Gionni Paul sat in the Rice-Eccles Stadium locker room with his right arm broken and his outlook undamaged. The former University of Utah star told himself he could come back next year and build on his performance as a Salt Lake Stallions linebacker.
Three days later, the Alliance of American Football stopped playing. “I’m thinking, ‘I’m dreaming,’ ” Paul said, reliving the April 2 team meeting when the announcement came.
Paul soon became a face of the AAF players’ plight, thanks to his tweet about being injured, losing his housing and wondering who would pay his medical bills. Help has come via a GoFundMe account created by a Ute fan, raising nearly $5,000.
In a bakery near the Utah campus, having come from having a doctor's visit, Paul marveled about the response. “The community's strong,” he said. “I love it here. I'm just stunned by how people have supported me.”
In that financial sense, Paul is ahead of other players who made $7,000 a week during the eight-game season. Fans rallied, remembering him as an exciting, productive player for the Utes in 2014-15 (after he transferred from Miami) and an engaging person in the community. Branden Hockenbury, of Bingham Canyon, launched the account during a break from his work loading beverage trucks, hoping for $2,000. Hockenbury was motivated to do something, he said, because Paul is “one on my all-time favorite Utes – my favorite linebacker, for sure.”
Other players and staff members are on their own, becoming part of multiple class action lawsuits, including one filed in Utah’s U.S. District Court last week by a former Stallions vice president. The league filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy Wednesday in Texas, meaning all of its assets will be liquidated.
For some ex-Stallions, the AAF accomplished nearly everything they hoped. Former Ute offensive linemen Salesi Uhatafe (Washington) and Jeremiah Poutasi (Arizona) are among dozens of AAF players who have signed with NFL teams.
They all share Paul's feeling of being “blindsided” by the AAF's failing with two weeks left in the regular season, after everyone was promised three years of stability in the start-up operation. Paul labeled the turn of events “a market crash in football.” Jason Phillips, hired last fall as the Stallions receivers coach, fortuitously joined the Utah State staff prior to the AAF season. His former Salt Lake colleagues are out of work, having missed the 2019 hiring window in college football.
“To me, that's a crime,” said Stallions coach Dennis Erickson, concerned about assistants who missed their last month's paychecks.
Paul, with two 8-inch plates and 15 screws in his arm, is not the only former Ute star with medical issues. Stallions receivers Kaelin Clay and Dres Anderson need rehabilitation, according to ex-Ute linebacker Trevor Reilly, who says he played the last two games with a fractured sternum.
Reilly, 31, spent four seasons in the NFL with three teams, accompanying New England to a Super Bowl as a practice-squad member. Reilly remembers how a linebacker who was signed the day before as Paul's replacement was in disbelief during a meeting when the news hit, realizing he would have to pay his way home to the East Coast. Reilly temporarily housed Paul and another player with his family in Lehi; another player left his truck in the front yard.
Paul is facing a four-month recovery, looking for a job and an apartment. He has advanced beyond the stage of lying in bed in Reilly’s basement, wondering what to do. Responding to an interview request, he had texted, “I am just a little overwhelmed right now and trying to figure things out.”
As of last week, though, Paul was showing signs of his upbeat nature. He laughed when reminded how he started singing a Lionel Richie song, waiting for his turn in a news conference in Seattle after the Utes beat Washington in 2015.
Coaching likely is in his future. He spent eight months in Russia last year as a player-coach and has connections with former Ute coaches at several schools. Weber State's Jay Hill shared his own story of an injury in the XFL leading him into coaching. “That meant a lot to me,” Paul said. “That gave me hope.”
Paul is not giving up on the NFL, saying, “I had a taste of it. I’m still hungry. Would my body allow me? I don’t know.” Moments later, his thoughts return to coaching: “I’m a student of the game. I’m ready to become a teacher of the game.”
Reilly is proud to have teamed with former Utes including Sealver Siliga, Tenny Palepoi and Paul on the AAF’s No. 1 defense. That statistic is not verifiable; the only remaining element of the league website is a statement saying officials were “sorry” about what happened.
The ranking is plausibly accurate, though. In their final game March 30, the Stallions defeated San Diego 8-3. A week later, Stallions signage remained draped around the Rice-Eccles Stadium field as the Utes prepared for a scrimmage. By the end of the session, the signs were displaced. Yet unlike Central Florida, which reportedly lost $1 million in rental fees from the Orlando franchise, Utah was not left with unpaid bills. “All of the invoices to the university have been paid, so no obligations are outstanding in terms of direct cost,” a school spokesman said.
Ciante Evans, a Stallions defensive back from Nebraska who bonded with Paul, stood on the sideline with a broken wrist that night as Paul was hurt when his arm was pinned between a teammate and San Diego receiver. “I was devastated for him,” Evans said. “Not only for the team, but in the community, he did a lot for the organization.”
Paul is promising to do more charitable work in Utah, responding to fans’ support of him. Appearing on ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” last week, outlining his dilemma, Paul said an AAF official contacted him to say the league was trying to address his workman’s compensation issues.
Who knows what will come of that promise now, amid bankruptcy? After Paul’s interview was aired, Hockenbury observed, the flow of donations immediately slowed.