The Arizona Hotshots’ Connor Hamlett runs off the field at halftime during a scrimmage against the Birmingham Iron on Jan. 28, 2019, in San Antonio, Texas. (Maddie Meyer / Getty Images)

The Arizona Hotshots’ Connor Hamlett runs off the field at halftime during a scrimmage against the Birmingham Iron on Jan. 28, 2019, in San Antonio, Texas. (Maddie Meyer / Getty Images)

Meadowdale alum hoping AAF leads back to NFL

Arizona’s Connor Hamlett is part of the inaugural season of the Alliance of American Football.

Connor Hamlett wants back into the NFL. And now he believes he’s found a new avenue for making it happen.

The Alliance of American Football (AAF), the latest attempt to get a second professional football league started in the United States, kicks off its inaugural season this weekend. Hamlett, a graduate of Meadowdale High School, is one of approximately 400 players who are not only getting the chance to extend their pro careers, they’re hoping to use the AAF as a springboard back to football’s highest level.

Hamlett, a 26-year-old tight end, will be suiting up for the Arizona Hotshots, who play their opener Sunday when they host the Salt Lake Stallions. Hamlett hasn’t played in a pro football game since appearing in three contests for the NFL’s Cleveland Browns in 2016, so he’s excited about the opportunity afforded by the AAF.

“I can’t wait,” was Hamlett’s attitude toward Sunday’s opener. “There’s nothing I’d rather be doing. I don’t know how many fans will be there, but I’m going to come ready to play, and it’ll be fun to be back in a regular season professional football game.”

The AAF was founded by sports television producer Charlie Ebersol and former NFL general manager Bill Polian. The league consists of eight teams, four located in the southwest and four located in the southeast. The league will play a 10-game schedule, culminating with the championship game the weekend of April 24-26 in Las Vegas.

This is the latest attempt at launching a second pro football league. Past efforts met with mixed results. The AFL (1960-69) eventually merged with the NFL. However, leagues like the USFL (1983-85) and XFL (2001) folded after brief existences. The XFL is scheduled for a revival in 2020, including a franchise in Seattle.

Other Snohomish County ties to the AAF include San Diego Fleet defensive tackle Taniela Tupou, a graduate of Archbishop Murphy High School, and Salt Lake coach Dennis Erickson, a graduate of Everett High School.

“I think for the majority of coaches and players in the league it’s about getting back to the NFL,” Hamlett said. “I love playing football and obviously I want to get back to the NFL. Hopefully I can put some good stuff on tape to get that chance.”

Hamlett was last affiliated with an NFL team in August of 2017, when he was in training camp with the Dallas Cowboys before suffering a season-ending broken leg. After going more than a year without hearing from another NFL team Hamlett was pondering the possibility of his pro football career being over when his agent informed him about the creation of the AAF. Hamlett signed with the league last fall, and as a graduate of Oregon State University he was assigned to Arizona, which has the right of first refusal on players from OSU.

AAF training camps began on Jan. 4, with all eight teams holding their camps in San Antonio. The league finalized its rosters on Jan. 30, and Hamlett was one of four tight ends to make Arizona’s roster.

Hamlett said his AAF experience so far has been much like his NFL experience. Arizona is coached by Rick Neuheisel, who in addition to his wealth of time as a college head coach — including 1999-2002 at the University of Washington — has NFL experience as a quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator with the Baltimore Ravens. The Hotshots’ roster includes several former NFLers, including some who played for the Seattle Seahawks like center Patrick Lewis and linebacker Obum Gwachum. Hamlett said the way the team practices and prepares follows the same patterns as NFL teams.

There are small differences in game play. The play clock is shorter and there are no media timeouts, which will make the games shorter. The league also eliminated kickoffs and kicked extra points.

A larger difference, however, is how players are paid. Every player in the league is signed to the same three-year, non-guaranteed $250,000 contract.

“A lot of things are similar (to the NFL),” Hamlett said. “I think the thing with this league is all the players are paid the same. There’s no first-round picks. It’s an even playing field, so going into training camp everyone had a fair shot and they kept the best players. In the NFL it matters if a team invested a high pick or a lot of money in a player. There’s no invested money in these players, so we can go out and play without the added stress of that in your head.”

The league also stresses that it’s not competing with the NFL, but is rather complementary with the NFL. Players have outs in their contracts should an NFL opportunity come along.

But what’s the caliber of football going to be like? While no one is saying it will be at the NFL level, Hamlett thinks it will be a high quality.

“The one thing I think people don’t realize is that it’s really competitive,” Hamlett said. “All the guys here can play. There’s big guys who are six-year NFL vets on our team. I think it will be a good product out there. Hopefully we gain the fans’ attention and prove to them that it’s not a joke of a league, it’s good football with good players.

“The league has been a blessing for a lot of guys in my situation, giving us another shot.”

A shot that may just lead Hamlett back to the NFL.

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