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League starts in Orlando with pageantry, pain

No sooner do pregame festivities begin at the Citrus Bowl than a Rage player is hurt on the opening “scrum.”

[Times photos: Michael Rondou]
The XFL starts with a collision. Orlando's Hassan Shamsid-Deen, left, goes for the ball on the opening “scrum” but is beaten by Chicago's Troy Saunders. Shamsid-Deen separated his shoulder on the play.

By JOHN C. COTEY

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 4, 2001


ORLANDO -- The XFL promised a different kind of game from the NFL, with more excitement, more hitting and more violence.

photo
A Rage cheerleader goes into crowd to dance with fans during first quarter action at the XFL premier at Orlando's Florida Citrus Bowl.
It took all of, oh, zero seconds of Saturday's opener in Orlando to make good on all three promises.

With an opening "scrum" instead of a coin toss to see who controls first possession, fans were probably a little surprised to see Chicago's Troy Saunders and Orlando's Hassan Shamsid-Deen take off in a sprint from the 30-yard line, with the first to reach the 50 and grab the ball placed there "winning" possession.

Saunders got the ball; Shamsid-Deen dislocated his left shoulder trying to.

An injury on the coin toss.

Welcome to the XFL.

The raucous crowd of 36,000 seemed to enjoy it. Kevin Swayne of Orlando scored the first touchdown in league history. Tim Lester of Chicago ran and threw for touchdowns in a game won by Orlando 33-29.

photo
Orlando fans show their support for the beginning of the XFL season in the league's first game against Chicago.
It was hard to distinguish if the Citrus Bowl was host to more of an event than a game. Even on a night when the NBA's Magic played a few blocks away (and did not sell out), the football stadium's parking lots filled early with tailgaters and traffic was snarled, causing the start to be delayed by 20 minutes. Rage gear was, well, all the rage and a pregame concert added to the mayhem outside.

Inside, a giant sound stage and jumbotron was erected behind the north end zone, spewing fireworks after every score and hoots and hollers for every cheerleader shot, even those flashed on the screen during the national anthem.

Cameramen had to be as fit as many of players, following the action on the field while actually on the field, chasing players as plays started. Players did live sideline interviews that were broadcast over the jumbotron. Announcers Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler -- the World Wrestling Federation's announcing crew for Monday Night Raw -- called the game from the stands.

If the XFL was shooting for a party atmosphere, it succeeded.

Almost lost in all the hoopla was the football: Jeff Brohm's 51-yard touchdown to Swayne on Orlando's first play (thanks to Swayne's 10-yard head start behind the line of scrimmage); Orlando wide receiver Dialleo Burks' three touchdown catches; John Avery's highlight reel 68-yard touchdown on an innocent-looking screen over the middle and his 64-yard run in the third quarter among the gems.

And there was bad football: both failed on a majority of extra-point attempts, which in the XFL can only be attained via run or pass.

Ironically, the much-publicized lack of fair catch or in-the-grasp rules which critics deemed too violent never came into play.

While the game was played with casts of NFL Europe veterans, NFL castoffs and former small-college standouts, two familiar faces emerged as potential stars: Brohm, the former Buccaneer back-up, and Avery. who was drafted by the Miami Dolphins in the first round in 1998.

Avery 68-yard touchdown wasa highlight for Chicago but Brohm appeared to have had the better complement of teammates.

Even if few knew who they were.

Welcome to the XFL.

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