South Jordan • They all piled together into some cars on Friday morning, these former Utes and former Cougars, having left the team hotel in South Jordan to take an early ride up to Rice-Eccles Stadium for the morning team walk-through. They went early because the local guys wanted to soak it in before the rest of the Salt Lake Stallions got there. And there, on that turf, they talked about how the end zones remained bright crimson red rather than power Stallion blue.
“Blue just doesn’t fit here,” joked former Ute Trevor Reilly to his new teammates.
He actually hopes it does, and soon. Once bitter rivals, they’re all now on the same team, playing for the same cause, to wreak havoc on either side of the ball just like they did during their respective college heydays, but also to introduce themselves to a community with an appetite for football that they say remains as hungry as ever. At the end of the day, Reilly said, they’ve banded together, because now they represent more than just their alma maters: They represent hope.
Hope that the Alliance of American Football can carve out a foothold in Utah and catch on and become another sports fixture in the state. But also hope that they can keep playing football and maintain a shot at either making an NFL roster for the first time ever or earn a return ticket for those who’ve been there. So much of that depends on individual performances, obviously, but the longevity of the Stallions also relies on how quickly they can introduce themselves to the fans who will be asked to brave winter temperatures, to get to Rice-Eccles Stadium and adopt this first-year franchise in a first-year league.
Winning, players and coaches say, is the obvious answer. Fans want to follow winners — especially in football.
SALT LAKE STALLIONS VS. ARIZONA HOTSHOTS
At Rice-Eccles Stadium
When • Saturday, 1 p.m.
Stream • Bleacher Report Live
But Reilly, who had stints with the New York Jets and New England Patriots, was asked by someone recently how the Stallions might endear themselves to the sports fans in the state. Reilly’s analogy was this: Every Saturday in the late summer or fall, from Cedar City to Logan, there could be as many as 200,000 football fans packing home college stadiums.
“We’re hoping to get to the point where we can get 40,000 of them to come to Rice-Eccles,” he added. “There’s a large fan base when you look at it from that perspective.”
The Stallions are getting somewhat of a late jump on cultivating connections, but because they’ve spent the last couple months in San Antonio, training and waiting for the team’s facility in Herriman to be finished.
“I’ve been to a lot of training camps,” said Stallions head coach Dennis Erickson Friday, “but none of them last 51 days.”
Yes, their first two games were on the road anyway, eventual losses at Arizona and Birmingham, but the organization believes finally arriving at their home base could energize the team toward its first win Saturday afternoon. Salt Lake hosts Arizona in the Stallions’ home opener at 1 p.m. Former Utah State defensive back Will Davis, who played with the Dolphins and Ravens during his NFL career, said the team flew into Salt Lake late Thursday night. When he peeked out the window, he noticed what he’s always missed since moving on.
“One of the things I never forgot, those mountains in the back, man,” Davis said. “The guys who have been here and who have been a part of this state, I think all of us, we want to take a big part in just letting everyone know about this professional team coming to Utah and just getting the fans behind us.”
Salt Lake is expected to welcome back starting quarterback Josh Woodrum, the team’s No. 1 overall pick in the league’s quarterback draft, who was injured in the season-opener in Arizona. Woodrum said he likes the team’s chances “against anybody in this league.” But he knows that there is more than just pressure to shine on the field, it’s to provide a reason for fans to watch and stick with them.
“It’s definitely tough,” he said. “For sure being in San Antonio and not being able to be here for the first couple weeks is hard, but from a player’s standpoint, we just hope that they’re staying connected with us. It’s very difficult for us being there to stay connected with them. Hopefully they’ve stayed in touch with us and seen what we’ve been doing and are excited for us to come back and get this first win.”
Erickson says once the AAF gets through its first year and if it can find ways to be established in its various markets, the fan bases will balloon, he believes. As for right now, the Stallions are home, waiting to play a historic first game and out to prove their worth to the people of Utah.
“It’s going to take time,” he said. “I think once you do that and you become part of the community, then that happens. It doesn’t happen overnight.”