In early January, former Pitt tight end and Waynesburg native Scott Orndoff got on a plane and flew to San Antonio, Texas to go meet with 77 people that he didn’t know and start a new venture.
Orndoff is one of the first members of the Orlando Apollos, a new team in a new league — the Alliance of American Football.
The AAF, which was founded by media exec Charlie Ebersol and former Colts general manager Bill Polian, will start play in 2019, with a 10-week season that stretches from February to April.
The league has plenty of high-level backing. Entrepreneurs like Peter Thiel and Peter Chernin and former NFL players such as Jared Allen, Darryl Johnson, Troy Polamalu, Justin Tuck and Hines Ward have either bought in financially or will be participating in the operation of the eight-team league.
It’s a group with high-level backing, and that’s why many are optimistic that it will be able to capture the attention of America’s sporting audience in a way that many other attempts — the Arena Football League, the Canadian Football League, the World League of American Football, the XFL and so on and so forth.
While that gravitas at the top has lended credibility to the league, the players doing battle on gridiron on Saturdays and Sundays this spring will be a good bit more anonymous.
Orndoff, most familiar for being an exceptional pass-catching tight end to Pitt fans and the stuff of nightmares from one game in 2016 to Clemson fans, has been joined at the campus of Incarnate Word with 76 other player hoping to make a name for themselves.
A quick glance down the Apollos roster will yield a few familiar names. Former Steelers and West Virginia linebacker Terence Garvin, veteran NFL wide receiver Louis Murphy, former Steelers cornerback Brandon Dixon, SMU and Texas quarterback Garrett Gilbert. But by and large, it’s a group that is hungry to be a part of something new and find their own way through pro football.
“I think a lot of the guys are in the same boat as me, where they’ve kind of been in and out of the NFL,” Orndoff said. “They’ve been sitting around for a while and aren’t sure about their future. A lot of guys are just excited to get what seems like a real opportunity to really show what they can do.”
Orndoff’s time in the NFL since he left the Panthers has been typical of many young professionals. He caught on with the Steelers as an undrafted free agent, but was hurt in training camp and waived in early August. He then went to the Detroit Lions, was cut on the eve of the season, and went home before catching onto the Cincinnati Bengals’ practice squad. He finished the season with the Bengals and signed a futures contract for 2018, but was waived in May. He then signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars, where he spent training camp, but was again waived on the eve of the season.
That’s four teams, four times through waivers, a bunch of time spent back at home and zero games played in two seasons since he graduated from Pitt.
Whether Orndoff is going to make it as a pro football player or not is still in question, but it’s pretty clear that environment wasn’t the best way for him to develop his skills. Instead, all AAF players have three-year contracts.
“I think a lot of guys see the opportunity as something really good and special compared to what the system in the NFL already has,” Orndoff said. “I think a lot of the guys have been looking forward to it and they’re trying to make the best out of it, because for a lot of people, this is the only real chance they could have to really truly develop their skills and maybe try to get back into the NFL and be more ready to take that on.”
He’s not the only name in the AAF Pitt fans will recognize. Defensive end Allen Edwards is with the Birmingham Iron. Tackle Jaryd Jones-Smith is with the San Antonio Commandos and wide receiver Dontez Ford, offensive lineman Brandon Hodges and defensive lineman Shakir Soto are playing for the San Diego Fleet.
The Apollos are coaches by legendary college football coach Steve Spurrier and other coaches and executives in the league include Dennis Erickson, Tim Lewis, Mike Martz, Rick Neuheisel, Phil Savage and Mike Singletary.
Orndoff has enjoyed the prospect of playing for Spurrier, someone that much like many of his players, had plenty of success in the college ranks, but never broke through in the pros.
“It’s going pretty well,” Orndoff said. “He likes to throw the ball around a lot. We’re just kind of grinding through repetition and getting a lot of plays done.”
The Apollos will start their season on Feb. 9, at home against Atlanta, and they’ll play at UCF’s Spectrum Stadium. The league’s other franchises are located in Salt Lake City, Memphis and Tempe, Arizona.