A look at seven football players that jumped from Arena Football to the National Football League…
by: Adrea Saar
It is an exciting time for all fans of Arena football and especially those who like to get behind an Albany team. With the return of the Arena Football League (AFL) scheduled for 2024, the biggest name in the indoor football game will be making the highlights reels of local sports shows once again.
Although Arena football has enjoyed success in a number of guises over the years, it is the AFL that most people will have heard of, thanks to its huge popularity in the early 2000s. Some NFL players saw the league as a final pay day before retirement. But there were also some that used the league as a stepping stone to the big show.
Not many made it as far as featuring in the online Super Bowl betting markets (although there was one in particular that we will be profiling in a moment). But over 100 players featured in both leagues and these seven showed that skills learned in Arena Football can translate to a career in the NFL.
Let’s start off with an Arena football player who started off right here in Albany and went on to win three Super Bowl rings in a glittering NFL career. Patten went undrafted in the 1996 NFL Draft so joined the Albany Firebirds in the AFL instead, where he showed the talent that ultimately made him a well-known star.
After just one year with Albany, Patten joined the New York Giants and excelled as a wide receiver and kickoff returner. He also played for Cleveland but it was in New England where he was most successful. He most famously caught a touchdown pass from Tom Brady in Super Bowl XXXVI. Patten tragically died in 2021 in a road vehicle accident.
Best known for his time in the Canadian Football League and at the Indianapolis Colts in the NFL, Mike Vanderjagt also featured in the AFL for two years while he was getting his pro football career going. After playing college football for WVU, Vanderjagt took his kicking talents back to Canada with little initial success.
That early experience at the Tampa Bay Storm and the Minnesota Fighting Pike obviously did the trick though, as Vanderjagt became a regular in the CFL with the Toronto Argonauts before joining the Colts. He was even the NFL scoring leader in 1999 and made the Pro Bowl in 2003.
After playing college ball at Winston-Salem State, Gadsden went undrafted before signing with the Dallas Cowboys. Although his time there was largely hindered by injury he can claim a Super Bowl win in 1995 and learned how to be a better wide receiver alongside future Hall of Famer Michael Irvin.
Gadsden attempted a comeback in the World League of Football in Frankfurt, Germany – but injury struck again. A standout year with the AFL’s Portland Forest Dragons brought him back to prominence though, and he managed a further five years as a Miami Dolphin and was the WR who caught Dan Marino’s final touchdown pass.
When Doehring was playing as a Gator at the University of Florida, a lot was expected of the exciting young wide receiver. The Gators won three consecutive SEC championships and he was selected by the Jacksonville Jaguars in 1996. But injuries and selection issues meant that he never really lived up to his early promise.
But a year in the AFL with the Carolina Cobras seemed to kickstart his career. After returning to the NFL in 2002, first with the Washington Redskins and then the Pittsburgh Steelers, Doehring recorded his best numbers and scored all of his NFL career touchdowns.
Bonner is a perfect example of a hugely impressive player who starred in the AFL but never quite made it in the NFL. After playing representing Cal State Northridge in a number of sports, he went undrafted in 1991 and ended up playing for the Arizona Rattlers in the AFL.
After only being able to make the offseason or practice squads at the Dolphins, Cardinals, Chargers, and Falcons, Bonner decided to make a return to the AFL. It was the best move of his career, as he went on to two ArenaBowls, was named MVP in one of those championship games, and was ultimately inducted into the AFL Hall of Fame in 2012.
Gruden only ever made it as far as the practice squad at the Arizona Cardinals, but his talent in the AFL brought him a successful playing career – and then put him in the perfect position to bring his coaching skills to the NFL. He actually began his pro career at the Barcelona Dragons of the WLAF before unsuccessfully trying to make it onto an NFL roster.
The NFL’s initial loss was the AFL’s gain though. As a quarterback at the Tampa Bay Storm, Gruden won two ArenaBowls, retired to become a coach of the Orlando Predators, where he won two more ArenaBowls, before resuming his playing career. After retiring again he went back to coaching and was head coach of the Washington Redskins for five years. Gruden remains in the NFL to this day, now as an offensive consultant for the LA Rams.
He is regarded as the best ever player to go from Arena Football to the NFL and his Cinderella story ultimately ended with him becoming Super Bowl XXXIV MVP as the leader of “the greatest show on turf”. His St. Louis Rams beat the Tennessee Titans at the height of the team’s powers in 2000.
Warner is now considered the NFL’s greatest undrafted player and he was released by the Packers before turning to the Iowa Barnstormers of the AFL. He quickly became a star in the indoor game and was even the face of the league’s top-selling video game of the time. After a brief spell in Amsterdam, Warner joined the Rams – and the rest is history – showing that the AFL doesn’t have to be the end of a player’s career.