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Mike Pawlawski conjured up an audacious and scandalous narrative. He wanted a rumor to circulate that he, quarterback of the San Francisco Demons, was having an affair with one of the team’s cheerleaders. His then-wife would get wind of the situation, trudge down from her seat inside the stadium, seek out the adulterous cheerleader on the sideline, hit her with a chair and a melee would ensue.
Pawlawski, most likely commanding a huddle when the ruckus was triggered, would spot the altercation out of the corner of his eye and run over to separate the two women vying for his love.
Welcome to the XFL.
The XFL was an eight-team American football league founded by World Wrestling Federation (now WWE) owner Vince McMahon. The league, which lasted one season in 2001, was part professional wrestling, part professional football.
“They were looking for stories during the season — I don’t know if they asked all the players or just a few of us,” said Pawlawski, whose idea never came to fruition. “In the locker room we would shoot stuff around because we realized the nature of where we were. We would laugh our asses off and make up scenarios. It was fun.”
The XFL had WWE-like sports entertainment characteristics such as encouraging players to don nicknames like “He Hate Me” or “Big Daddy” on their jerseys instead of their last names as if they were Randy “Macho Man” Savage or Bret “The Hitman” Hart, or generating fictitious storylines, rifts and rivalries to increase drama. (Pawlawski considered himself a babyface, by the way.)
Pawlawski, a former National Football League and Canadian Football League quarterback, also didn’t sport a nickname on his No. 9 jersey. It was suggested he wear “Polish Rifle”, but he detested, saying the nickname belonged to former NFL quarterback Ron Jaworski.
Even without a nickname on his jersey, the then-31-year-old Pawlawski drove the Demons to a 5-5 record and second seed out of the Western Conference. San Francisco advanced to the XFL title game, known as the Million Dollar Game because the winning players would split the $1 million prize, but lost 38-6 to the Tommy Maddox-led Los Angeles Xtreme.
“Playing in the XFL was very interesting,” said Pawlawski, 47, host of Gridiron Outdoors on the Outdoor Channel, who also recently launched Go Wild Camo. “It was much more professional inside than people perceived it from the outside. In terms of professionalism, it was as good as any club I’ve played on through the arena league, NFL or Canadian league. I really enjoyed my time there with the people who were part of the league.”
The XFL was unique in a number of ways, including its various rule changes or, in some cases, a lack of rules. Instead of a coin toss one player from each team would race and jostle with the other while having to sprint 20 yards to recover the trademark black-and-red XFL football placed on the 50 yard line in order to award his team possession. No extra points were kicked after touchdowns; teams had to convert a play from the 2 yard line in order to turn their 6 into a 7 (later two- and three-point plays were introduced following TDs). There were no fair catches allowed, so returners had a mere 5-yard “halo” cushion before they could be hit while having to return all catchable kicks.
It was like a real-life NFL Blitz airing on NBC.
“The kickoff rule without a doubt was the dumbest rule in the history of any game,” Pawlawski said. “I understand what they were going for, but it was just a pure danger to players. They were going for that battle element. Everything was a battle. I felt for those receivers who had to go out and do that.”
Injures in the XFL weren’t solely a result of the league’s stance on rules. Pawlawski sustained three significant injuries that resulted in him retiring after his time in the XFL. He broke his neck in the second game of the season (but didn’t know the extent of the injury until afterward), tore his rotator cuff right before the playoffs and “cheese-gratered” his knee. He missed one game in his 10-season career prior to the XFL. In one season in the league, he missed three games.
“I could have played another 6-7 years in the arena league,” he said. “The league ended my career. I just had my knee replaced last March — thank you XFL.”
Despite injuries, ludicrous storyline suggestions and the league’s lax viewpoint on traditional football rules, Pawlawski enjoyed his time in the XFL and plans to set his DVR to record ESPN Films 30 For 30: This Was The XFL airing Feb. 2.
“I have zero regrets,” he said. “I didn’t love the league but I loved the people I got to meet and be teammates with in that league. Nothing but respect for Vince McMahon, (NBC Sports executive) Dick Ebersol, a lot of really good people. It was an adventure. … It was a really, really cool experiment in my eyes.”