friday night before a United Football League-record crowd of 24,000 at Rosenblatt Stadium.

The five-team UFL is in its second season as a place for aging veterans and borderline NFL players looking for another chance in the big time.

Omaha already is the signature franchise. The game was declared a sellout Tuesday, and the attendance obliterated the league record by about 10,000.

“This is the model we’re looking to replicate in new markets that we go to,” UFL Commissioner Michael Huyghue said. “If we had 10 Omaha markets, we would have a very successful league.”

Tailgating was going strong by mid-afternoon. Fans decked out in black-and-white Nighthawks gear mixed in the parking lots as rock music blared over the stadium loudspeakers. Many wore jerseys bearing the name and numbers of Green and Garcia.

There is no Clarett Nighthawk jersey available yet, but one woman showed up wearing a replica of Clarett’s Ohio State jersey.

Clarett hadn’t been in an organized game since helping lead Ohio State to the 2002 national championship. He was a bust with the Denver Broncos and spent 3½ years in prison for having a hidden gun and holding up two people outside a Columbus, Ohio, bar, in 2006. He signed with the Nighthawks on Aug. 30 after receiving permission from a judge to leave Ohio. He’s listed behind Green as the co-No. 2 running back with Shaud Williams.

“This is a league of opportunity,” coach Jeff Jagodzinski said.

It also is a league of second chances for guys such as the 40-year-old Garcia, who, like the 33-year-old Green, is a four-time Pro Bowl player found himself without an NFL team.

Green is the face of the franchise. He played high school football in Omaha before going to Nebraska, then became the Green Bay Packers’ all-time leading rusher. Not surprisingly, the loudest cheer of pregame introductions was for Green.

“Why do this? It’s my hometown, and I love playing football. That’s really it in a nutshell. It’s really a no-brainer,” Green said.

An average of 24.6 players per 52-man team have NFL experience. Omaha has 38 former NFL players and Hartford has 17.

The Nighthawks seem a good fit in Omaha, which is in a football-mad state whose appetite has long been satiated by the Nebraska Cornhuskers.

Omahans love their pro football, too. The Kansas City Chiefs are the nearest NFL franchise, but Omahans root just as hard for the Minnesota Vikings, Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers along with the Denver Broncos.

The Nighthawks fill a niche.

“There’s no team here other than the university, and a lot of people can’t get tickets,” said Omahan Todd Gosch, 39, who was wearing one of those Ahman Green jerseys. “We’re talking about players on our team who have Super Bowl Rings. No one can call this ‘minor league’ when you have players like that.”

Connie Wilson of Lincoln said she bought season tickets because she loves football and couldn’t get Husker tickets.

“People are really into football, so Omaha is the perfect city for expansion,” Wilson said. “They’ll probably sell out the rest of their games. And the more Nebraska players they get the better.”

It’s too early to know whether the Nighthawks will turn out to be a fad or an enduring piece of the Omaha sports landscape.

Right now, though, they’re all the rage in this metropolitan area of more than 800,000.

Pat Lawlor, owner of the city’s only licensed Nighthawk gear supplier, said for every one piece of Husker gear his store has sold the past week it has sold 20 pieces of Nighthawks gear.

“In this economy,” Lawlor said, “the Omaha Nighthawks are a godsend.”

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