This was supposed to be a story about a blossoming football league. A league that was given a second chance to innovate and proved professional football outside of the NFL can thrive in the United States.
No extra points. Shorter play clocks. An inventive kickoff format. In-game interviews and access to coaches' thoughts and headsets. An open celebration of gambling in broadcasts. And, of course, celebratory beer and hard seltzer chugging postgame.
The XFL had the formula. And for five weeks, it seemed that it just might do what others could not: survive long enough to become legitimate.
The easy narrative might be that it was always destined to become the latest in a line of startup leagues that have failed to become sustainable. The XFL's first crack, in 2001, lasted one season. The Alliance of American Football, which came to market before the XFL this time around, succumbed to financial woes after only a few months. And indeed, the XFL's ratings had been sliding after a strong opening week.
But there were other, encouraging signs. Attendance numbers had mostly held steady. Games were still being televised on major networks. And more than anything, people still believed in the product.
"They did it correctly this time," says June Jones, the legendary offensive guru who's been around the game at a high level since the early 1970s and became a part of the new XFL as the head coach of the Houston Roughnecks. "We had a great brand, and we had a spot that would have worked in the spring.
"We just couldn't finish."
That's, of course, in large part because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced the league first to suspend play and then in mid-April to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
It's the players who made up eight XFL rosters, now searching for football homes. It's the coaches, many of them football lifers like Jones, wondering where and if someone will have them next. And it's those behind the scenes who brought the league to life, wondering where their experiences will take them.
Each of them has a story. Right now, all they can do is wait and hope there will be another team or league willing to tell it.
He doesn't sound angry about his past or nervous about his future. Instead, Luis Perez oozes confidence and certainty in uncertain times.
"I've thrown with Drew Brees and been in camps with No. 1 overall picks," says the quarterback of the XFL's New York Guardians. "I'm right in the mix. I mean, I'm right there. There's really no drop-off in throwing the ball or anything like that, so I'm not going to quit until I get the opportunity."
In the past two years, Perez has played in two defunct football leagues. He quarterbacked the Birmingham Iron in 2019 in the AAF.
This year, he started the season playing behind former Penn State and Oakland Raiders starter Matt McGloin with the Guardians but won the starting job after a few games and started to show promise around the time play was suspended.
Most would be heartbroken by this continued misfortune, and Perez is. But he's also grateful to still be chasing his dream after such a late start.
For much of his life, he dreamed not of the NFL but of becoming a professional bowler. And with 12 perfect games and a best three-game series score of 838 to his name, he came awfully close.
Perez dabbled with football early in high school at Otay Ranch High in Chula Vista, California, but lost interest when his coach moved him to tight end. He wanted to play quarterback. He set his sights on a bowling scholarship instead and became one of the top amateur bowlers in the state.
But then during his senior year, on senior night in 2012, he attended the team's football game and fell in love.
In the months that followed, Perez taught himself how to play quarterback, largely with YouTube videos and a mirror. From there, he was able to connect with 1999 No. 3 overall NFL draft pick Akili Smith, the uncle of Perez's friend, Otay Ranch running back David Mondy. Smith gave him enough guidance to walk on at Southwestern College with no high school film or stats to speak of. He began his football career ninth on the depth chart.
He was successful enough at Southwestern to transfer to Texas A&M-Commerce, a Division II program that he would lead to a national championship in 2017 while winning the Harlon Hill Trophy, the award given to the top player at the D-II level.
His performance garnered buzz and interest in NFL circles. Although he wasn't selected in the 2018 NFL draft, Perez did ultimately sign with the Los Angeles Rams. He was waived a few months later.
After his success in the AAF last year, he spent time with the Philadelphia Eagles and the Detroit Lions before landing in the XFL. Now, as has been the case for much of the past few years, Perez is once again searching.
He spends his days working out in his backyard in San Diego, throwing to stationary targets or a family member willing to run routes. Since all nearby facilities are closed, he works out at his homemade gym, making do with a squat rack and bench press.
Aside from the disappointing demise of the XFL, this time hasn't been all bad for Perez. Just two months ago, his first daughter was born. An unexpected break from football has provided the opportunity to watch his daughter grow that he wouldn't have with a full season. For that, he is grateful.
Throughout it all, however, the passion hasn't deteriorated. He knows the next opportunity could be a phone call away.
"My wife's all-in," he says. "My family's all-in. No matter the circumstances, whether we're in a pandemic or not, I've got to make sure I'm ready at any moment to get on a flight and be ready. They expect you to be ready no matter what."
It is day three of June Jones' mandatory 14-day self-quarantine, and he is readying for another Hawaiian sunset. The journeyman coach answers the phone with an "Aloha" as he sits a few hundred feet from the Pacific Ocean, having returned to Hawaii Kai in Honolulu to figure out what comes next.
It is here that he led the University of Hawaii to new heights for the better part of a decade, doing so with his trademark offense. It is also here that Jones, years later, groomed a raw and wildly talented Tua Tagovailoa, along with his brother, Taulia, shortly before the two moved to Alabama.
At the age of 67, Jones has coached football at just about every level. High school. College. NFL. CFL. And most recently, the XFL, where he led the Roughnecks to a 5-0 record before the season was halted.
"I was disappointed, because I knew we might've won the whole thing," Jones says. "The team building and chemistry was excellent, and that's the thing I'm really sad about. Sad for our players."
When Jones learned the XFL had suspended play, he left Houston and drove west. He stopped in Las Vegas to visit his former coach, Mouse Davis, whom he played for at Portland State. Beyond coaching him in college, Davis is largely why Jones fell in love with the profession.
He then drove to Portland, where he stayed with family for a few weeks. Unsure how long he would have to wait it out, he flew home to Hawaii on a mostly empty flight from Seattle.
Following a statewide order for residents and visitors, Jones began a 14-day quarantine when he arrived home. Each morning, he walks four miles by himself as the sun rises. He then watches replays of the 2019 NFL season—jotting down notes on plays and formations that he likes.
While football is a fixture of his everyday life, his concerns at the moment are not about his future in coaching. Instead, he worries about Hawaii's economy, which has been crippled by the lack of tourism because of the coronavirus.
He has yet to pursue any jobs, although conversations have taken place. The Hamilton Tiger-Cats, whom he coached in the CFL before leaving for the XFL, could have an opening in the organization. He's also spoken to Hawaii high school coaches about opportunities that could arise.
If the XFL is done, it's not his last stand in football.
"I want to coach," he says. "I want to be in that situation. I don't need it, but at the same time I'd love to do it. Just has to be the right place. That feeling is not going away."
The bike ride to the cemetery is 10 minutes, give or take. Each day, in between his cups of coffee and phone calls with potential future employers, Sam Schwartzstein visits his mentor's grave in search of inspiration.
That mentor was Bill Campbell, who died in 2016 at the age of 75. Campbell played football at Columbia University. He later coached Columbia in the '70s before leaving the profession for a career in Silicon Valley. Over the decades that followed, he worked at Apple, providing guidance for Steve Jobs, and other prominent tech companies—earning the nickname "The Trillion Dollar Coach" in reference to his seismic impact on Silicon Valley as a whole.
Schwartzstein, who is 30 years old, used to seek guidance from Campbell about his own life. And before he became the director of football operations in the XFL, he too worked in Silicon Valley.
Even before that, Schwartzstein was tasked with protecting his college roommate and close friend Andrew Luck while playing offensive line at Stanford. That's where he met Oliver Luck, Andrew's father.
When Oliver was named commissioner of the XFL and needed someone to create its rules and structure, he knew who to call. Schwartzstein was his first hire.
"We really took a traditional product-development approach," Schwartzstein says. "We tested our rules eight times before fans ever saw them and before our coaches played with them with the players."
They called it the "reimagination process." The list of changes began with 100 ideas, going as far as to consider the possibility of eliminating punting entirely. It was narrowed down to 25, and they implemented roughly 15 of the concepts.
Schwartzstein's ultimate goal was to bring the average football game to under three hours while improving the general flow and watchability of the game.
Of all of the XFL's innovations, its most celebrated was modifications to the kickoff. In keeping blockers and defensive players closer together, the XFL hoped to remove some of the danger from one of the sport's most dangerous plays. At the same time, it wanted to keep the possibility of a big play alive.
"If we're playing football in 30 years," Schwartzstein says, "they'll be using the XFL's kickoff."
While coaches and players can set their sights on specific leagues, Schwartzstein's next stop is more complicated. The idea of seeing his concepts at work in the NCAA or NFL intrigues him—as does the possibility of working in football on his terms.
"I'm trying to figure out what's the next move for me," he says. "I'm still passionate about what we did, but it would be hard for me to just say, 'I want to work in football.' No, I want to work on a really hard problem with really good people and have the ability to make positive changes."
Hal Mumme can still feel the lingering effects of his broken leg when he walks his dog. "It's not the size of a watermelon anymore," he says of his kneecap. "Maybe just a grapefruit."
Back in March, when he was the offensive coordinator for the XFL's Dallas Renegades, Mumme broke his leg in a sideline collision. Although he knew it was seriously injured, he coached from the sideline for the rest of the game.
Mumme's influence on football stretches back more than four decades. Largely celebrated as one of the main architects of the air raid offense, Mumme has made a profound impact on the way offense is played across all of football.
He began his career as a high school coach in Texas back in the '70s. From there, he served as college head coach at seven programs—the most notable being his stint as Kentucky's head coach in the late 1990s.
The XFL offered Mumme an opportunity to tap into his offensive ingenuity. The 25-second play clock and the two- and three-point conversations after touchdowns were geared to a style he has gravitated toward for most of his life.
"It was such a good rollout," Mumme says. "TV ratings-wise, attendance-wise and all that kind of stuff exceeded expectations. I think there's proof of concept and a window after the Super Bowl. And I know fans that can't really get enough football."
From the patio of his townhome in Arlington, Texas, Mumme can see AT&T Stadium. It is here that he still finds a way to get his football fix.
He teaches classes for his business, Air Raid Certified, where he provides video and exams on his offense for interested coaches. He talks frequently to Mississippi State head coach Mike Leach, one of his most celebrated air raid pupils and closest friends. Not usually about football, but mostly politics and movies.
Like Leach, Mumme has a curious mind for history. He's currently reading Hymns of the Republic, a book about the Civil War.
He watches Netflix. Like many, he's seeking out ways to pass time.
"I feel like being Bill Murray in Groundhog Day," he says. "I walk the dog, read some history, walk the dog, cook with the wife, drink a little bourbon, walk the dog, eat with the wife, drink some bourbon and go to bed. Do it again the next day, and you don't even know what day it is most of the time."
At 68 years old, Mumme could spend the rest of his life refining his business and teaching his offense at clinics around the country. But the thought of removing himself from the games themselves, especially considering how his XFL tenure ended, is something he hasn't come to terms with.
"To be honest with you, I've just kind of looked at everything that was out there," he says. "I'm looking at some Texas high school jobs and other things. I don't know what it's going to look like, but I'm going to coach somewhere.
"I haven't gotten game day out of my system yet."
Eric Galko's work with the XFL isn't done yet, even though he's technically no longer employed. His impact will be life-changing for many. Or so he hopes.
Galko, who served as director of player personnel, played a key role in assembling the league. His connections with agents and the NFL were invaluable as he helped build rosters and coaching staffs. Now, he's helping to disassemble it as gracefully as possible.
"There were so many things I was excited to do better in 2021 that were planned and ready to go," he says. "And it's disappointing not seeing those things come to fruition. That's the most frustrating part."
Before the XFL, Galko worked as a consultant with NFL teams, players, agents and all-star games to facilitate movement and roster additions. The connections he's built over the years bring him comfort that he'll land on his feet eventually. "Fingers crossed," he says. But as he searches, he also wants to place as many former XFL players in NFL camps as possible.
He's answered questions about their paychecks. About how to apply for unemployment. About how to somehow latch onto a roster in the future.
"It's important to have these players and agents have someone to go to," Galko says. "And it's always good to be needed and especially in this small industry. I do my best to help them as best I can."
Before the coronavirus, Galko projected that 80 to 90 players in the XFL would ultimately be invited to NFL training camps. As of now, with the NFL offseason largely disrupted, he estimates the number is roughly 25.
That will change, he hopes, as the calendar distances itself from the NFL draft and the world shifts back to some sort of normalcy. But at the moment, many of the more than 400 players are waiting to see what comes next.
What can be lost in the uncertainty that surrounds those who made up the league is the product they helped deliver. While its life span was short, its impact may not be. The blueprint has the potential to disrupt professional sports around the world.
"I hope it showed that if you're going to have a non-NFL way to play football … this is the way to do it," Galko says. "It worked. … One of the hardest things is that people might have already forgotten about the XFL and what it did. But hopefully there is a legacy that carries on."
In the months and years to come, lawsuits will likely play out with millions of dollars at stake. Rumors of another resurrection will take shape. Perhaps there will be truth behind some.
The innovations the league was unearthing could find a home in college football or the NFL. It would not be the least bit surprising to see some of the rule changes and other concepts live on.
The true legacy, though, will be carried on by the players, coaches and other personnel searching for what comes next. The group that made this league possible, if only for a short while. They will wait for what comes next amid uncertain times, hoping the next opportunity is still out there.
Adam Kramer covers football for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @KegsnEggs.