Arena football: Players with 'chip on their shoulder' help drive Utah Blaze
The first time Aaron Lesue looked up at the Utah State depth chart, his heart sank.
He was at the bottom of the slot receiver list, sunk in seventh place. His name was misspelled.
Of course, this was an understandable spot for a walk-on receiver, one who had bounced around the country in a military family, who had clawed his way up at Dixie State. But it wasn't long before the name crept up and up, and he was the starter.
"It's something I've done my whole life," says Lesue, now a starter with the Utah Blaze. "A lot of guys on this team have. We're not playing for the money we're trying to make something of ourselves."
Lesue knows his story and struggles are among the many that inhabit the Blaze locker room. Most of the players grew up dreaming of playing in the NFL, not grinding away in the Arena Football League.
But being in Utah for many represents an opportunity to keep playing the game they love, as well as a possible road to those pro aspirations. Going into the team's season opener Saturday against San Jose, Utah hopes these overachievers will be a boost to its championship aspirations.
There's the occasional blue-chipper who winds up in the AFL ranks: Quarterback Tommy Grady is a great example. But many of the players are more like Lesue, the 5-foot-9 wideout who few believed could hack it.
When he was in high school, Lesue moved from Virginia Beach, Va., to Nevada. He had been a starting receiver back East, but his new coaches immediately parsed him into junior varsity.
"It was only a day or so before they realized, 'You don't belong here,' " Lesue says.
Then there's Keenan Mace, a rookie defensive tackle, who might be on an NFL roster today if not for a convoluted series of obstacles.
It started out when he became a father in high school, and elected to attend Division II Lindenwood University in Saint Charles, Mo., to stay close to his son. He eventually stopped playing football to work and support his family, then came back two years later.
He was in the Dallas Cowboys' camp two years later when the league determined he had remaining eligibility and would have to go in the supplemental draft. He went undrafted and didn't get the same interest he got after college.
With the Blaze, Mace has become an invaluable asset, already with three sacks in his first two games. Lesue was one of the team's top receivers last season and has become one of the most recognizable faces of the franchise.
"Sometimes, these guys with a chip on their shoulder aren't 'name' players who have been privileged," James says. "That desire to be noticed motivates them. They may not have what all scouts look for, but for some guys, a high motor can make them a great player in our league."
The Blaze are betting that keeping guys such as Lesue and Mace around can make them a championship contender this season. At 1-1, the team still has a long way to go.
But the players themselves hope that if they can get that championship, it could take them places outside of Utah.
"Being an NFL football player is always something that's been on my heart," Mace says. "I'm going to do everything I need to to have that success."
Utah Blaze vs. San Jose SaberCats
P EnergySolutions Arena
Saturday, 7 p.m.
Radio • 97.5 FM, 1280 AM
• Utah will try to win its home opener against the AFL's top-ranked team.
Blaze's top performers
In advance of Saturday's home opener, here are a few of Utah's top players so far this season:
QB Tommy Grady • 613 yards, 11 touchdowns, 66.2 completion percentage
WR Aaron Lesue • 17 receptions, 175 yards, 6 touchdowns
DT Keenan Mace • 3 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 1 recovered fumble
DB Josh Jones • 11.5 tackles, 2 interceptions