Damore’ea Stringfellow was supposed to be in the NFL.
That was the plan, at least, when he announced two years ago that he was skipping his senior season at Ole Miss to enter the league’s 2017 draft. Big, strong and athletic, he’d emerged from the shadow of Laquon Treadwell to become the Rebels’ top wideout in 2016. Seen as a potential sleeper because of his 6’2 frame and big-play ability, Stringfellow was projected as a fifth- or sixth-round pick.
But Stringfellow also had an arrest record. A former five-star recruit, he’d transferred to Ole Miss after being kicked off the team at Washington for assaulting two people in 2014, one of them a woman. The year he declared for the draft, the NFL had just implemented a rule that prohibited prospects with violent convictions from attending the NFL Combine. Without the exposure, Stringfellow went undrafted. He signed with the Dolphins and bounced around on the practice squads of the Seahawks and Titans but couldn’t stick. Last September, he abruptly announced his retirement from football.
On Sunday, Stringfellow and three other former Rebels will get a second chance at pro football when the Memphis Express—a member of the brand new Alliance of American Football—opens its inaugural season. Linebacker DeMarquis Gates and O-linemen Daronte Bouldin and Christian Morris are also on the team.
The brainchild of former NFL GM Bill Polian and the son of the NBC exec who pioneered the original XFL, the upstart league landed on the consciousness of Ole Miss fans in October when it announced that Hugh Freeze had been hired as the offensive coordinator of the Arizona Hotshots, one of the Alliance’s eight inaugural franchises. Freeze would be hired away as the head coach of Liberty University within two months, which is exactly the way the AAF is supposed to work; it has marketed itself as a second-chance platform for players and coaches to revive their football careers.
The league is littered with whatever-happened-to-that-guy SEC names. Trent Richardson, Blake Sims and Kick Six star Chris Davis will suit up for the Alliance’s Birmingham club; Steve Spurrier is coaching the Orlando outfit; former UGA star Aaron Murray is throwing in Atlanta; LSU’s Zach Mettenberger and Vandy’s Zach Stacy are on the roster in Memphis.
Those regional ties are no coincidence. Rather than randomly distribute players, the Alliance assigned each of its franchises a list of nearby universities from which to assemble rosters. That’s why the Birmingham team (which sports the not-so-subtle nickname the Iron) has a concentration of Bama and Auburn alumni and the Orlando club has four former Gators.
The Memphis team lays claim to Ole Miss, which is why Stringfellow and the others are suiting up for the Express*. Sunday’s game sends them to Birmingham and will be carried by CBS Sports at 3 p.m. CT. The first home game comes a week later against Arizona.
*Memphis-based FedEx isn’t explicitly listed as a sponsor, but c’mon.
Regionalized rosters are just one of the tools the Alliance is using to avoid the fate of so many failed pro leagues that have come before it. Rather than challenge the NFL (a move that doomed the Donald Trump-led USFL in the mid-80s), the AAF has allied itself with the League, positioning itself as a developmental system akin to the NBA’s G League (the NFL Network is even carrying AAF games). The Alliance is also aligning itself with the burgeoning legal gambling industry, banking that its state-of-the-art real-time data can revolutionize sports betting. Microchips in the ball and equipment of each player could allow you to bet on a play-by-play basis: “I’ll put $20 on this being a run to the right side.” (If you need more proof that the Alliance wants to drive viewership through gambling, the league’s April championship game will be played in Las Vegas.)
“It’s a technology play,” Scott Butera, MGM’s president for interactive gaming, told The New York Times. “These specialty leagues will be relevant to sports betting. We think what they are doing is portable to other sports in terms of streaming, watching and making it an entertaining customer experience.”
In short, the Alliance is wagering that it can fill the post-Super Bowl football void for SEC fans and gamblers while providing a blueprint for the integration of major sports leagues, real-time data and legal betting. It’s the perfect experiment for a Mid-South town like Memphis, which is suffering through a post-Gasol disappointment of an NBA season and otherwise faces a sports drought from now ‘til opening day of minor league baseball in April.
For the players on the field, though, the Alliance represents more than an integration of Big Data and sports entertainment. It’s an opportunity for a second chance. The league has gone out of its way to stockpile NFL coaching experience in an attempt to provide legitimate development opportunity: former 49ers head coach Mike Singletary, who helped shape Patrick Willis’ pro career, is the head man in Memphis; Mike Martz, the architect of the Greatest Show on Turf, is leading the San Diego team; Rick Neuheisel is coaching in Arizona.
The Alliance’s ultimate success will rest on those men’s abilities to get players like Stringfellow onto NFL rosters.
“I’d like to see us develop the next Kurt Warner and Adam Vinatieri,” Polian told the Buffalo News. “There are third quarterbacks on practice squads all over the NFL who can get four months’ worth and 10 games’ worth of experience in our league that would be invaluable for them. And they would never miss a beat in the NFL, because our championship game is one week after OTAs begin and our regular-season ends a week before OTAs begin, and that’s by design.”
Over 80 percent of the Alliance’s players have at one time signed an NFL contract. In the ultra-competitive environment of the NFL, development takes a back seat to game preparation. Players on the fringes of rosters have limited opportunities to grow. Trapped on the third string or tucked away on practice squads, they rarely have the opportunity to show what improvement they have made.
For Stringfellow, it’s a potential path back to the dream that prompted him to leave school early.
“I just felt like I was ready for the league,’’ Stringfellow told the Seattle Times about his decision. “I just felt like I was prepared for taking the next step in my life.’’
That next step, once deferred, has new life in Memphis. We’ll see if he—and the upstart league itself—can stick around.