Tony Thompson didn’t know a lot about arena football, but he did know one thing: He hated it.
He had a good career at South Dakota State University as a defensive end and didn’t make it in the NFL. He didn’t consider arena football as his next step. He found it “gimmicky,” he says today. Instead, he went to work for a car dealer. It was a good decision.
A decade later, at 32, he owned a car dealership and still looked like he could lift the merchandise. Then the owner of a South Dakota arena team asked him to try out. Tony always regretted the fact that his daughters never got to see him play. He said yes just for that reason. More than 100 people showed up to his first game wearing Jackrabbit shirts, a harken back to his days playing for SDSU.
He became a star of the league and a fan of the sport. Those gimmicks he hated—three on three up front, no double teams—reduced football to its most basic level: mano a mano. He loved the trash talk. He loved the locker room. It was compressed and, yes, a tad gimmicky, but it was still football.
Now he’s one of the sport’s biggest cheerleaders, and he’s proving it by bringing an arena football team to Northern Colorado. The Colorado Spartans’ season starts in March 2024 with games at Blue Arena (the former Budweiser Events Center). They will be the first expansion team in Colorado for the National Arena League, the top league of the sport, Tony says. The league had seven teams last season and will add a team in Topeka, Kan. as well as Colorado.
John Elway’s team, the Colorado Crush, operated as an expansion team under the Arena Football League. That league will return in 2024 after a four-year hiatus, but the Crush won’t be a part of it.
“When you look at Colorado, some previous teams had some success,” Tony says, “but I always thought I could do it better. I have been a part of great organizations that treated their players well, and I’ve been a part of bad organizations. I love teams that treat players well.”
Arena football plays by the same rules as the NFL on an indoor field half the size. The game is faster and far more high-scoring. Some teams regularly put up over 50 points. There are only eight players to a side instead of 11.
“The beauty behind it is it’s congested, so you’ll see the speed of the offense or the hammer of the defense,” says Zack Thompson, the team’s general manager and Tony’s brother.
Both the Thompsons believe they can field a competitive team right away because of the league’s rules. At the end of each season, players become restricted free agents, and those restrictions are lifted after a short time. This means Colorado will have a much better chance of signing good players than most expansion clubs in other sports.
Spectators should expect to see players who either played in the NFL and can’t keep up anymore or could play in the NFL with the right breaks, Zack says. “Every day I can look in my inbox and see contacts from free agent NFL players, and it’s up to me if I want to sign them or not.”
Fans can also think of the team as a pipeline to the Canadian Football League, the XFL or even the NFL, Zack says.
“I don’t want to see the same guy twice every year,” he says. “I want him to move up.”
Cory Henry, one of the team’s star defensive ends who played in the league as well as the CFL, says some of the players have the talent to play in the NFL.
“They just never got the opportunity,” Henry says, “and some did and just got mixed up in some stuff. Football is football. There’s a lot of talent.”
Tony says he’s excited about the opportunity to bring arena football to the area.
“When I was talking [to people] around Fort Collins, everyone seemed very excited,” he says. “Northern Colorado is ready for this.”
On Tuesday, Sept. 19, the Colorado Spartans named Fred Shaw their head coach. Shaw was the 2022 NAL Coach of the Year and brings a wealth of arena coaching experience to the team. Stay tuned for the final roster.