New indoor football league has high scoring plus bizarre touches

If you've ever heard of Jim Foster, you're miles ahead of most people. He's a future trivia question if there ever was one. No, he never dated Elizabeth Taylor, sang with the Platters, or made paper weights out of horseshoes. He's the founding father of the latest addition to the crowded American sports calendar - the Arena Football League.

While Foster isn't the first promoter to tackle the problems of putting football indoors, he is the first to create an entire league. That is, if you consider four teams playing a six-week schedule worthy of that description.

Even Foster, who played minor league football after graduating from Iowa and once worked in the marketing division of the National Football League, was a little skeptical of his far-out idea at first, although he quickly got over it.

Explained Foster to reporters midway through the new league's inaugural season this summer: ``Until we got a contract with cable TV, most people had trouble grasping the concept of what we were trying to do. They were used to watching 11 men to a side, not eight. Sure some eyebrows went up when they heard the field was only 50 yards long and 28.3 yards wide, and that everybody but the quarterback plays both ways. Nevertheless we're exciting, and every franchise is competitive. And if you like scoring, we've got it.''

Have they ever! Would you believe scores like 73-57, and 55-48? Part of this is because arena football practically ignores the run in favor of the pass. And no wonder, given a league rule that says receivers can only be covered one on one.

The 36-year-old Foster launched his idea with charter franchises in Washington, Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Denver - all strongholds of the traditional game during the NFL season.

The players are earning $3,000 to $4,000 each this year, but Foster envisions a big jump to a base salary of around $25,000, plus incentives, next season. Rosters are limited to 16 players.

Prior to arena football's June 19 debut, league officials were forecasting crowds of 8,000 a game, with a top ticket price of $15 and a low of $9. Now they are claiming an average of 11,000 customers - reasonably impressive for something that appears to be part football and part circus.

In arena football, the offensive team usually lines up with six players up front (a center, two guards, a tight end, and two wide receivers). The backfield consists of a running back and a T-formation-type quarterback, who generally scrambles rather than setting up before throwing the ball. With four eligible receivers running around out there in such a relatively confined space, it sometimes looks more like an old Buster Keaton movie than an athletic contest.

The defense has three linemen up front, two linebackers who play in fairly tight, two cornerbacks, and a safety. The offense still has four chances to gain 10 yards and a first down, with no punting allowed. There are four 15-minute quarters, as in the regular game, but the clock runs continuously except after a score or penalty.

Where this game becomes the Theater of the Bizarre is in its introduction of four 30-foot-wide by 32-foot-high screens, one of which hangs on each side of both goal posts, whose opening is only 9 feet wide.

Under arena football rules, any kickoff, missed field goal attempt, or forward pass that hits that screen while still in the air remains in play. In other words, any ball that comes off that screen can be legally fielded by either team.

The inaugural season is now history except for the championship game, which will be played next Saturday, but Foster is already looking ahead. He plans to add at least four more teams next year while doubling the schedule to 12 weeks.

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